Lessons learned in 2012

Right now, as we are beginning the draft of this post, we are looking at a living room that’s a little chaotic.

This (sorta) Old Life:  messy living room

Even when the Christmas stuff is packed away and the room is tidy, it will likely still look a little crazy. There might not be any painter’s tape up, but we know some of the windows will have white trim and some will have brown.


The entry walls we’re painting may or may not be all the same color. Our bench will still be covered with a Grandma afghan because that’s more comfortable than the vinyl that currently covers it (and doesn’t really match the rest of the room).

We’re OK with that.

That’s because we spent time last week talking about what we’ve learned in the past year of working on this house together, and we’ve realized that this is just how we roll. And we can see that we’ve been rolling in the direction we want to go.

This (sorta) Old Life:  messy living room

Not that we’ve been getting there in a straight line.  This has been a year with lots of “growth opportunities.” (That’s the snarky phrase we attach to painful experiences; it’s usually said with eyes rolled and lips pursed.) But grow we did, and when we started talking about what kind of year-end review might be valuable for you (and us), we kept coming back to the lessons we’ve learned in the last 12 months of making a home.

So, rather than giving you a list of most popular posts or our favorite projects, we’ve decided to share the lessons we’ve learned that we want to carry into the coming year.


Lesson #1: We don’t have to map out the whole project before beginning.

We learned that if we have a few basic principles and guidelines for how we want things to go, we don’t have to have a complete vision or plan when we start. We can trust the process to take us where the project needs to go. For us, sometimes the end result is better than anything we could have planned ahead of time.

We saw this played out in a big way in our bathroom renovation project. Trying to figure out the whole thing in advance was overwhelming. We decided upon a few guiding principles (frugal, functional, greenish, comfortable, true to its split-level roots) and started with just one decision we felt sure of (a tub instead of a shower). Then we waited until we were sure of another (salvaged tile for the tub surround). Each decision narrowed our options, which was a good thing. It made each remaining decision easier.

This (sorta) Old Life: Bathroom renovation before and after

This (sorta) Old LIfe: Dark master bath renovation

Lesson #2:  Planning is great, but we need room for spontaneity as well.

We keep talking about coming up with a system for deciding what we’re going to work on next–so we can avoid situations like the entry stair/family room near-debacle we experienced last spring. But we can’t seem to commit to any system we’ve devised.

This (sorta) Old Life: Cane tearing up carpet on stairs

We think that’s because our best renovation/design decisions came from mix of both planning/careful thought over time and some spontaneous decision-making. We’ve decided that taking time to be contemplative allows us to be more spontaneous when opportunities present themselves.

Although Cane’s decision about when to tear out the carpet wasn’t planned, the carpet was on our list of things to get rid of. And although we weren’t sure of what to replace it with, we knew it wasn’t going to be more carpet. That’s why, when we found ourselves in the reclaimed wood section of The Rebuilding Center not too long after the carpet came out, we decided on the spot to use reclaimed wood for the risers. And came home with the wood that day.

thissortaoldlife reclaimed lumber sign

Did we know exactly how we were going to use it? Not at all.

Would we have gotten the wood if the risers were still covered in carpet? Probably not.

Did it take us awhile to figure it all out and do something with it? Yes.

The wood sat in our garage for nearly 6 months–partly because we were in the middle of finishing the bathroom project and painting the house exterior when we bought it and partly because we didn’t quite know what to do with it–but right before Thanksgiving we did finally use that wood on our entry stairs. We haven’t yet shared the full project because we’re not entirely done with it, but we really like how it’s turning out.

This (sorta) Old Life: Reclaimed wood stair risers

Being open to spontaneity (and willing to shift directions) means that we can capitalize on happy finds when they appear in our path. If we weren’t, we might not have our beloved thrift store art, our rug that is more than a rug, or our awesomely awful retro lamps.

This (sorta) Old Life: braided wool thrift store rug

This is our favorite thrifting find from the past year.

These are all things we couldn’t have planned to find, but all have significantly impacted the look and feel of our home.

Lesson #3:  Function and comfort are more important than looks.

Letting go of a desire for the house to be perfectly kept means we can live happily with our messy creative process. Yes, our stairs were really ugly for six months. While they’re better now, they’re still definitely in progress.

But during that time, they were safe and functional. Ugly stairs did not detract from the quality of our life. Seeing this truth and embracing it means that we can live happily with the aesthetically funky things in our house until we have time to change them.

This (sorta) Old Life: Main bathroom after sprucing up

No, we don’t love the look of this bathroom, but it does everything we need a bathroom to do. We can we live happily with our icky wallpaper and brass fixtures and peachy sink/toilet/tub. We really can.

On the flip side of this coin is another truth: No matter how great something looks, if it doesn’t function well for us, it’s not a good choice for our home. We learned this the hard way through our experience with our retro couch and chair.

thissortaoldlife family room header house tour

Our kids hated them, and they weren’t super-comfortable, and they didn’t provide enough seating. This meant our family room was getting zero use by our family. Luckily, we were able to sell them for what we paid, and we’re all much happier with the less-stylish but much more functional Ikea sectional that we replaced them with.

This (sorta) Old Life:  family room with sectional couch

And speaking of function…

Lesson #4:  Owning the right tools for the job is really important.

Too many times when Cane was younger, he’d do a project with the wrong tools and never be quite satisfied with the end result because he’d have to make too many compromises. Because one of our guiding principles is We’re too old for that $h!t, we made some investments in tools this year. We’re happy to report that we think it paid off. Sometimes spending a little extra money or time to have the right tool is well worth it in the long run.

This (sorta) Old Life: Cane cutting tile

 This year we invested some money in a tile saw and a compound miter saw, and Cane spent time building his own stair tread gauge. Even though we may never use the tile saw again, we think it was money well-spent. It didn’t cost us more than renting would have, and owning gave us the luxury of time to do the project well (instead of hurrying to get the equipment back to a rental place).

And when we have the right tools, we can do almost anything–even really hard things.

Lesson # 5:  We can do hard things.

It just takes some brains, some DIY balls, a good internet connection, and faith. Biggest example? Switching our shower to a tub.

Smashing up and removing the shower was the easiest part. Changing the plumbing, wrestling in the new tub, and figuring out how to fix the problem with the new plumbing were huge challenges.

Tub wedged into too-small space

This is Cane putting a hole in the wall to the bedroom, so that we could get the tub down into its space.

Thanks to You Tube, various DIY pioneers who walked the trail ahead of us, and our faith in ourselves, we got through those challenges. Our process wasn’t pretty or elegant (we’ve got the drywall patch in our bedroom wall to prove it), but we got it done. Now we know we can tackle other hard things that might come up. (And hard things always come up, don’t they?)

Lesson #6: We need balance between big and small projects.

Speaking of hard things…Our bathroom renovation and exterior painting projects were huge. They took forever. And it was hard to keep going with them because the size of them was so daunting.

At some point in the spring we decided to take a break from the bathroom project to tackle some other, smaller things. Our favorite was our Memorial Day Weekend deck spruce-up, which included our vintage Weber grill rehab.

rehabbed grill on deck

This was definitely one of those spontaneous, unplanned for projects (undertaken only because the grill appeared before us in a thrift store; see lesson #2), but it’s one of our favorites from the whole  year. We really enjoyed our deck this summer, and from this project we realized the importance of giving ourselves some small wins to keep us going through the marathons.

Lesson #7:  Sometimes divide and conquer just divides.

Another reason we really liked the deck project is that we did it together. Our friendship began in doing creative work together, and that’s an important part of what makes our relationship work. If we get too caught up in needing to get a project done, then we lose a big part of the reason we want to do it.

Painting the exterior of our house was our least-favorite project this year, it’s the one project we’d do radically differently, and it’s the one that drove this lesson home to us. Splitting up the project and working on it separately split us up. We’re not going there again in 2013.

This (sorta) Old Life: House exterior painting project

We’d love to link you to the big reveal post on this project, but we never wrote it. We couldn’t summon up enough love for it to spend time taking pictures and writing about it. That and there’s still two more sides to paint. We’ll be hiring that out next summer.

This (sorta) Old Life: House exterior

We did get the front painted and photographed. Unfortunately, we think the lawn is symbolic of what this project did to our summer and our relationship.

Although we didn’t enjoy the painting project at all, it–along with all the other ones we tackled in 2012–really helped us see what is (to us) the most important lesson of all:

Lesson #8: The process is more important than the product.

How you do things and who you do them with will color your feelings about those things when you’re done. We see this most clearly in our bathroom tiling project, and how we felt about it when it was all done.

thissortaoldlife bathroom tile corner

We spent more than 6 months on this project.

We spent hours sifting through boxes of discarded tiles, playing with tile designs, laying out tiles on our garage floor, and sweating through the hard labor of tiling and grouting during sweltering summer days.

We also took lots of springtime walks through Portland neighborhoods, admiring the houses and gardens (and chickens) and talking through our options and our ideas and our values. We sat in lots of coffee shops and ate a lot of food cart lunches, doing the same. We decided it was time well-spent.

rita in coffeeshop

We love the shower/tub. It makes us happy every morning. That’s not just because we like the way it looks. It’s great that we ended up with a cool, unique tile wall–but we love it because the process of making it also gave us a ton of good memories, pride in something we created together, and a stronger relationship.

We learned that house renovation stuff can be hard work, but if that hard work is something that brings us and our family closer together it’s always worth it. If it doesn’t, it’s not–no matter how great the end product might be. (See lesson #7.)

Looking ahead

We’ve definitely got some things in the works for the coming year. We’ve got a post on the full stair process that’s almost done, and just this week we’ve painted our long hallway and the entry walls. That wasn’t exactly in our plans for winter break…but you know how we are with planning (see lesson #2). :-)

It happened because we found this great work of vintage fiber art, and we got it for my birthday present, and then I just couldn’t stand to hang it on a minty-green wall, and…


the next thing we knew, this…

...led to this.

…had somehow led to this…

This (sorta) Old Life:  cane painting dining room window trim

…and even a little of this.

Writing this post, we realized that the lessons we’ve learned about doing house projects apply to almost anything we do–our work, our relationships, making our family. Which is why we keep doing them and writing this blog.

We’re so grateful for those of you who keep reading us. We’re looking forward to seeing you and connecting with you in the coming year. We’d love to know if you learned any great lessons in the one just passed, or if you have any big plans for the months ahead. Hope you’ll let us know by dropping a note in the comments.

Happy New Year!

This (sorta) Old Life:  cane and rita

(Oh, and we’d still love some feedback from you through our survey. It has been so helpful to see what you like to read about and why you follow our blog. More on that to come soon, too.)



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