Monday, August 29, 2016

Vine Attack

Lately, I've been preoccupied with liberating my property from the grip of the various vines that are overrunning it. Mostly grape vines, but also Virginia creeper, wild morning glory, bindweed, Japanese honeysuckle, pokeberry, trumpet vine (the WORST) and the occasional wild rose bramble or poison ivy for fun and variety.

What prompted this burst of gardening energy? Someone finally bought the vacant lot next door. This lot has been a source of anxiety to us for years. Because of the odd configuration of our property (our driveway was originally the street, that the city never put through to the busy road that borders our neighborhood) we worried that whoever built on the lot would want to use our driveway, rather than access the property from the busy street. Indeed, one woman who was interested in the lot repeatedly insisted on accessing the property from our driveway, even after I told her that it was private property and that we would not allow her to use it. After our final confrontation, she left in a huff and didn't buy the lot and I emailed the real estate agent and asked him to please tell his clients that they could not use our driveway. (We went to the city about it, but they have not been able to definitively confirm or deny that the driveway truly belongs to us, although our survey certainly includes it within our property boundaries.)

We seriously considered buying the lot ourselves. Jon felt it would be a good investment. However, it has a tendency to flood and the steep grade plus the fact that it fronts a busy street all made it seem like an unattractive property. Plus the fact that we can barely keep up with the one lot we do own.

A local builder finally bought it and he is building a modern-style house on it. It's not a huge house, so that's good. We're mainly relieved that it's not a tacky Ryan Homes faux farmhouse. And also that he hasn't tried to use our driveway. He placed the house so it's not blocking our light or views. Now our only worry is who will buy it. We just don't want neighbors who will harp at us about our overgrown yard or our dogs.

The new house in various stages of construction.
New house as it appears today
From the front. The gossip is that the asking price will be $450K.
That yellow house behind is mine.

Anyway, it was this anxiety about fussy neighbors that led me to to believe that the builder was judging us for our vine situation. Which was, admittedly, out of control. The last three weekends in a row, I've been steadily hacking my way around the perimeter of our property. The vines had completely obliterated some of our other plants. I discovered that our figs, which were killed in the harsh winter of 2013-2014, have made a comeback and we had a fairly large and healthy fig tree (with fruit!) completely buried under vines. I also liberated the ancient boxwoods along the back border.

The fig tree. It had been completely hidden under trumpet vine and grapes.
Two years ago, it was mostly dead, with a few feeble shoots.

I didn't think to take photos at first, and it's not like the "after" shots are anything great anyway, since the yard is still a mess. However, I did get pictures of the side yard, shown below.

Side yard before
Same space after weeding.

By the third weekend (yesterday) I had progressed to the back corner, where grape vines almost completely hid a huge cedar tree. I had this idea that I could use our pole tree trimmer to hook the vines and yank them out of the tree. Like most of my ideas, it worked better in theory than in practice. When watching someone's inept handling of a tree trimmer, it's incredibly difficult to resist the urge to snatch it out of their hands and do it yourself. So Jon showed remarkable fortitude in not trying to take over.

Then this happened. The extension handle broke off while I was tugging with all my strength.

And I almost fell face-first into this.

I tried climbing on a rickety kitchen stool, so as to get a better purchase on the vines, but to no avail. Then I used the full force of my body weight to pull and ended up literally swinging like Tarzan, (and shredding my hands) and still the vines didn't budge. So I gave up. For now. I've severed them all near the root and I'm hoping that after a week of wilt, I'll be able to yank them out of the tree.

It's hard to see, but the crown of the cedar is still covered with vines.
Before I started this job, you couldn't even see the trunk. Nor could you see the house behind us.

There's still a lot of work to do

 What major job have you attacked lately?

Monday, August 15, 2016

In which I am Kon-Mari'd

I waited on the library hold list for five months before I finally got my eager mitts on a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo.  Is this book really life-changing?  Let's see!

Marie Kondo's method involves first engaging with each of your possessions, holding it in your hand and asking if it "strikes joy" and discarding it if it doesn't.  You must follow her specific order, and only once you have finished discarding things, do you work out where to store what possessions you have left.


The book had been in my possession less than twenty-four hours before I had taken every stitch of my clothing and dumped it into a huge pile on my bed.  In the end, I discarded three trash bags of clothes.  I was undecided about several items and forced myself to wear each one.  There was one dress and a shirt in which I felt uncomfortable and miserable in all day, so they went into the discard pile along with a few other things that I realized I was dreading having to wear.  I kept a handful of the items from the undecided pile, but most of it was discarded.  Going through my wardrobe was a bit of an eye-opener about my mental health.  I seem to only want to wear dark and shapeless clothes lately.  That's one thing about the Kon-Mari method: it forces you to confront a lot of facts about yourself.

After thinning my wardrobe so much, it was easy to store everything.  I'd had an entire drawer devoted to clothes that I never wore!  Now it holds all my workout clothes, which formerly had been tossed into a huge basket that also holds my yarn and fabric stash.  I was able to remove my bulky sweaters from an underbed bin, because now they fit in the drawer.  I use Marie Kondo's folding method, so everything is stacked vertically and the entire contents of the drawer are visible at a glance.  (She says that "nothing" is more satisfying than finding each garment's sweet spot for folding.  I don't know about "nothing" but it is satisfying.)

Clothes, waiting to be sorted


Kondo wants you to keep only books that you absolutely positively will want to read again, and she recommends photocopying favorite pages from some books and keeping them all in a binder and tossing the books themselves.  I couldn't get on board with a heathen practice like that, and as I went through my books, I realized that one of the great pleasures in life is browsing through a bookshelf.  Furthermore, my bookshelves serve as a browsing ground for my children when they're at a loss for what to read next.  I remember how much I loved browsing through my mother's bookshelves. I don't want to take that away from my kids, so I slowed my roll when it came to discarding books.  Even so, I filled the back of my car with books and donated them to the library book sale.  (Nice books-- unreadable things like old textbooks, I put into the recycling bin.)
One bookcase after the Kon-Mari treatment.
No more books lying horizontally on top of the others!
Still have a double row of books on each shelf though.


My paper clutter problem is serious and Kondo rationalizes that almost no papers need to be saved.  I had stacks of papers all over the house, which is one reason I like Kondo's "tidy by item category rather than by room" strategy.  It was freeing to just tackle all the papers at once.  I threw out check registers dating back to 2006.  I threw out school orchestra packets from the middle school that none of my children attend.  I threw out ALL our appliance owner's manuals and warrantees.  For crying out loud, I had saved the owner's manual to a lamp that I bought three years ago!  I threw out tax returns from 2006, 2007, and 2008, and marveled at our quaint 2006 income. I threw out the receipt for the scooter that was stolen in 2006 (with police report tucked inside).  All told, I threw out enough paper to half-fill our huge recycling tote.  Kondo doesn't want you to buy storage solutions while you're discarding, but I did buy a fireproof document safe.  What???  Do you mean that the deed to our house and our passports have been stored in a flammable wooden desk all these years?  The safe itself has become a problem because it weighs over fifty pounds and now I can't decide where to store the key, but at least our social security cards and nursing licenses are safe from fire.


Komono is Kondo's word for miscellaneous items: household supplies, small electronics, spare change and all the other things that clutter our lives.  It was the biggest challenge for me to get through our komono and I had to depart from the "discard by category" rule because we have so many miscellaneous items stored in different places all over the house.  Some things were easy, such as the VCR videos and my CDs.  I tossed them all, although I copied some of the CDs into itunes.  The sound may not be as good, but my quality of life is better not having the CDs in the house.  Skin care products and make up come next, and these too were pretty easy to deal with, but soon I was in murky areas, dealing with craft supplies, pens and pencils, office supplies and pet supplies.  I can't BELIEVE how many pencils we had.  Or the spare change, which I found in every drawer and corner.  Kondo says you must put all change straight into your wallet, but if I'd done that, I wouldn't have been able to stand upright while carrying my purse.  I put all the change into a mason jar, to take to the bank later, even though Kondo specifically says NOT to do this.  I focused solely on discarding, not on cleaning and rearranging, so as I progressed through our komono, certain areas of our house had the forlorn look of moving day.

The bathroom shelves in the midst of the Kon-Mari treatment

Some komono was hard to part with. The nebulizer, for example. We haven't used it in years, the kids rarely have asthma attacks and the albuterol vials expired in 2006. Still, I had a feeling that as long as we had the nebulizer, we were safe from asthma. Yet my two worst asthma sufferers live an hour away. The nebulizer can't rescue them. It couldn't have rescued Brigid when she lived in Cape Town or Switzerland. So I let it go. (Actually, I left it on the front porch for a few weeks and then I let it go.) Stuffed animals were also hard, Of course I didn't throw away anything that was truly beloved, but even the animals that had never been loved, I had to remind myself over and over that they were just cloth and stuffing. I'm a shameless anthromorphizer, although even I was giving Kondo the side eye for claiming that our socks have feelings.

Bathroom shelves today. The shelf where the nebulizer was now holds the toilet paper.*

We used to have to keep the toilet paper under the bathtub.
I know the bathroom floor is in a shocking state. It's 26 years old.


Photos and sentimental items are left until last.  By the time you get to them, you're supposed to be a pro at discarding. Around the time I should have been doing mementos, it was Christmas and the flow of purchases into the house at this time killed my momentum. I did go through old photos and throw away a fair-sized stack of blurry ones, plus all the pointless pictures of my garden. I keep sentimental items in bins under my bed, and after going through them, I elected to keep everything. I can't part with the dresses I hand-smocked for my daughters or the antique quilts that my great-grandmother made or any of my other treasures. I also couldn't bear to throw away old letters. I did toss a huge pile of my old school papers, which I had saved for some inexplicable reason.


Was my life changed? Perhaps temporarily, although that's probably an oxymoron. My house is not magically tidy all the time now. I'm still oppressed by what I perceive as the excesses of other family members, although after watching me sort my clothes, Jon was inspired to get rid of a lot of his old tee shirts. During the height of the process, I felt a sense of freedom and lightness. Going through the Kon-Mari method forces you to complete little tasks that you've been putting off. For example, I replaced missing buttons on a few shirts that I wanted to keep and I dropped all the old printer cartridges off for recycling. You gain enormous satisfaction from completing low-priority but ever-nagging jobs like this. Now, months later, putting away my laundry is no longer stressful. As I said, I was forced to confront some facts about myself. Seeing the clothes I wanted to keep made me realize more than anything else, how depressed I had become, although it was several months before I actually did anything about it. In that sense, I'd say Marie Kondo did change my life.

* Obviously, we do not have a very aspirational bathroom. It has potential, but raising four kids and three dogs, and a bunny in a house kills off a lot of home improvement energy (and money). I think our empty-nest project will be to turn this house into the awesome urban farmhouse that it deserves to be.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Satisfactory Solitude

Jon, Brigid, and Seamus have all been away in Germany, at Osterloh, a friend's retreat center outside of Munich. They went with a group from Charlottesville and are attending a workshop on improvisation. (And got to spend a day in Salzburg and attend a Mozart concert and also hike in the Alps; I'm super jealous!) Meanwhile, Ian and Grace no longer live at home and are busy living their lives. (Although Ian pops in from time to time to do laundry and discuss our mutual obsession, the 2016 election.)

The point is, I've been living alone for an entire week. This is the first time I've been alone for more than a day or two since I was twenty-two! Last week, when I said I was about to embark on a week of cleaning and was really excited about it, I was referring to how I planned to spend the week on my own, although I didn't feel it was prudent to announce to the internet that I'd be alone in my house. They return today and I'll be happy to see them, and can't wait to hear about their adventures, but I enjoyed this week of solitude.

What did I do with the time? I cleaned and I cleaned, although I didn't get nearly as much done as I'd planned. I didn't take any time off work, so I had only the weekend and the evenings. I thought I would turn out the entire house and scrub into every crack and corner. In reality, I thoroughly cleaned the refrigerator and scrubbed the kitchen garbage pail and then took it outside and blasted it with the hose for good measure. I also washed the kitchen floor and did a lot of picking things up and putting them away. I've already mostly completed the Kon Mari method, so there wasn't really much clutter to deal with, but even those things that "spark joy" tend to get scattered about the house. (I need to write a post about the Kon Mari experience which turned out to be as much about self-discovery as it did about tidying.)

We had an empty dresser in the girls' old room. It's dangerous to keep empty furniture in your house because it tends to become a receptacle for stuff you don't want to deal with. On Saturday morning, I was inspired to appropriate it for my own clothes and get rid of my dresser which I've always disliked and which is too big for our bedroom anyway. I gave the old dresser to Grace. Jon is going to roll his eyes when he sees that I got rid of a large piece of furniture while he was away. The way he sees it, every time his back is turned, I throw something else away, but in my opinion, excess stuff is a source of stress and unhappiness. We don't see eye-to-eye on this.

It's the huge expanse of sky that makes this puzzle so hard.

In addition to the cleaning, I spent the week happily enjoying my own quiet pursuits. Mainly reading, knitting, watching the Great British Bake Off on PBS, and working on the impossible jigsaw puzzle. The dogs also need a considerable amount of attention. I had this idea that a week alone with me would help Phoebe to learn better behavior. I can see that she looks up to me - I am the alpha bitch in this house after all - and we got along better than we do when the whole family is home. Anyway, I was busy every minute of this week and never bored or lonely.

I feel a bit selfish, reveling in solitude like this. It is so nice to come home to a house that is exactly as it was when I left in the morning. (Except for the dogs inexplicably tearing down the living room curtains one day.) I liked not having to cook if I didn't feel like it. There were almost no dishes to wash, very little laundry, no jostling for time in the shower, no empty beer bottles to gather, no clothes tossed all over the bedroom floor.

As you are going to see in the coming months, I have cornered the market for selfishness in 2016. I don't think I'm going to regret it though. If you had a week to yourself, how would you spend it?

Monday, August 01, 2016

Books in Brief

Here's a brief recap of what I've been reading lately.

Demon in the House by Angela Thirkell. I want to like Angela Thirkell, but she's making it hard for me. Most of her books were published in the 1930's through the early '60s, and represent classic British cozy lit. I have now read six of her books and some of them have been amusing, but there is always something that rankles. Snobbery for one thing. It has been apparent in every one of her books so far. There's a certain complacency about class divisions too. Servants exist to clean up after you and that's the way it is. The mistreatment of servants is particularly on display in this book. The "demon" is young Tony Morland, visiting home on various holidays from school. Whenever he makes some sort of appalling mess, such as deliberately flooding the bath, his mother simply directs him to get the maid to clean it up. The whole book is devoted to Tony's various mishaps and mischief. I suppose Thirkell thought she was being funny, but Tony is a horrible brat. Also, he's thirteen years old but behaves like an eight year old, obsessed with toy trains and make-believe. Surely this wasn't typical of a boy that age, even a sheltered one in the 1930s. Thirkell refers to him repeatedly as a "little boy" making me wonder if she had ever known an actual child. Tony's companions are Rose and Dora from the vicarage. Rose is one of the drippiest girls in literature.

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth. An American classic. It's one Jewish man's long rant to his therapist. It's hilarious and so lascivious, I was a little embarrassed to be reading it on a plane. Read it to discover that no matter how neurotic you are, there is someone else who is even more neurotic. Also good if you want reassurance that maybe you aren't such a bad mother after all.

Plot it Yourself by Rex Stout. The comforting sameness of a Nero Wolf detective novel! The books are formulaic, but always suck you into the plot. These are more of an intellectual exercise and the focus is on Wolfe's deductions and not on blood and violence - despite the inventive ways of killing people that Stout invents for his murderers. I haven't read a Nero Wolf mystery yet that I was able to figure out on my own. This one is about a plagiarism scheme that leads to multiple murders for Wolfe to solve.

Longbourn by Jo Baker. This one is a real treat. It retells the story of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of the servants, particularly a housemaid named Sarah. Actually, it's inaccurate to call this a "retelling" of P&P, since the plot is focused on the servants lives and the Bennet sisters' adventures are more of a background noise. Jane Austen knock offs are often failures, but this one is really good. Sarah's story is entirely engrossing and it's interesting to see the Bennets from another perspective. They appear to be a genuinely nice family, although we see aspects of their characters that, while entirely plausible to the original story, are also thought-provoking. Elizabeth, while every bit as lively and good natured as she is in the original, is also a bit disappointing. Mrs. Bennet is more sympathetic; Mr. Bennet less so. I can pretty much guarantee you will like this one.

The Curse of the Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold. This one was recommended by a reader. I'm not finished yet, but I know enough to give you the gist of it. First of all, it's fantasy, which isn't really my cup of tea since fantasy in general tends to be cheesy. This book has an engrossing plot and an appealing main character, but there is some cheesiness to it. Set in a fictional small kingdom of Chalion, in a time that is about technologically on par with the late middle ages, it's about the Lord Cazaril's return to his homeland after being treacherously abandoned as a prisoner of war in the neighboring kingdom of Roknari. Much intrigue, suspense, and magic. If you like fantasy, you'd like this, and even if you don't, but are looking for a well-plotted escape read, this would do the trick.