Thursday, November 25, 2004

Stair Master

Aside from the fact that it is impossible to get anything large up our staircase, I love having stairs in our house. I grew up in a one level ranch. As a kid I always wished we had stairs so that I could do dangerous things, like slide down the banister Mary Poppins-style or down the stairs themselves, encased in a sleeping bag. Stairs add a magical, story-book quality to the house. When we were shopping for our current home, I did not even consider a one-story, and thus stair-less, house.

We are fortunate enough to have two sets of stairs. The first set leads from the basement to the first floor. They are open (no risers) and utilitarian. The cat is terrified of the open risers and so has not explored the basement. The second set of stairs was the subject of the Stairway to Hell entry. They lead from the dining room to the attic bedroom. When we moved into our house, they were covered with disco carpeting. The two bottom stairs/landings had a bonus covering of linoleum beneath the carpet. Beneath the carpet/linoleum, we found decent, hardwood stairs. They currently wear remains of carpet backing and linoleum glue. I plan on refinishing them in January.

My mother refers to the stairs in her house as “The Stair Master.” She claims that they keep her fit. I have found, though, that if you have stairs in your house, you quickly begin to avoid going up and down them, thus nullifying most of the fitness benefits. The following story illustrates how soon stairs become a pain in the behind. This past weekend, I moved Mike’s and my clothing to the attic from the guest room. We still sleep in the guest room, but in order to get dressed, we now have to go upstairs. When Mike couldn’t find his pants, he came downstairs to complain. I then insisted that he go back up with me to see that his pants were indeed in plain sight, in the closet. His response: “How many more times do I have to go up and down the stairs?” My mental answer: “About 6000 more times in the next 3 years.”

Even before I had stairs, I was enchanted with the idea of the stair step basket, which I first saw in a Lillian Vernon catalogue. It is shaped to sit on your stairs and its purpose is to collect the items you will take up or down the next time you deign to make a trip. I think it is such a clever idea. When my mother first moved to her staired house, from our previous ranch, I suggested she get one. Her response? “But then I wouldn’t go up and down my Stair Master!” Her secret: she doesn’t really go up and down every time an item needs to be moved – instead, everything collects on the bottom step, threatening to cause a lethal accident. She could use a basket – and so could I!

The top of our basement steps collect tools, laundry, and garage sale items. The collection has grown since I saw “The Grudge” and have become terrified of the basement at night. The resulting assemblage is now quite hazardous. The top of the attic stairs have conveniently flat newel posts. They hold everything from drinking glasses to (more) laundry. The bottom of the attic stairs is usually free of debris, because there are other horizontal surfaces nearby. The downside of not tripping over items every time I go up the attic stairs is that I forget about them until I’m upstairs and want them. But I still don’t go down to fetch them. I just tell myself that I’ll remember next time I go up.

So, if you want to get me a Christmas/housewarming/”just because” present, I’d love a couple of stair step baskets. They will not interfere with my fitness level. They will improve my home’s safety rating. And they are so darn cute!

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

My sexy vacuum. Posted by Hello


When I was a senior in high school, I wrote an essay asserting that the custom of women shaving their legs is disempowering. (The essay is posted below.) I maintained my hairy, femi-nazi ways until shortly before I joined the USMC. Pulling your hair back and donning baggy camouflage utilities will make a girl realize how good being feminine can be. No longer a ball-busting social reformer, I have swung to the other extreme. My littlest sisters, self-described tomboys, now turn up their noses at me and call me a “girly-girl.”

It’s true; I am enamored with all things domestic. Last year, for Christmas, I asked my husband for a crock pot and a cake dish. Most women are offended when they receive small appliances as gifts from their significant others. I use the crock pot often and the cake dish is lovely. My latest domestic purchase is a VACUUM CLEANER.

I have owned one vacuum cleaner since leaving home. It was a “restored” upright from the local Hoover repair shop. It didn’t work so well, but it was all I could afford on my meager income. Once I started making the big bucks, I dreamt of the perfect vacuum: a vacuum that sucks, a vacuum that is quiet, a vacuum with a HEPA filter, a vacuum for my newly installed carpet. Still a scientist at heart, I researched my choices with Consumer Reports and settled on the Kenmore (Sears) Whispertone 23513. It meets all of my requirements and, best of all, it is red and oh-so-sporty!

I am a little ashamed to have let down my sisters with my descent into domesticity, but I have not completely turned to the dark side. On the same night that I purchased the vacuum cleaner, I also bought a jigsaw. There is nothing like a power tool to channel the inner tomboy.

Hair Power

[I wrote this essay for an English class in 1993. I have posted it here as a contrast to my present domesticity. Although I would dearly love to edit it, I have presented it in its original form.]

I’m a woman. I don’t shave my legs. No big deal, right? European women don’t shave their legs or their armpits. Still, I have experienced a wide range of reactions varying from laughter to admiration to outright disgust. Why is this so? What is the big deal? It’s just hair. I think the strong response is due to the way women are portrayed in our culture: Powerless.
Jean Kilbourne, in her video "Still Killing us Softly," discusses the way advertising presents women. One of the themes in advertising is that of innocence being desirable. Women are often portrayed in ads as innocent and childlike; relatively hairless, smooth-skinned, large-eyed. Sometimes children are used in ads for adult products; with faces carefully painted with cosmetics, hair sprayed and teased. The message sent out is clear, to stay like a little girl with no knowledge of the real world and therefore powerless and dependent. As women age, they make efforts to stay closer to the physical ideal of innocence, not realizing the insidious connotations. Imperfect skin is disguised with cosmetics, legs are shaved, bikini lines waxed. Little girls, after all, don’t have a forest of dark hair on their calves. Little girls also aren’t powerful. They stay at home playing “house.” Isn’t that where “innocent” women should be?
Just as worldliness is power, so is masculinity. Men run the world. This is obvious no matter how you try to delude yourself. It’s true that we’ve had the feminine revolution, and women are now accepted in the workplace. Still, though, the working woman is still seen as a passive, sexual object. Fashion trends for the office feature short skirts and transparent blouses. Sexual harassment in the office is a huge problem. Women make less money for doing the same job as a man does. Despite all this, the modern office is made out to be a place of equal opportunity where men and women are treated the same. But I dare any woman in an office to quit shaving her legs and wait for her boss to notice. Depending on the employer, I’d say the response would be for her to do anything from shaving her legs to wearing nothing but long pants or she loses the job or perhaps get stuck in a back office where no clientele would see her. Sexual discrimination? In a sense, yes. Women are forced to be feminine, dependent. Hairy legs are masculine, and therefore powerful.
Women are taught from early on to shun power. This is how they have been manipulated so into believing innocence and femininity are desirable. We are taught to avoid masculinity at all costs. My little sister’s reaction to the hair on my legs was: “EEEEWWW, gross. You look like a boy!” “So,” was my response. She couldn’t tell me what was wrong with being boyish because she doesn’t consciously know. The concept of masculinity, thus power, being undesirable to women has slithered into our culture and has a strangling hold on us. A powerful woman is a “pushy bitch.” The same trait in a man makes him a “real go-getter.” Women aren’t portrayed as smart or having the power that comes with that. The new Teen Talk Barbie says: “Math is hard!” True, the phrases programmed into the doll were taken from actual teenagers, but this excuses nothing; it only reveals another, deeper layer to the problem. Through a programmed aversion to it, power is denied women.
In a small way, having hairy legs gives me power. I’m not afraid to look masculine and I’m not afraid to look worldly. If I’m more knowledgeable on a subject than a man, I’m not afraid to speak up and correct him. Not shaving my legs is a visible way to present an abstract idea. It’s a small protest to living in a world where power is available to women, but they have learned not to take it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

For the love of Cleo

Our kitty was once feral. Her previous owners found her living outside. They “rescued” what they thought was a boy kitten, and it turned out to be a pregnant female. After the kittens were born, they decided to give away all of the cats. We took the mommy – Cleo. Cleo has been inside since her previous owners adopted her and I want to keep her as an inside cat. She has escaped the house twice, when we had the door propped open to move furniture, but was easily caught. However, that taste of freedom has renewed her interest in “outside” and she has begun meowing to go out.

I researched how to transition a cat from outside to inside and am implementing the suggestions. I have created perches for her to look outside. When the weather is nice, I open a widow so she can sniff the interesting outside smells. When she cries to go out, I distract her with play. I have bought pet greens and a scratching post. Finally, I decided to reinstate a bird feeder, so she could watch the birds from the sunroom.

I bought the last bird feeder at Target. It was so cute – a little wooden gazebo with a copper roof. Unfortunately, it was torn apart by forces unknown, either a raccoon or a steroidal squirrel. While I was spending oodles of money on the cat at Petsmart, I spotted a round, metal, cage-style birdfeeder. It is now filled with seed and dangling from a post in our front yard. I was thrilled to see a bird in it yesterday, but not so overjoyed to see a big fat squirrel below it, cleaning up the spilled seed. However, the feeder has made it through three nights, intact and full of seed, so I think it is rodent proof. Once the cat finally notices the birds, they should keep her entertained and hopefully help her become content with inside life.

Still, I worry that our home is not stimulating enough for a young cat and I wonder if we should get a second animal. Mike and I are seldom home, and when we are, we are busy. Another cat would provide a playmate. However, it would mean double the litter boxes, scratching posts, food, and vet bills. I think we will wait and see how things go with Cleo. We have just begun to get used to each other.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Stairway to Hell

I have a well-developed imagination. During the house shopping process, I could entertain myself for hours after each viewing by imagining what it would be like to live there. I fantasized about furniture placement, paint colors, and traffic patterns. I was always a little disappointed when we deselected a house from our list and my imaginings had to be abandoned. When we decided on our present house, my fantasizing began in earnest. I was prepared to realize my dreams.

It is funny how all the rooms are a little bigger in your mind. As I’ve moved furniture in, I’ve realized that some pieces are too large or some placements don’t work, and I’ve modified my fantasies. The longer I’ve had them, though, the harder they are to let go.

The space I have mentally decorated and redecorated the most is our attic bedroom. I was kept from actually decorating the room while we ripped out the carpet/linoleum, painted the walls, and then carpeted the floors. Finally, on Thursday morning, the walls were dry and the floors were covered, so we began to move things in.

The stairs to the attic are reached through a narrow door off of the dining room. After going up two steps, the stairway takes a 90-degree turn to the right. The ceiling is sloped at the same angle as the stairs. We had no problem moving a desk, a table, chests, a dresser, and the bed frame (in pieces) up the stairs. However, we were worried that moving a queen-sized box spring would be hampered by both the sloped ceiling and the right turn. In fear of ruining my fantasy bedroom, I waited until there was nothing else to move upstairs before attempting to move the box spring. On Saturday morning, we brought the box spring into the house and removed the cardboard wrapping. Thinking that it would be easier to get it up the stairs if it was turned end up, we attempted to set the box spring on its foot. We knew we were in trouble when we hit the high dining room ceiling in the attempt. I was worried about marking up the ceiling (and then having to paint it!) so we abandoned the attempt to reorient the box spring and headed for the stairs. It was quickly obvious that, unless the laws of physics were suspended, it would never make it up the stairs. There was no angle that would allow the stairway to accommodate the box spring’s height and breadth. After months of imagining our perfect, upstairs bedroom suite, I was devastated.

Mike and I brainstormed. I favored ripping through the exterior wall and adding a door at the bottom of the stairs leading to the backyard, thus eliminating the 90-degree turn. I also considered knocking out the wall between the dining room and the staircase and replacing it with open railing, but thought that we might still have trouble getting the box spring through that opening. Mike’s suggested installing large skylights and then perilously carrying the box spring onto the roof and sliding it through our new hole. More practically, he wanted to cut the box spring in half and reassemble the pieces upstairs. To that end, we slit a hole in the backing and examined the interior. We were amazed to learn that a box spring is just a big metal cage with some wood framing and a fabric covering. Yuck! Disenchanted with the box spring, we thought, “Who needs it?! Let’s see if we can get the mattress upstairs.” It took some squishing, but we managed to squeeze the mattress through the door, around the turn, and up the stairs. So now our mattress lies on the floor of our soon-to-be bedroom. The cat has already claimed it as her own.

We plan on sleeping box spring-less. But, can you sleep on a mattress and no box spring? Is that metal cage so essential? Does it damage your mattress to sleep on it without adequate support? My friend Brian, in a similar stairway situation, uses a futon mattress under his regular mattress. My mother suggested installing plywood over the bed’s wooden slats and under the mattress. We’ll try the cheaper, plywood route first. Any other suggestions?

Although it seemed at first the evil stairway had ruined my plans, we have found a way around it. The bedroom is shaping up to be the lovely attic hide-away I originally envisioned. Soon, I will not have to imagine it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Reality Paints

I have been horribly misled by reality television. I’m a big fan of Trading Spaces. While stationed in Japan, I would volunteer for Saturday duty so that I could watch episode after episode. (I didn’t have cable at home.) I would while away the long hours enthralled in my favorite show and envisioning the decorating transformations I would someday make in my own home. At last, after years of either renting or living in the barracks, I have a great big canvas on which to paint my vision. However, it is the painting itself that is not accurately portrayed on TV. It is much harder than it looks!

I was surprised at just how messy painting is. I abhor messes. I avoid sloppy food. I cannot bear to enter my currently filthy kitchen. The grimy view of the underside of the tub faucet sends me into a cleaning frenzy. I like things very tidy and I imagined that I could paint neatly. After all, on Trading Spaces, the homeowners’ shirts are spotless when the show concludes. My shirt, however, quickly became spotted. Paint dribbled from the brush and splattered from the roller. The paint drips on the floor were smeared as I stepped in them. Even my hair had paint in it. I had Mike deliver me items like CDs and drinks because I was afraid to take my painty self out of the attic.

I did not expect the paint job to take so long or to consume so much paint. On Trading Spaces, the painting seems to take just an hour or two and one coat usually does the job. I have logged 15 hours and over 3 gallons of paint on approximately 900 square feet of wall/ceiling. (My initial rate was about 112 sq. feet an hour, but I improved with time.) I have applied two coats of buttercream over the former mustard yellow, and it still needs a third coat in places. Although the task has eaten my weekend and nights, I do not mind the time I spend painting. I have a grand time belting out musicals and losing myself in the zen of the brush and roller. What I mind is the time I don’t spend sleeping!

The much praised “M” or “W” painting technique is harder than it looks. On one Trading Spaces episode, a homeowner was banned from painting because he was rolling the roller parallel to the floor. The designer subsequently demonstrated the proper zigzag technique. While I eventually managed to paint nice “W”s on the walls, I found it impossible on ceilings and sloped surfaces. I was lucky to get the paint above my head without it dripping in my eyes.

A few pointers on reality painting:
1. Consider primer. Should I have used it? I suppose it would have saved me some money on Behr paint. Would primer have covered the yellow better than the designer paint?
2. Buy an edging roller. I used a brush for all the edge work, but I wish I had a little roller for tough places, like behind the stair rail and above the windows, so that the overall texture was more consistent.
3. If you wash your roller cover, make sure it is dry before using it again. After the first night of painting, I rinsed my brush and roller cover, as I thought I should. However, I did not remove the cover from the roller frame. As a result, it did not dry. I noticed that it was damp the next day, but did not realize that it was actually water logged. I dipped it into my roller tray of paint and started rolling. It made quite a mess; the thinned paint splattered all over me and then dripped off the wall, ran over the tape, and drizzled onto the shoe molding.
4. Have rags handy. I made quite a few “boo-boos” as I repeatedly overpainted onto the trim and molding. As long as I cleaned it up immediately, there was no lasting damage.
5. Allow yourself plenty of time. I began painting on Saturday night. I have to be finished by tonight (Tuesday) so that it will be dry for the carpet installation on Thursday morning. If I had started earlier, I wouldn’t have had to paint until past midnight every day and maybe I would have had time to clean the kitchen!

Being the Trading Spaces fan that I am, I have multiple books based on the show. I am wise to the fact that the homeowners, designers, and Ty/Amy-Wynn don’t really do all of the work. There are painters and carpenters and seamstresses that complete many of the tasks, off camera. I just hadn’t realized how much help they must be giving. I still enjoy home makeover shows, but I’ve come to realize just how much closer to fantasy than reality they are.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Mikey and me and kitty makes three

When does a couple become a family? The question sounds like a hackneyed high school writing assignment, but at some point in life, it does become pertinent. So, now that we are wed, are Mike and I a family?

The transition from living together to being married was blurry. It is hard tell when we stopped being the single folks people invited over for holiday dinners and started being the people that do the inviting. This year will be our first Thanksgiving in our own home. As clichéd as it sounds, the thought of the just the two of us sharing a holiday meal makes me feel like we really have become a family.

One thing that instantly says “family” to me is a baby. It seems that a married couple is not taken seriously until they have added a child to their home. In our case we have added a furry baby substitute, Cleo the cat. I just hope our real baby doesn’t hide in the closet all day long.

Having our own home has also contributed to a sense of family. First, it is a responsibility we have undertaken together. As much as I would like to do everything myself, I can’t, so we need each other. Second, it is a safe place to develop our own family habits. In our family, I can paint till midnight, singing Phantom of the Opera at the top of my lungs, while Mike drinks gallons of Koolaid and plays poker naked. He often says that our poor child will be in the “weird family,” but aren’t all families a little weird?

Like newlyweds everywhere, we are working out what it means to be a newly minted family. We have holiday traditions to create, kitty-parenting techniques to argue over, and a home to attend to. To answer the original question though, you become a family when you make yourself one. Family is a state of mind.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Spackle Debacle

I love spackle. I adore its creamy, frosting-like texture. I am enamored with its promise of blemish-free walls. It seems to be a lovely miracle worker.

On Sunday, I began preparing the attic walls for painting. I pulled nails and removed two blocks of wood that had been nailed above a window as a base for curtain rod brackets. I then spackled with abandon. I was quite generous with the compound, because I figured I could sand off any excess. The depressions left by the wood blocks were large (3” x 4”), but not deep, so I filled them up. I attempted, with dismal results, to cover corner cracks (at wall joints and wall-ceiling joints). I was more successful covering cracks on a flat wall surface. I also spackled right over hollow-wall anchors, thinking it would tear up the wall to remove them. I pasted over the usual nail holes and, in the full spackling spirit, tried to level out any divots. I left my work to cure until Tuesday night (although the package says that the spackle is cured after 45 minutes).

On Tuesday, I used a fine-grit (150 grain) sanding sponge to smooth out the spackle. I encountered two problems. First, if the spackling was not applied thinly at the edges of the patch, I could not sand a smooth transition between the wall and the patch. Instead, large chunks would break off, leaving me with a small spackle “cliff” between the patch and the wall, instead of a graded “hill”. Secondly, wherever I had applied spackle thickly, such as over the wall anchors, cracks, and the wood block depressions, the sanding process tended to cause large, thin chunks to fall out of the center of the patch. The spackle seemed to have dried in strata, and the sanding removed patchy layers. The end result reminded me of the surface of a jaw breaker, after you have sucked and gnawed on it awhile. The spackle did look great in the areas where I had applied it very thinly, over small nail holes. However, nail holes were among the minority of spackled wall defects. Overall, I was unhappy with the results.

Some lessons learned:
1. Apply spackle thinly. Sanding will not transform big humps into barely noticeable bumps.
2. Taper the edges of the patch. Again, sanding will not smooth “cliffs” between the patch and the wall surface. It only seemed to aggravate the problem.
3. Use the right tool. I used a 3” wall scraper. While the scraper was fine for smoothing a patch, it was not a good applicator. It was too large for most holes/cracks. Next time, I might apply with a plastic spoon of knife or even try a big syringe for nail holes.
4. Do not spoon the spackle directly out of the container. I think some of my strata problem may have been from inadvertently mixing half-cured spackle (on the edges of the container) and fresh spackle (from its depths). Next time, I will spoon a small amount onto a paper plate and replenish it as it is used up. I also had trouble getting the big scraper into the container without smearing spackle all over the blade, and then all over the wall.
5. Use another medium for large depressions/holes. One book suggested using plaster for large patches. Plaster is then smoothed with a wet sponge, instead of sandpaper.
6. Use tape on cracks. After my crack spackling attempt, I bought some wall tape at Home Depot. I am hesitant to apply it over the already spackled cracks, but I think I will use it before painting other walls in the house.
7. Reconsider spackling over wall anchors. It worked, but the end result was a big, smooth bump in the wall. Maybe I should have pounded the anchors further into the wall and created a depression before applying the spackle. Or is there some way to remove wall anchors without creating a very large hole?
8. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I was having so much fun with the spackle that I even applied it in places where a few layers of paint had come away. I don’t think it was worth the effort.

Perhaps I am making too big of a deal of a banality like spackle but I can’t help it – I’m a perfectionist. However, I am an optimist too. On the bright side, my experiment was on fairly unimportant walls and flat paint should minimize the lumps and bumps. But my love affair with spackle is over.

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Hear the racoons' side of the story at Posted by Hello

Friday, November 05, 2004

Masked marauders

I used to think raccoons were cute – until I discovered that they were just big rats. My first clue was when I lived in a house on Grant St with a girl named Peggy. Peggy had an affinity for all things animal. She kept a pet hedgehog, strapped rabbit furs to her body as a Halloween costume (Pebbles Flintstone), and planned to live in a yurt, raising goats, for her senior project. One day she saw a dead raccoon on the side of the road. She scooped it up, brought it home, and skinned it. I first learned of this when she invited me out back to look at the skinned carcass. What she pulled out of the trash bag looked like a big, slimy, hairless rat. And it stank too. I subsequently blocked that disturbing display out of my mind and refused to think of raccoons without their fur.

Seven years later, I moved to Cincinnati. Despite being an urban area, it is overrun with raccoons. At first I thought the city’s many wooded areas drew them, as it has attracted deer. Then I found raccoons in the dumpster near my apartment. Somehow, they had gotten in, eaten their fill, but then couldn’t get out. They did look awfully cute. They were covering their darling masked eyes with their teeny-tiny paws and making chittering sounds. I dragged my husband out to see how sweet they looked curled up in the trash. The caretaker put a large branch in the dumpster so that they could get out. The raccoons escaped and lived to trash-pillage another day.

Shortly after moving to our house, we met our neighbor, Mary. Mary’s house had a blue tarp over one portion of the roof. She had a whole family of raccoons in her walls and the roof had to be torn up to get at them. She said she could hear them running above the ceilings at night. Mercifully, there was no smell. She spent $1000 on pest removal services. She was a little upset that the “critter gitter” euthanized the animals instead of freeing them. I had little sympathy for the raccoons.

Since then, I have had my own run in with the garbage-eating, home-infesting, rat-like monsters. They attacked my birdfeeder, actually ripping nailed pieces apart, and plundered its contents. They tipped my trashcan, ripped open the bag, and left trash all over my yard. Those hand-like paws I once thought so adorable are just tools for mischief.

Raccoons are a nuisance! They are as ubiquitous as, but much bolder than, the opossums of the West. On the bright side, like opossums, they seem to be run over by cars on a regular basis. Anybody know how to contact Peggy?


Last night I set 30 bags of trash, one box of trash, and a full trash can out on the curb. I felt slightly ridiculous when I added my recycling bin at the end of the line. If I had still been back in Japanese apartment, just 5 of the bags would have filled the 3-unit trash bin. We would have been forced to sneak the trash on base and into the residential dumpsters to avoid hefty local trash fees. Here in Cincinnati, I am fairly confident that the whole mess will be gone when I get home. This is the second week in a row that we have looked like the trashy people on Friday morning.

I am not proud of my trash production. I used to be a recycling vigilante. When curbside recycling was introduced in my home town as a teenager, I drove my family nuts with my preaching. I flattened cans and cardboard boxes with zest. Now I am producing 30 bags of trash and one small bin of recycling a week. What happened?

Moving happened! What an incredibly wasteful process it is. We moved 160 items (an item could be a box or a piece of furniture) from Japan to the States. Our smaller belongings were packed in cardboard boxes (happily recyclable) and cushioned with yards of paper. The furnishings and large items were wrapped with layers of packing paper and finished off with bubble wrap. The paper and bubbles are the main content of those thirty trash bags. I flattened the crumpled mess as best I could, but it still seems to occupy more space than it should.

So, I have trash, international trash, on my conscience. I am hoping my online confession, and the fact that it will be GONE when I get home, will ease my guilty mind. I don’t want to be trashy anymore.