May 28, 2012

Exterior: Move-In to Present

Don't you just love driving by a house with good curb appeal?  Everything looks fresh and inviting and makes you want to go IN that house.  Well, our house ain't that.

Curb appeal?  How about curb indifference.

To be fair, it did have some charm when we moved in.  The octagon window is a prime example of that.  But the landscaping had obviously been neglected other than mowing, and there were lots of other aspects of the exterior that were clearly long-ignored.  However, our inspection revealed that roof and the siding were in good shape, and everything was structurally a-ok.  Woot!

We have a long to-do list for the exterior of our house, and much of it hasn't really been fleshed out yet.  It's not a big deal though, because of an agreement that we made.  We have spent a lot of time and energy improving the interior of our house so far, and we want to make sure we don't outpace ourselves financially or rush into decisions and then regret them later.  So, to that end, we have agreed that this year we will have a landscaping budget of $0.  Yes, the Lawn Nazi herself has agreed to step down and only make improvements that ring in with the price tag of free.

Here's what we've done with the exterior of the house so far.

Let's start with a familiar view:  The McChevron.

Can you smell the french fries?

This is the view of our backyard.  You can see bark chips toward the fence-line.  There are a few wood landscaping beams nailed into the ground, presumably to keep the wood chips out of the grass (we have a theory that a swing set used to live there).  Unfortunately, landscaping beams can't keep grass out of wood chips.  Or blackberries, or holly, or maple trees, or cedar trees- all of which are volunteering towards the far left corner.

Here's an updated view.  See that large dead patch front and center?  That's where the infamous hot tub on blocks used to live.  Obviously, we have removed both the hot tub and the blocks.  But since we don't have any grass seed and it's not in the budget, it's having to fill in on its own.  The pavers to the right were also under the hot tub on blocks.  They are currently residing at that side of the house to help the dogs negotiate the doggie door with minimal face-planting and to keep our smoker from being totally overcome with weeds.

Unsightly much?

There has been talk about putting a storage shed out in the bark chip area- our garage is really stuffed and we'd like to have separate places for his projects and her projects.  I think that even though Steve is enamored with the idea of a shop of his own, it'll end up being too much of a hassle to run electricity out there.  Potting shed?  No electricity needed.

From the opposite end of the back yard, things look mercifully less disheveled.

At least these people mow their lawn.

You can see the small patio, currently crowded with a dining table/chairs and a rickety ladder that I got from my parents (I've got potted plant display ideas for miles with that ladder, but no budget, so there it sits).  The sliding doors lead to our master bedroom and the side door leads into the garage.  You can see the slope of the yard a little better here, and you can tell exactly how lumpy it is.  We're waiting on landscaping ideas here for a while, as well.  We know we're probably going to have to pull up the sod, grade, and seed at some point.  We'd also like to somehow make that patio more serviceable.  We've considered widening it and adding stairs, and actually got a quote to do so from a contractor that my Dad, the former construction superintendent, recommended for his great work and reasonable prices.  "Sticker shock" doesn't quite cover our reaction to the quote.  For basic broomed concrete- 20 feet of driveway, two stairs attached to this patio, and a 20 foot walkway down the side yard we were quoted $3000 for the concrete and $5000 for prep work.  Sorry, we don't have an extra $8000 laying around.  We decided to take our time and do it ourselves, thank you.

We do have plans for the side yard, though.  We take our dogs out into this backyard to play, and their doggie door lets them out here as well.  The problem with leaving doxies unattended outside is that they like to dig.  And bark at everything.  And the little temporary fence we have stretched from the corner of the house to the fence is not enough to make them feel secure or make us feel confident that they won't dig out and escape (we live half a block from a highway, so this is especially scary).  We want to make a more permanent gate structure there so that the doggies can actually enjoy that area and so that we don't have to kennel them all day when we're at work and the weather's nice.  We're working on plans for the gate right now- more on that soon.

As you walk down the side yard, you see one of our house's most prominent exterior "improvements."  Yes, that's right, the famed Porch to Nowhere.

Now includes waiting-to-be-cleaned barbeque!

Seriously, isn't it awesome?  From the completely useless height (to give you perspective, the deck comes up to my knee when I stand in the yard), to the lack of stairs, to the structural integrity (the lumber hasn't been cared for since the thing was built, and the porch actually tipped up when we stepped onto it with the barbeque- it's not secured to the house AT ALL), to the fabulous spray painting stains courtesy of yours truly.  Yeah, not exactly the Cadillac of porches.  It is in a useful spot though- the slider leads right into our kitchen and dining room.  We have plans for days for this area, too.  But until we have the budget, it makes more sense for the Porch to Nowhere to stay put, so at least our barbeque can live on it.

 Beyond the porch is an awesome, huge maple tree.  The amount of shade it throws pretty much ensures that the only green we can grow near it is moss, and it takes us weeks to get rid of all the leaves when the weather turns cold.  But it is BEAUTIFUL during the spring and summer months.  And it obscures our view of two things: the smokers in the apartments across the street, and a lovely power pole (you can see it to the left).  Technically the tree belongs to the city, since our property line falls along our fence-line, but the city gave us permission to make improvements that'd increase the curb appeal since they are too short-staffed to have enough groundskeepers to tackle everything within city limits.  All we've done so far is limb it up a little, and I think that's all we're planning on for now.  I have idly thought about planting some groundcover around it, but I haven't done any research about what might work there, so who knows.

Moss flourishes here.

Around the front of the house, things look a little better.  The plants in front of the dining room window were already there, and already had overgrown the tiny bed there.  I didn't even bother pruning or removing anything because I figured an overgrown mess there would look better than ripping it all out.  And if I wait until we're ready to do some serious landscaping, I might be able to re-use some of the plants elsewhere.

Flower bed?  Or grow-your-own-jungle starter kit?

Probably the biggest improvement that we've made to the exterior is simply cleaning it a little.  When spring came around, I washed all of the gutters by hand.  Now they actually look like white gutters instead of moss and lichen gardens.  I also washed all of the windows, using a trick I discovered on (you guessed it) Pinterest.  Dawn dishwasher soap, white vinegar, and water are all that's needed.  Combine them in a bucket, use a green scrubby pad to clean the window, and then use a squeegee to wipe them clean.  Super fast, no paper towels needed, safe for the environment, beautiful non-streaky shine- I'm sold!  The metal star and the cement bench on the patio both came from our last house.  And about a month ago I discovered that one of my pots from last spring had survived the winter, so I just drug that puppy to the front of the house.  Yeah, it doesn't look awesome, but it was free, so I'm not complaining.

We're still up in the air about landscaping plans for the front yard.  We know we'd like to replace the overgrown paver walkway, and add some balance and scale that will help things look a little more lush without heading into temperate rainforest territory.  There has also been some talk about building a pergola and patio in the south end of the front yard, kind of under the tree.  But we're still a long way from making those decisions. 

Current view from the front.

And then there's the north side of the house.  When we first came to see the house, we were excited because the narrow pass-through was completely gravelled.  Less work, we thought.  And then spring came.

That gravel is the wrong color.

Turns out, whoever gravelled the pass-through didn't bother to put down weed-blocker first.  So now we've got a dandelion party happening back there.  Not to mention all of my random pots and planters that were brought over from the first house.  And the back gate that's barely serviceable.  The good news for me is that I know EXACTLY what I want to do with this side of the house.  The bad news is that we have no budget, so it's got to wait for a year or so.  I really want to have narrow beds running the length of the house and a graveled path.  That'll make it easier to drag the yard waste cart back and forth from the maple tree (which we have to do every weekend for about 2 months in the fall to deal with all those leaves).  And the plants will camoflauge some of the business going on next to the house- the foundation access, the air conditioner, the cable.  And since this side of the house gets absolutely no sun, those planters in my mind are filled with shade-loving plants that look a whole lot like this flowerbed in front of one of my favorite local restaurants.

Shade utopia.

Ferns, hosta, and two varieties of coral bells.  I dig it.  None of them grow very high, so hopefully they can remain peacefully next to the house without making you feel crowded when you walk through.

One of the main reasons we're holding off on planting (besides some self-imposed budget control), is that our house is in desperate need of painting.  Don't believe me?  Take a look at the overhang above our front porch.

Gross with a captial G.

What is up with that?  Yuck.  All I know is that area is definitely getting graced with a coat of Killz before we start the painting process.  Or covered with beadboard.  More on that below.

Picking exterior paint colors is always hard for us.  When Steve and I painted our last house, we hemmed and hawed for months. The wall facing our backyard was a ridiculous patchwork of paint samples.  We finally saw a house in our own neighborhood get painted, and we both really liked the way it turned out.  We ended up just knocking on their door and asking for their paint colors.  So it should be no surprise that we've already been hemming and hawing about paint colors for this house.  This time, technology has been helping. 

Sherwin Williams' website has an awesome program called The Paint Color Visualizer where you can upload a picture of your house and basically photoshop it with their colors.  We REALLY wanted to paint the house yellow to up the charm factor, but the daycare next door is already a sweet yellow color, so that was out.  And greens were out, too- the house on the other side is a creamy pesto color.  And it seemed that most of what we both liked were medium browns and greys.  So we did a few mock- ups using the picture that realtor took last year.

We liked each of them a little, but weren't totally in love with any of them.  And we had been playing with the idea of adding a cedar shake accent on one or both of the peaks.  And then I saw this.

I am in LURVE.  And so is Steve.  The colors are perfect, the accents are charming and fresh.  And it's structurally similar enough to our home that we think we could duplicate this type of look without overwhelming the house.  So our current plan is something like this:
  • Build up the trim around the two large windows
  • Cedar shake accent for the highest peak
  • Create trim between the peak and the body of the house
  • Build up the post on the front porch to make it look a little chunkier
  • Build false shutters for the two large windows (maybe)
  • Paint like crazy!  The front runner for the gray is Martha Stewart's Flagstone.
  • Paint the front door a cheery shade of yellow (I love the one from Young House Love)
  • Replace the brass lighting fixtures (we've been eyeballing these ones from Lowe's)
  • Possibly dress up the porch overhang with some bead board (similar to this)

Once all that painting and dressing-up is done, then we'll be ready to start making some decisions about landscaping.  We are planning on painting this summer, so I am hoping to be digging in the dirt (and shoveling gravel, and tearing up sod, and, and, and) by next spring.  But for now, I'm trying to be content with my zero dollar budget and be patient for the fun stuff to start.

May 27, 2012

The Perfect Summer Drink

I will say it a million times: I abso-freakin-lutely love Pinterest.  I pinned this from my friend Sarah:


It was a recipe for fruity frozen vodka slush.  It was gloriously warm today, and I have a deep and abiding affection for lemons, so I showed it to Steve.  When he saw pineapple juice on the ingredient list, he insisted that we had to make this TODAY.  And I'm so glad we did!

You'll need:
2 lemons
2 oranges
48 oz. can pineapple juice
12 oz. can frozen lemonade
12 oz. can frozen grapefruit juice
3 cups white sugar
8 cups water
26 oz. vodka

We had trouble finding frozen grapefruit juice, so we substituted with guava-pineapple juice.  As for the vodka- if you can afford the good stuff, use it.

First make a simple syrup with the water and sugar.

While that's going, combine the cans of juice, the vodka, and the juice from the fresh citrus in a large bowl.  Yes, large.  We used the bowl from our Kitchenaid mixer and it was allllmost too small.  When the simple syrup is done, pour it into the juice/vodka mixture.  Then freeze.

The recipe recommends storing the mixture in an airtight container like tupperware.  It also recommends waiting a day or two for the mixture to really slush up.  Then you simply scoop the amount you want into your glass and add some Sprite Zero for fizz and dilution.

However, I'm an impatient gal.  We wanted to try some of this tonight!  So we tried the mixture while it was still non-slushy.


The verdict?  Doesn't need to be slushy to be darn tasty.  I couldn't taste the alcohol in it at all.  Which is wonderful.  And dangerous.  So we decided one glass each was enough and the rest would go into the deep freeze.

Unfortunately, we didn't have any tupperware containers large enough to store all of that slushy goodness.  Fortunately, we did have something even better.

It needs a cape it's so super.

We finally broke down and bought a vacuum sealer last month.  We have found it to be really useful so far (despite violating our rule about cluttering our counter tops with small appliances).  And today was no exception.  We took all of those mason jars that had been loitering on top of our kitchen cabinets and filled em up.  A spin on the vacuum sealer with the wide-mouth jar attachment and we were good to go.

Citrus version of apple pie?

Looking forward to having this around when our sweet tooth strikes, or for parties.  And with the size of the batch, I'm hoping we can make it last for a couple of months (one mason jar is two glasses' worth of slush).  Although it's so tasty, we might have to make another batch soon!

*Update*  We packed up most of this batch and brought it down to the in-laws' house for a barbeque the next day.  It was a hit!  There was a lot of "yummmm"s happening followed by no driving for a good many hours.  Success!!

May 26, 2012

Kitchen: Move-In to Present

The kitchen is the room that we've done the most work in.  It only makes sense that it's also the room we're most proud of and enjoy the most.  I'll take you back in time to see how the whole thing began.

When we were living in our old house, much of our furniture was borrowed from my in-laws because we all lived together in the beginning (and since we weren't rolling in dough all Steve & I really had to our names was a couch and a bed).  When my in-laws moved out, they chose to leave much of their furniture for us to continue using, including the dining table.  Fast forward about 18 months, and the in-laws needed their dining table back, so off it went.  We were dining table-less.  During the weeks we ate on the couch or at our desks in the office, we looked for a new dining table at local furniture stores and on craigslist.  After seeing the outrageous prices on casual dining sets in furniture showrooms, we decided that we'd either find what we needed on criagslist or we'd just do without.  That's what TV tables are for, right??  Luckily, we saw an ad pop up for a black distressed bar-height dining set plus eight chairs in near-new condition.  It was rustic.  It was chic.  It looked like it'd be right at home in an Italian villa (not that I've ever been to an Italian villa).  It was within easy driving distance and listed for $300.  When we saw the same set advertised on World Market's website for $799, we were in.  We brought that dining set home for $260 and I was absolutely in love with it.

No more TV tables for us!

Fast forward a little bit to purchasing our current house.  I was still in love with the craigslist dining table.  But the whole "black distressed" thing would look kind of weird with all of the oak cabinetry going on in the kitchen, especially the black bar-height chairs pushed up against the oak breakfast bar.  So I decided I wanted to paint the kitchen cabinets to match the dining set.  No problem, right?  Totally logical.  (What was I smoking???)

Everything else we did in the kitchen stemmed from that one hare-brained idea.

Builder basic.  Not for long.

Since we had about a month's worth of time between getting the keys for the new house and needing to be out of the old house, we decided to try to get this project done before moving in to avoid the hassle of living with a torn up kitchen and painty-smelling home. 

Our inspection revealed that the kitchen sink leaked badly.  It leaked from the faucet down into the sink, the sprayer was permanently on, and the sink basin was leaking into the cabinetry below.  It also revealed one other issue- the pane of glass on the right hand side of that window is for looks, not function.  In fact, if you pressed on it, it would push away from the frame and you could peek out to see the weeds in the yard below.  The appliances were new (but obviously bottom-of-the-line), the cabinetry was dirty (we swung the lazy susan in the corner around and wondered if that reddish-brown substance we saw was splattered barbecue sauce or congealed blood), the counter-top laminate was dinged in many places, one of the drawers would not slide in and out.  The vinyl flooring was brand new but featured the terrible industrial vinyl edging (more on my loathe for that junk here).  Plus, I had no idea how to paint cabinetry.  Our to-do list and our time frame were both a little intimidating.

At least we had an easy solution for the sink and the appliances.  The appliances in our old home were only six years old, and all stainless and black (which would blend much better with the planned black distressed look I wanted).  Our sink and faucet in the old house were both two years old- they were a Christmas present from the in-laws and my hubs.  So, we decided to remove the old sink and white appliances and once our projects were complete, to transfer our existing ones in.

First we removed the dishwasher and the microwave.  Then we cleaned everything REALLY well.  I'm talking damp rag followed by soapy sponge followed by green scrubby pad followed by damp rag followed by acetone.  I removed the cabinet faces and hinges to prep them for painting.  We plopped a cooler in our defunct sink and it became a beverage station.  We put a paint tray in the cabinet under the sink to catch and stray drips and avoid further damaging the cabinetry.  We peeled up that industrial edging to reveal the kick plates.  The walls got painted up to the ceiling line with the same color that is featured in the living room, dining room, and hallway- Sherwin Williams' Kilim Beige.  I spent every spare minute on the interwebs, bookmarking tutorials for painting cabinets (I highly recommend Young House Love- great tutorials on cabinet painting plus a million other DIY projects, and they're funny to boot).

Disaster zone.  Is this really an improvement??

While that was going on, my Mom helped me get started on the cabinet doors and drawer fronts.  She used an orbital sander on the big parts, I hand sanded the small parts.  We applied some adhesion primer to the fronts, let them dry for 24 hours, flipped them over and applied it to the backs, and let them dry for another 24 hours.

More exciting that watching paint dr.... oh.

Then we did the same process with the cupboards themselves, leaving the interiors to be their oaky-veneered selves.  All of the cabinetry exterior was sanded, then covered with a layer of adhesion primer, followed by two coats of black satin paint.  It was about this point that I began worrying that I had made a terrible mistake and we should have never tried painting our cabinets.

Too late for second thoughts.

But I was already committed to the black distressed idea.  I was worried, but there was no turning back now.  If it looked terrible when we were done, I'd just end up starting over (*cringe*).  So, the cupboard doors and drawer faces got a few coats of black.

I see an oak door and I want it painted black...

Once the backsplash got painted black, I knew we were on to something very cool.  I stopped walking into the kitchen and nervously hoping we weren't making a mistake, and started walking into the kitchen and getting giddy with excitement to see it all finished!  I'd be busy painting when Steve came home from work every day, and he'd get busy cutting base trim to wrap around the toe kick where the industrial edging had shredded the veneers.  We were having a great time and so exhausted, but we could see our work paying off every day.  It is amazing how much the little details can make something as junky as the scene below edge towards looking complete.

Inching towards the finish line.

At this point, we were about a week away from our move-in date.  Not gonna lie, we were panicked that our kitchen would still be a mess during move-in.  I mean, more of a mess than kitchens during moves are generally.  While Steve was at work, I painted the toe kicks.  The heat register under the sink looked rediculously white, so it got spray painted with oil-rubbed bronze (my fave!).  Can't even see it anymore in the picture below, can ya??  Steve and his dad moved our stove in after work one night, Steve and I installed the microwave we had bought from Judd and Black later that week, and our fridge moved from old house to new the following Saturday.

Almost looks like a kitchen again.

Then it was game time!  We spent that weekend moving in.  It was actually really nice finding homes for things in the kitchen, because all of the cupboard drawers were still spread on dropcloths in the living room, waiting to dry.  It made it really easy to remember where everything was for the first few days that we were officially "moved" because we could still see it all!  So after a few days, I hung all the doors again and reattached the drawer faces.  And of course, once all of our cooking utensils and small appliances were in the kitchen, it felt almost done.

Looks like a very black kitchen!

Then came the fun part, the artistry.  I used a palm sander to remove the paint along some of the ridges and edges of the cabinets.  This was also a nice chance for me to fix some of my painting "oops" spots- obvious brush strokes and drip marks were camouflaged by sanding them off!  There wasn't really a rhyme or reason I used to decide where to sand or how much to sand.  I just periodically put the sander down, stood back, and checked to make sure I liked it and that all parts of the kitchen looked like they had similar amounts of wear and that the wear didn't look to different from the distressing on my craigslist table.  And I crossed my fingers that it'd look fine once it was done!  Once I had sanded everything, it was time to stain the distressing to match ye olde craigslist table.  You should know that matching color is not my strong suit, so I opted to match stain the easy way.  I took an extreme close up shot photo of the table with my iphone and brought it into Sherwin Williams with me.

Stain Matching For Dummies.

One can of dark cherry stain later and I was off and running.  Although I used a small foam brush like pretty much every tutorial advised, I found that I had trouble putting the stain exactly where I wanted it to go on the distressing- and the parts where I hadn't applied the stain carefully enough led to a very fake-y looking overlapping effect.  Not the look I was going for.  So I opted to use a brush I knew I would have more control with.  I ran across the street to Rite Aid and bought a $3 eyeshadow brush.  Yes, that's right, I painted my kitchen cabinets with an eyeshadow brush.  It took two coats in most places and three coats in a few before the color looked "right," but there was no more fake-y overlapping to be seen!  After the stain dried, everything got two coats of polyeurathane to make sure it'd be protected for the long haul and would stand up to food stains and frequent scrubbing like kitchen cabinets are supposed to do.  The result was totally awesome, if I do say so myself!

Dressed down and lookin' good.

But it was still missing a little oomph.  If we were going to go through all the trouble of painting these bad boys, then they needed a little jewelry.  Steve and I found some pulls at Home Depot that we loved.  They look classic and farmhouse-ish without looking out of place next to stainless appliances.  Approximately two months after we had started, the cabinets were officially DONE.

Fully accessorized!

Here's the view from the opposite side of the kitchen.  You can kind of see our sink (no longer the rusty leaky version), and the dishwasher that we finally installed nearly a month after move-in.  We were a little worried that black would make the kitchen feel dark or closed in, but it hasn't had that effect at all.  The window is a south-facing one, so on the rare occasion that we get sunlight, it pours in through that baby.  We also have a really high ceiling in the north end of our kitchen and a skylight, so the black has ended up looking nice and rustic-chic without giving us any feelings of cooking in the cellar.

Here comes the sun...

Until fairly recently, that was the end of the upgrades in the kitchen.

We struggled to find a place to put our garbage cans because the plumbing and disposal under the sink used up so much space.  Steve finally caved and installed a set of pull-out garbage and recycling bins in one of our lower cabinets, halfway between the sink and the stove.  It's hard for guests to find our garbage can now, and I feel bad about that, but it is super easy to scrape rinds and peels and ends off of whatever food is being prepped straight into the garbage can from the counter-top above it, and I feel great about that!

Our counter-tops are again sadly cluttered with small appliances (just like we vowed we wouldn't do in this house!) but Steve has agreed to make me a buffet for the dining area that will be able to hide a few that aren't used daily.  Cross your fingers that we actually store our small appliances in it.

We've decided we needed a window-covering for the window above the sink (the window finally got fixed when the weather turned nasty last October), and I have some plans to make a roman shade of sorts, but for now we've got a sheer panel hung on a tension rod for privacy.

Hey, there's the elusive breakfast bar!

We are still totally digging our black cabinets, though.  And so is my mother-in-law, who exclaims how much she loves them every time she visits and has made me promise to help her paint her kitchen cabinets some day.


I didn't expect that the woodgrain would show when I started this project, but I'm so glad that it does.  I think it lends to the farmhouse vibe, makes it feel a little more lived-in and comfortable and less self-important.

Oak in disguise.

Mostly we like that it makes the house feel like "us."  We have plans to dress up the tops of the upper cabinets one day by adding some molding to make it feel more custom.  Until then, the tops of the cabinets have been accessorized kind of strangely.  You can see a myriad of bottles to the left.  We thought that it would look cool to decorate with wine bottles.  Turns out it just makes us look like alcoholics.

Maybe it's time to lay off the vino?

The upper cabinets and the top of the fridge are a much crazier collection of stuff.  Mason jars, large glass jars that I filled with candles for our stoop this fall and winter, a vase, a couple of silk grapevines, several pots and pans, egg cartons, and lunch bags.  Obviously, this area still needs a little help.  

Coming to an episode of "Hoarders" soon.

I know what will get those pots and pans off that fridge!  A pot rack!

Look!  It's a pot rack!

Just like all of our DIY projects to date, a big improvement also leaves a wake minor fixes or tweaks before you can actually call the project "done."  Kind of frustrating, but so worth the cash you save, the pride you gain, and the skills you learn!

So the pot rack.  Plus: It lives over the breakfast bar and provides additional lighting.  Minus: Forgot to consider that we'd be displaying our mish-mash of inherited and frighteningly cheap/beat up pots and pans in the middle of our kitchen.  (Hint, hint, wink for the parental units- a nice set of stainless cookware would make a great Christmas present!  Costco has a lovely set for a very reasonable price that we've been drooling over.)  Plus:  Steve removed a can light and wired and hung this thing.  All.  By.  Him.  Self.  Minus:  Although he patched the hole from the can light well, the spackle is a different color than the paint.  And the paint that was used on our ceiling is not our paint.  I'm still not sure how we can camoflauge that patch without repainting the entire ceiling in the kitchen, dining room, and living room (it's all attached).

Hang future Christmas presents here.

So that's where we're at with our kitchen.  I cannot tell you how empowering it was for us to begin our transition to this house by learning to paint cabinetry and LOVING the result.  This room and the cabinets in particular is what whet our appetite for DIY and has made us less afraid to just *try* projects that seem like they're above our skill level.  So, for the parting shot, a before and after.  Hope you like the change as much as we do!

May 25, 2012

Careers, Callings, and Coincidences

I don't generally like to talk about my job because inevitably one of two things happen:  a) people don't understand it and I can't explain it in a consice way that really covers all the bases, and b) I end up doing more defending of my job title, my school district, or the public education system in general than actually explaining anything.  But since I am trying to write this blog for me and not for concerned parents or new teachers or union reps, this is going to be real (according to my view of things, at least).

Public education as a system is really messed up.  We are controlled by the government.  When budgets get tight, we lose money.  When new bills are proposed on education, they are often passed or failed with very little input from people who actually work within the public school system or study it for a living.  Unions protect teachers' rights, but sometimes not enough (I'm looking at you, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker), and sometimes too much.  Teachers are so busy trying just to keep their heads above water that it is extremely difficult for them to be knowledgeable about current research on best practices in their field.  Kids are coming from a wider variety of challenging backgrounds now than ever before.  All that to say, working in public education is really freaking hard.

Yet here I am, a teacher.  I loved my second grade teacher.  She was brand new the year I had her, and gorgeous and nice and she smelled good and I liked it when she read books to us.  In sixth grade I helped a student in my math class with her assignments and at the end of the year she wrote in my yearbook that I was the best math teacher she ever had.  I read with first graders when I was in middle school and loved getting covered with unassuming hugs as soon as I walked into their classroom and seeing their eyes light up when they discovered they could figure out a tricky work by themselves.   I found that I was good at helping other people understand things, and I loved the moment when some new bit of knowledge finally had an impact for them.  It's like a drug, helping people do things they didn't know they could do before.  The combination of my ability to help people do and learn and become, and my addiction to the high of watching them do and learn and become makes me believe that I am called to be a teacher.  It sounds hokey, but it's the truth.

My mom tried to talk me out of becoming a teacher because she knew I'd never make a really good living.  I had to pay for part of my BA because the private school I attended was too pricey for my family but offered a first-rate teacher prep program and I wasn't to be dissuaded.  I did my student teaching in a district an hour away from my crummy apartment while my husband was deployed in Iraq.  It's not been an easy row to hoe, and I've considered giving up on it a few times.  The needs are far greater than the resources available to meet them.  It's terrifying and disheartening and hilarious and draining and empowering work.

Five years ago, I became a specialist teacher, a math coach.  The most simple way I can explain my job is that I help teachers develop their own skill as practitioners.  I expected to meet resistance from my colleagues when I started the job- me, a 25 year old helping veteran teachers?  I knew it seemed laughable, and I wasn't even sure if I was qualified to do the job.  But I was drawn to it because I had wanted to quit teaching before- weighed down by the lack of support I had to do my job as well as I wanted to do it.  I wanted to be the stop-gap for my colleagues and for students who struggled in math like I did as a child.

What I didn't expect is that it would still be so hard 5 years later.  Not the actual coaching part, working with teachers and students.  I find that to be rewarding and fulfilling, and I feel like I'm good at it (having practiced for five years).  It's the politics that wears me down.  I could easily brush it off  if all of the nay-saying and tearing down came from outside of my school district, or even if the criticism was constructive (just because I'm in the position of teaching others doesn't mean I don't have more to learn).  I have gotten better at hearing rumors about myself- I am power-hungry (although the last thing I'd ever want to do is be an administrator, yuck), I have never taught in a classroom before and have no basis to understand what teaching is like (truthfully I've only  taught three grades- 2nd, 3rd, and a 2/3 split), I am a waste of district money (even though a quick glance at our math scores or even a conversation with a random teacher would reveal that we are in desperate need of math support), I do nothing but eat bon-bons all day (although I typically work 50-60 hour weeks just like most of the teachers I know), that I don't have anything to offer them that they don't already know (the simple fact that I have spent the last 5 years thinking/reading/practicing math instruction as a full-time job says otherwise), etc., etc.  I still have a hard time not taking it personally.  Even though I know that it is typically defense mechanisms, or poor communication, or politics, or leadership issues that feed these rumors.  I would desperately like to defend myself from these rumors, but often defending yourself simply propagates the rumors you try to dispel the most (call it the Methinks-She-Doth-Protest-Too-Much Syndrome).   So I try to address rumors when I am asked, but mostly I just try do my job as well as I am capable of and let my work speak for itself.

But this past week it had become enough.  I am tired of being abused by my peers and the general public.  I am tired of having maxed out my earning potential.  I am tired of working (unpaid) through Spring Break and all but two weeks of summer vacation and hearing people in line in front of me at the supermarket or in the classroom across the hall complain about how lazy teachers (meaning me) are.  I am tired of the legislature forcing my district to make heartbreaking budget cuts although the state supreme court ruled that our state is not adequately funding public schools (its paramount responsibility, according to its own constitution).  I am tired of working on projects only to have to abandon them the following year because OSPI adopted a different idea and our district is expected to comply (often without funding or support).

I wanted to quit.  Not just go back to the classroom (although I miss having my own batch of kids); I wanted to quit the entire swamp of crazy that is public education.  I could use my skill set to be a personnel developer for HR departments of private sector corporations, and I could make more money at it than teaching.  So I asked Steve: Have I lost my perspective?  Or am I making sense?   He had seen me slowly become more downtrodden and cynical as the years passed and little changed.  He urged me to consider leaving my career in education, my calling, to save my sanity. 

Usually when I ask Steve if I've lost my perspective, he recommends a nap.  I felt like I had been thrown off a skyscraper- more terrified than I had ever been, oddly free... hurtling through space madly grasping for a parachute pull that isn't there.

I was still a jumble of questions and emotions when we met my in-laws for dinner the next day.  I had just started telling them about my consideration when our server came to the table.  He looked oddly familiar.  And I did something I rarely do- I started talking before my brain kicked in.  "You look familiar to me.  Are you in a band?"  Yeah, he said, looking a little embarrassed.  "You're in The Classic Crime, right?"  Yeah, he said again, small smile, still embarrassed.  "You guys are my favorite band!!"  I practically screeched with excitement (just goes to show you that there is no correlation between age and maturity).

I have loved The Classic Crime since I heard their song "The Coldest Heart" off their first album.  It came on the radio, I loved it, and looked them up on the internet.  It was love at first listen.  I have since bought every album of theirs and dragged Steve to one of their shows.  They're a local band.  They play poppy alt-rock that always features a sophisticated sound and honest, thoughtful lyrics.  You can hear their whole collection on iTunes and Amazon.  Yes, you should go check them out.

Here's where things get interesting.  The Classic Crime and their label parted ways after their last album.  In order to make a fourth album that would be similar in quality to the last one, the band needed funds.  So they started a Kickstarter.  If you're unfamiliar with this concept, I'd encourage you to visit the website  It's a pretty powerful model- the general public decides if your project is worth funding.  If enough money is donated, the project is funded.  If not enough money is donated, everyone's money gets returned and the project doesn't happen.  The band was nervous about doing a kickstarter, but their fans chipped in and raised the money for the band to make an album IN ONE DAY.  By the time the funding window closed, the band had raised enough to make a music video, do some PR, do a US tour, and (hopefully) put a little change in their own pockets on top of it.  Here's an excerpt from the band's posting the day the project closed:

This is more than an album project, this is something that completely validates the journey we've been on since we formed in February of 2003. These past 9 years have been... tumultuous. Time and time again our hopes lifted and fell and lifted and fell and then eventually settled in some murky, low, cynical, jaded place where old band dudes with ponytails reside. "Is this even worth it?" We'd ask ourselves. "Do people even care anymore?" Record labels definitely weren't kicking down our door. Maybe we can't do this anymore, we thought.
And then we launched a Kickstarter project. 
And you responded.

And here was one of their band members, waiting tables to pay the bills so that he could continue pursuing his calling despite the ridiculous highs and lows that come with full commitment to what you know you're supposed to be doing with your life.

I think the big coincidence of meeting one of the members of my favorite band was a little more than just coincidence.  I wanted to quit, but I cannot abandon my calling.  Not yet.  I can feel the discordance between what I want for myself and my district and my teachers and students... and how things really are... it's growing louder every day.  I want to be lifted out of my cynical, low, jaded place.  I want to know that what I'm doing is helping mitigate or lessen the discordance for others.  Even if it's a few people.  And if my work supports those few people, makes their lives better or more meaningful, then it will be enough. 

Seriously, go check out The Classic Crime.  Do it now.  In itunes or Amazon.

May 20, 2012

How's It Hanging?

In the beginning, there was this:

Naked wall in the guest bathroom, at your service.

And then Etsy gave us this:

Visit the ellemoss etsy shop at

Dude, it is IMPOSSIBLE to find a matching set of crisp white picture frames that are matted with crisp white to 8x8 and 8x10.  In fact, it's nearly impossible to find a matching set of any color picture frames that are matted with any color to 8x8 and 8x10.  I have looked at Amazon, Lowe's, Fred Meyer, Target, Wal-Mart, JoAnn Fabric... nothing.  So yesterday I drug Steve to Michael's to look at frames.  And they were having a sale: buy one frame at regular price, get a second frame for a penny.  And then we found them.

The liger of picture frames.

Frame "D" is a 12x12 matted to 8x8.  Frame "C" is an 11x14 matted to 8x10.  What's that, you say?  They're black?  (Why's it gotta be black, man?)  Black frames wouldn't match the bathroom.  No problem.  I've got a handle on the situation.  And an excuse to break out my favorite DIY tool: spray paint!  So I undressed those puppies right down to the bare frames.

Lots of nudity in this blog post!

Then they were relegated to the garage and propped on gallon-size paint cans.  Glorious!

Evidence of early attempts at spray painting are visible beyond the cardboard.

At this point I ran into a little unexpected trouble.  I noticed that one of the frames had some weird buckling going on.  It was really visible in the exterior light out in the garage.  And when I ran my finger across it, it definitely felt raised.  I had to do something about it before spray painting, otherwise my frame would have the same "buckled" look at best and the paint would settle unevenly in the peaks and valleys at worst.

Wrinkles!  Time for some micro-abrasion.

So I grabbed some 220-grit sandpaper out of Steve's tool chest and went to town.  Basically I just sanded until I couldn't feel any ridges when I ran my finger down the frame.  Then I took a dry paintbrush and swept away all of the excess paint I had sanded off.  I figured that if I hadn't sanded well enough, I'd be able to tell after the first coat of spray.  The worst that could happen would be waiting for the spray to dry and then sanding again before giving it another go.


I already had some glossy white spray paint from an earlier project we did for our laundry room- Rustoleum's All Surface Gloss in Pure White.  Aww yeah.

Bling in a can.

So then I set to work.  Whenever you spray paint, make sure that you're wearing something you don't mind if it gets painty.  That goes for pedicures, too (oops).  Even if you're very careful, there's always over-spray.  Always read the directions on the can first and follow them as closely as you can.  Especially the part about thin and even coats.  I can tell you from personal experience that getting over-excited and spraying down a thick layer of paint will get you nothing but drips- and then you'll have to sand the drips down and start over again.  No bueno.

One coat of thin and even spray.

Four coats of thin and even spray later, you'd never be able to tell they were born a different color.

Identity issues?

 Then comes the part that is hardest for me: waiting for the paint to dry.  The can recommends 24 hours to fully cure.  I let them dry for 12 hours and then I couldn't stand the waiting anymore.  I gingerly carried the frames inside and then dressed them back up- glass, matting, photo print, and backing.

Ready to roll.

I am so excited with how the frames turned out!  Here's how they look with the prints.

With that little bit of satisfaction, I was able to wait for another 12 hours before I asked Steve to hang them.  And now for the grand finale!

The wall is naked no longer.

So much better, yes?  Wish I had a better camera so you could see all the colors working together.  Steve has already tested his "boys wouldn't mind looking at pictures of a girl in water while they pee" theory.  He has proved himself to be correct.  I am really happy with how they turned out and how they balance all of the crazy stuff happening on the floating shelves on the other side of the vanity.  Now I am really wanting to get to painting the vanity and framing out the mirror so that things start looking "done" in there!