Monday, September 30, 2013

The Unfinished House

It's probably accurate to say that my house has been in a state of almost constant renovation since about 1990 when the previous owners bought it as a foreclosure.  They did all the expensive and boring things: HVAC, insulation, etc. After we moved in we focused on the interior.  We demolished a 1970's partition wall in one of the bedrooms, and then bought a new gas oven, because the old one, a harvest gold gem, was coated with thirty years of grease and the oven thermostat was so off that a pizza was still doughy after baking for twenty minutes at 500.  That was the first week.

Below is us posing in front of the debris from some of our early projects.  For effect, we blackened the kids' teeth with chocolate.  I hope it goes without saying that Ian's pipe is just a prop.  

This was going to be our Christmas card.

The house, as it appeared when we moved in (1999).

We meant to paint it gray, but it turned out kind of purple.

A year ago, the front yard was in a shocking state.  Jon put the motorcycle on the porch to protect it from Hurricane Sandy, where it lived for months and was a HUGE project to remove because by the time we attempted it, the courtyard had been built.  I think he had to drive it right off the steps, although he sensibly did this when I wasn't home to fret at him about it.

Here's the house before it was painted, but after the courtyard was finished.

Now the house painting project is finished.  As you may recall, this involved replacing much of the trim near the roof.  It took several weeks, mainly because of rain.

From another angle. We still need some proper porch furniture.

Neat Carpentry. This corner had been damaged and was replaced.

Blue porch roof against the yellow.

New planters for my boxwoods.

Clearly, we prefer bold colors.  I really wasn't sure at first, what color to paint the house.  For a long time, I thought dark green would be nice.  But when we were in Portugal, we saw so many beautiful houses painted this deep golden yellow, we decided we wanted that look.  The front door needs so much work that it's a whole separate project for the future.

Now I can focus on painting the hall, and I have big plans for the kitchen but we won't be able to even think about that until Brigid graduates from college.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: Austerity Britain

All fluff makes Patience a dull girl.  Austerity Britain by David Kynaston is a comprehensive study of the social changes in Great Britain following World War II.  I developed an interest in this topic after reading the novels of Barbara Pym, set during this period, in which the characters are mildly obsessed with food, which is dreadful, scarce, and rationed, even though the war was long over.

Soon after the war ended, the Labour party gained control of the government, prompting a cascade of urban renewal and social programs, such as the National Health Service.  Every aspect of life was affected: housing, education, health care, sports, entertainment, leisure activities, even vacations, with the advent of organized "holiday camps."

I doubt anyone would disagree that the changes were necessary, but one winces at the ham-fisted way in which some of them were accomplished, particularly with regard to urban planning and education.  For example, the citizens of Old Stevenage, the village where the Howard's End house was located, were told that their village would be rebuilt as a "New Town", and there was nothing they could do about it.

Austerity Britain is a dense 632 pages, and at times, it is tough going, but Kynaston includes snippets from personal diaries and interviews culled from the archives of the sinisterly-named "Mass Observation" who sent their people into the field to interview middle and working class people on a variety of topics.  The desires of the people--most just wanted a place to live, preferably a house with hot running water, (an astonishing percentage of Britons were sharing bathrooms with other households) and maybe to not have to queue for hours to get the shopping done--underscore how truly grim life must have been and make our modern complaints seem beyond piddling.

The quotes from ordinary people of the time are fascinating.  We get to read their opinions on everything from popular radio shows, cricket, Princess Margaret's conduct, and a housewife's struggle to find a decent piece of meat for dinner.  Particularly good were there observations about Americans--mostly negative but piercing comments about how our competitive society may bring prosperity, but with it comes anxiety.

As I was reading this, it occurred to me that a good companion read would be Bill Bryson's Notes From a Small Island, in which he travels around Great Britain.  I'm now rereading it and enjoying it more than ever.  Austerity Britain gave me a fuller understanding of Mrs. Gubbins' outrage when young Bill doesn't eat the tomato she serves him with his breakfast in chapter one--and Bryson's punchline--"I thought it was a blood clot!"  I laughed until I cried.  Other good companion reads to Austerity Britain are The Barbara Pym Cookbook, and Angela Thirkell's Barchester series, which was written as a reaction to the post war changes, (which I wouldn't have known if Kynaston hadn't mentioned it in the book). 

If you have the time and don't mind lugging this heavy tome around you should definitely read it.  It's way more entertaining than the title would suggest. (I took mine on my trip to Wisconsin, where it was a bit of an encumbrance on the plane and don't talk to me about the kindle, I prefer my books on paper, thank you.)

Monday, September 23, 2013

I left my lip gloss in Wisconsin

Just a typical day at work:  sitting in a conference room under an enormous paper dragon, while outside in the distance, a covered wagon creeps up the hill.  Or, sitting in "Deep Space," an 11,000 seat, five-story underground auditorium while watching the head of an IT company give an address while dressed as an alien.  I was really lucky to be invited to attend this year's Users Group Meeting (UGM) at the Epic headquarters in Verona, Wisconsin, with several others from my department.

Deep Space--underground seating for 11,000 

I spent most of my time attending presentations by other health care institutions, but I had a little time to explore.  I love Wisconsin!  Everyone is gorgeous and friendly and fit and Swedish, and they say things like "holy smokes" without irony.

Covered wagon tours of the campus

Why not a petting zoo at a health care summit?

One day I took a break to tour the new farm campus, a new collection of office buildings.  The entire Epic headquarters is off the grid, as they have geothermal heat, solar panels, and their own wind turbines.
The Farm campus

The dragon conference room

We stayed in New Glarus, a small town that was a Swiss settlement in the 1840s and retains its Swiss heritage. (The hard liquor for sale at the grocery store added a certain European verisimilitude.) On our last day, I had a free afternoon to explore the town.  My favorites were the Swiss bakery and its apple-caramel fritters and the The Bramble Patch where I bought a hand painted platter.

First St.

New Glarus is also home to the New Glarus Brewing Company, whose beers are sold only in Wisconsin.  I thought I could put a six pack in my checked luggage, but I was told it is illegal to transport it across state lines.  I did try some on tap at dinner one night--the "Totally Naked" which is their lightest beer, and very nice, although I'm not much of a beer drinker, so I can't say anything more articulate than that.

Since I couldn't take any with me, I contented myself with this picture.  If you want to try the Spotted Cow, you have to visit the Badger State.

We caught an early flight home on Friday and it was nice to have some time to rest before returning to the cubicle, although I was chagrined to discover this morning that I left my favorite lip gloss behind in New Glarus. It was a quiet weekend, but Friday night, I heroically went to Bang and drank the last martini on their menu.

I also cooked Hubbard squash for the first time.  I've always been a little intimidated by it, because of that scene in Little House in the Big Woods, when Pa has to split the Hubbard squash with an axe because Ma can't cut it herself.  I managed to cut through ours with our biggest chef's knife.  Also baked 100% whole wheat bread from a recipe I've been saving since 1996.  Those of you who bake know that whole wheat bread can have the texture of gluey sand, and that it's best to cut your whole wheat flour with white.  This recipe, which impressed me back in 1996 when I made it the first time, uses only whole wheat flour and its liquid is mostly buttermilk.  The texture is tender.  Maybe the slight acidity of the buttermilk works some kind of magic?

Friday, September 13, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: Books to Read Someday

If you're like me, you own books that  you fully intend to read, but haven't gotten around to yet.  I don't buy many books, because I prefer to use the public library as a sort of personal library/free storage system. Why should I own a copy of Ulysses, or Great Expectations, if the library will keep one for me? Despite that, the bookcase in my room is overflowing. Side note: Jon and I don't agree about bookcases.  He likes all the books in one layer, so they can be seen.  I prefer my bookshelves to be double and triple packed. My mom and her family were masters at maximizing bookcase space.  To me, a bookcase with just one layer of books on the shelves is unpleasantly empty and this is the only area in my domestic environment in which I prefer clutter.  Anyway, I like to think of my books as insurance, should we ever have to live in a town that doesn't have a public library.

I like my bookcase messy.

This is not an "on the nightstand" post.  If a book is on the nightstand, it will definitely be read soon.  If it's in the bookcase, twenty years might pass before I get around to reading it.  For a while, I was making new year's resolutions to read at least one unread book from my collection. Here are a few of the things in my bookcase that I haven't read yet.

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell.  The BBC movie version of Cranford is so damn good, that when I saw this in a used book store somewhere, I immediately bought it.

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust.  Oh God!  I have owned this enormity (two thick volumes) since 19-freaking-90.  I started Swann's Way, on a vacation, but Proust is not the best choice for beach reading.  Volumne II served for years as a prop for my bedroom window.  It got to the point that the window didn't look right unless that fat volume of Proust was wedged under the sash.  Then one day, after a violent rainstorm, my nephew, who lived with us at the time, handed me the soaking wet Volume II and said, "I hope this wasn't near and dear to your heart"  (he really used those exact words) and I almost sobbed.  I was planning to read that!

Spirit of Place by Lawrence Durrell.  Appropriately listed after Remembrance of Things Past, as I can't think of Durrell without referencing my sister-in-law's father's remark: "I read him the first time when he was Proust."  Actually, I am fairly sure Spirit of Place is a travel book, and then Durrell's brother Gerald published a novel and impishly titled it Fillets of Plaice--which I have read.

The Newcomes by William Makepeace Thackeray.  I bought it at one of those Green Valley book fairs back in 2001, or thereabouts.  Nothing like a million-page Victorian novel, should you ever be consigned to a place with no libraries.

Henry Esmond, also by Thackeray.  Bought around the same time as The Newcomes.  I was on a Thackeray kick that year.  Actually, I'm on a Thackeray kick every year.

Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay.  I bought this impulsively at Daedalus Books in downtown Charlottesville.  I had just finished Towers of Trebizond by the same author and knew I would love anything else she had written.

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin.  A gift from a friend.  I love travel literature, and this is one of the classics of that genre.

What's in your bookcase that you haven't read yet?

Monday, September 09, 2013

Instagram and Independence

Ever since Seamus was born, "four kids to put through college" has been a nearly constant drumbeat in my head.  Now Ian has graduated from college, and last week moved into his very own apartment.  Of course one wants one's children to move on and be independent, but it can be difficult to let go. I read a great piece on this very subject over at Privilege.  Do we ever consider our children to be settled? Just when my kid is on the verge of being independent, I turn into a helicopter parent.  Ian moved out six days ago, and I have reminded him approximately 467 times to go to the laundromat and I'm obsessing over all the things he needs to complete his household. HOW CAN MY BABY LIVE WITHOUT A CUTTING BOARD? A PARING KNIFE? A PIZZA PAN? I've been diverting our furniture to him, which has created some logistical issues on the home front.

It's OK, I've been planning to buy a new bookcase anyway.

In other news, if you follow me on twitter, you may have noticed an explosion of blurry instagram photos with misspelled captions because I finally got around to resetting my instagram password. No, I was not drunk when I posted those pictures, but I must have been visually impaired, particularly when taking the photo labeled "Birthday Boys" in which one of the subjects appears to be scrubbing his armpit, while the other picks his nose.

I didn't really get into Instagram when I first signed up.  I don't even have a smart phone, and have to use Jon's.  But now I'm obsessed with it and its EZ filters-for-people-who-can't-take-pictures.

"artistically" enhanced picture of marinara sauce

I am pleased with this picture of our yellow house and our cobalt planter.  (Yes, the house is nearly done. It just needs gutters.)

You wish you were me now.

Do you have an instagram?  Let me know so I can follow you!

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: Pnin

I have difficulty with Nabakov.  I read Pale Fire, and hated it, and I read his biography of Gogol, and I couldn't get into it.  I have the uncomfortable feeling that I'm too stupid for Nabokov.  I feel the same way about Faulkner, but with Nabakov, I have an additional and paranoid suspicion that he wouldn't want idiots like me to read his books.  Of course, he's dead, so who cares, but still.  Elephant in the room: WHAT ABOUT LOLITA?  I haven't read it, okay? I included Pnin on my list of fifty classics because I'd heard it was funny and because I wanted to give Nabakov one more try.  Pnin is funny, but it still left me feeling somewhat inadequate as a reader.

Timofey Pnin is a Russian-born professor who teaches at "Waindell," a university vaguely placed in upstate New York or New England.  Sound familiar?  It's generally accepted that Nabakov based this novel on his own experiences teaching at Cornell and Wellesley.  Pnin is not the stereotypical absentminded professor.  He's fussy and detail oriented which leads to comical mishaps.  There are also the usual elements of the academic satire.  I liked Pnin, but I think I am done with Nabakov now.  Sorry.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Eating and drinking in the District

Guess who got carded (or "proofed" as we say in Buffalo) buying wine the day after her 45th birthday? A bonus birthday present!  I admit, I sometimes hedge about my age, referring vaguely to "growing up in the eighties" or being in college in the "early nineties" (technically but barely true, as I graduated in 1990).
45th birthday, with Ian, Grace, Seamus

Friday we went to Mas, one of my favorite C'ville restaurants.  We were extraordinarily lucky to get a table (for five!) right away.  Mas serves one of my favorite white wines, which we enjoyed along with a pureed beet spread, artichoke dip, grilled, bacon-wrapped dates, aioli-topped roasted potatoes, and tiny sandwiches of Serrano ham and Manchego cheese.  In lieu of cake (our oven is broken) I had the toasted almond martini at Bang, where we stopped for a drink after dinner.

Saturday, we impulsively accepted my sister's invitation to visit her and her husband in Washington DC.  Ian had to work, Brigid is in Richmond at school, and Jon quit smoking on Thursday and is currently in the life-without-cigarettes-is-not-worth-living stage, so it was just Seamus, Grace, and me.

From their building, we walked toward the White House, cutting through the Hotel Monaco on our way.  The manager there gave us a history of the building (half of it built in 1812, the rest in the 1850s with a gallows and slave auction in the courtyard).  He invited us to take a detour through the old part of the building so we could see one of the only cantilevered marble staircases in the United States, in the 1812 part of the building.

We wandered through the National Portrait Gallery and stumbled on an awesome folk art exhibit, then had drinks at the W, overlooking the White House.  My sister and I had stellar margaritas, and the kids had strawberry lemonade.
Looking down on the White House.  Click to see the sniper.

Seamus at the W

We walked past Ford's Theater and the White House, stopped for a sushi appetizer at The Hamilton, strolled the Mall and stopped for a rest in beautiful Bartholdi Park, near the Botanic Gardens.

At the White House.
Yes, I AM wearing the same outfit I wore to dinner the night before.

We stopped for dinner at Bistro Cacao, a French restaurant behind the Capitol, and then walked home.  It was one of those velvety southern nights and we took a detour through Union Station, just to get into an air-conditioned space for a minute.  Overall a glorious day.