Of little pink houses and hometowns and dreams

Of little pink houses and hometowns and dreams

I grew up in a little pink house in a quaint little town–though it wasn’t quite the kind of house and town John Mellencamp immortalized in this (now rather quaint itself) 1983 video.

My house wasn’t in middle America and it wasn’t bubblegum pink. It was in a south Seattle suburb and it was more of a salmon pink–but it was the kind of house that Pam Kueber at Retro Renovation has dubbed mid-century modest, and it’s the kind of house that embodied the post WWII American Dream for a generation of working-class Americans.

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It’s not salmon-pink any more, but that’s the color it was when it was built in 1959. My mom thought it was such a beautiful, stylish house and was thrilled to move into it in 1969. The kitchen had turquoise built-in appliances and yellow tile countertops.

Last weekend, I went to this home again for the first time in more than 10 years. The occasion was my 30th high school class reunion, where I saw many for the first time since graduation. It was a bit of a charged weekend for me, to say the least.

As much as it was a chance to reflect on high school (and growing up and growing older and identity and friendship), it was also a chance for me to think (and feel–oh, so many feelings!) about home. P8171278 940x704 Of little pink houses and hometowns and dreams I lived in Burien, now a city in its own right but then an unincorporated community tucked into the shore of Puget Sound, from 1969 to 1983. When I graduated from high school, I high-tailed it out of there and never looked back.

In terms of geography, I didn’t go far initially–about 20 minutes north to the University of Washington. In terms of culture, it felt like a different world, which was just what I wanted.

As far as I could see back then, Burien didn’t have any culture. It was just one, long, boring stretch of strip mall, chain-store wasteland, where everyone looked the same, talked the same, thought the same. There was nothing special or interesting or exciting to be found there.

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Can’t you tell by my hairstyle that I was a closeted subversive?

That assessment wasn’t entirely unfair. It was a pretty homogenous place back then, full of middle- and working-class white folks who bought most of their goods along a wide stretch of road lined with fast-food restaurants, car dealers, and ugly storefronts.

So it surprised me, when I turned onto the main drag last Friday evening–that same ugly road–to feel my throat closing and tears welling and only one word on repeat in my head:


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Yep, this is the view that had me teary.

In terms of time, the years I spent there were a quick blip. 14 years.

I’ve still got boots I wore 14 years ago.

But when I left Burien, that 14  years had been almost my whole life, and I realized last weekend that it will always be home to me in ways that the community I lived in for nearly 20 years of my adult life will never be.

At the reunion (an event that I am still processing) someone told me that they still think of my old house as mine. “I go walking by there all the time, and every time I do I think, There’s Rita Ott’s house.” She added: “It doesn’t look as nice as it did when your parents lived there, though.”

The next morning, when I drove by the house I grew up in, I was glad I’d had the warning.

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It was hard to see my old house the way it looks now. My mom used to keep a nice rock garden where those two ugly boxes are, and my dad kept a pretty meticulous lawn. (Oh, how I hated raking the leaves that fell from the next-door neighbor’s trees!)

Of course, it all feels so much smaller than it did when I was growing up. I found myself wondering how much of that is just the difference in adult perspective (everything seems big when you are little) and how much of that is due to our changed ideas about how much house we need.

All of the houses surrounding my childhood home are modest. All of them were shelters to families raising children (many of them with more than two kids). None of us had family rooms or great rooms and a lot of those kids shared a bedroom with others.

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My first baby-sitter, Sally, grew up in this house with her parents and her brother Joel.

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Sally’s grandma lived right next door to her, in this house that her brother later bought and lived in after their grandma passed away.

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My longest and favorite babysitter, Mary Lynn, lived in this house kitty-corner from ours, with her parents and two siblings.

There were some slightly larger homes a few blocks down, closer to the water, but even those look modest in comparison to today’s McMansions (the only kind of new construction that seems to get built on this kind of real estate).

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When I was growing up, I had no appreciation for how fortunate I was to grow up within walking distance of beaches and water like this.

My first grade teacher lived in this house (right across the street from the home pictured directly above):

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The front porch is an addition; this home had a much more modest face when my teacher lived in it.

My friend Sandi and I used to stop and visit Mrs. Anderson occasionally. It was sort of like having a celebrity in our neighborhood. Our teacher (who used to play hopscotch with us at recess, despite having a paralyzed foot) was always kind to us and usually gave us a cookie as she sent us on our way.

Speaking of school, I know now how fortunate I was to live only two blocks from my elementary school. All of us neighborhood kids walked there every day. Our moms accompanied us on the first day, but we were on our own after that. And we were all just fine.

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Not sure what year this photo was taken, but remember being part of a similar one at the end of the school’s last year of operation.

That school is gone now, closed in 1976–right before what would have been my last year there–as post-Baby Boom enrollments dropped. I loved that old building, with its buckled hardwood hallways and clanking radiators and tall windows. I loved the big stairway leading to the second floor, where Mrs. Smallwood’s classroom was right across the hallway from the library. After it closed, I sometimes fantasized about turning it into some sort of cool house and living in it. (I think I’ve always been a house geek.)

The building remained empty for quite a few years, and it was finally torn down in the 90s. All that remains is the arch over the front door, which is at the entrance to the park that was created on the old grounds.

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When they were building the park, residents were able to make contributions to buy a brick for the walkway. My parents bought one in my name:

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(For more on Mrs. Smallwood and elementary school in the 70s, you can click here.)

As I drove and walked around my old neighborhood, feeling nostalgic for home and intoxicated from only a few hours sleep and the rush of seeing so many old friends, I was a bit of an emotional mess. Finding that brick that sent me over some edge. Actually, it wasn’t my brick. It was the bricks around it. Right above mine were these:

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It was when I realized that I knew every person named in that line of bricks that I lost it.

See, one of the things that stuck me most when I got back into town was how much my old hometown is like the town I live in now. I saw the similarities between Burien and Gresham, where I got my first teaching job, almost immediately. It’s partly why I resisted living there for more than 20 years.

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Both towns have a main drag filled with stoplights and chain stores.

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Both have a charming “downtown” area with specialty shops and local restaurants.

Both places were largely white, middle class communities 25 years ago, and both have changed and become more diverse. Both are suburbs of larger, more liberal cities. When I began working in Gresham and realized how much it was like the place I’d wanted so badly to get away from, it felt like some kind of cruel irony.

Now, however, I don’t need to get away from this kind of place. Hell, I’ve embraced it–but Burien has one huge thing that Gresham doesn’t:  It holds my history. The earliest and tenderest of my roots. And, still, many of the people who shared it with me.

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Doug Weber, Sandi Olson, and Joy McGilton (the kids on the bricks) are all in this picture with me. Sandi still lives in our old neighborhood, in the house she grew up in (and we snuck out of one night–don’t tell my parents!).

If I were going to end up in the exact same kind of place, I wondered, why not have stayed where I was, with all the benefits of being surrounded by those who’ve always known and cared for me–many of the people I’d been so happy to reunite with the night before?

What would my life look like today if I’d done that?

Those are the questions my mind was chewing on as I drove back through the “downtown” area looking for something to eat before hitting the southbound freeway. That’s when I saw this:

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Grand Central bakery in the Mississippi neighborhood of Portland is one of our favorite breakfast spots. In fact, Cane and I were there just a few weeks ago.

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Where I took this ubiquitous and cliched food photo. Couldn’t help myself.

To me, Grand Central is completely and utterly Portland (even though that link will show you in started in Seattle). I had no idea there were any outside of Portland. Certainly not in Burien.

As I stood at the counter waiting to buy the same bread pudding I love to eat in Portland, wallowing in homesickness for my old hometown, I felt a completely different–but equally compelling–homesickness for the place I live now. I missed Cane and the kids and wished I was already back in Portland, at the real Grand Central.

As I drove through town, aching more than a bit for what I might have lost by moving away, wondering why, if I was going to end up in a place so much like Burien, I didn’t just stay there, I understood that home and where we choose to make it is often about much more than geography or even culture.

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Another one of my stops was the old Burien Library, where I worked all through high school. Look at that fantastic brick detail! Did I appreciate what a beautiful building this was when I lived there? Not at all. You just don’t see things like this when you’re 16. At least, I didn’t.

If I’d grown up in Gresham, I’d probably have needed to leave there, too. I think that’s just the person I was back in 1983–the kind of person who needed to break away in order to figure out who she is and where she wanted to be.

It could all have gone another way. Right after I earned my teaching license, I had an opportunity to return to my old high school and work there. It was a tempting offer, a guaranteed job in what was then a tight market.

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I somehow knew I couldn’t take it.

Instead, I took a job in Oregon, moving away not only from my hometown, but from my home state, and all the family and friends who lived there.

I really had no idea of what I was doing. I understood so little then of the word’s to Frost’s most famous poem, and I told myself that I could always come back.

I didn’t know how way leads on to way and it’s never simply a matter of retracing your steps.

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Once I began my career, married and had these two, going back home became a pretty unthinkable proposition.

My last stop before leaving town was that high school. It, like the elementary school was, is a grand old building–but it is not quite the same building my friends and I made our passage through.The facade is the same, but the interior was renovated in the 90s. I went inside soon after the remodel, and it wasn’t the same place. The long hallways that ran down the length of the first and second floor had been chopped into short passages that felt like a maze.

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I knew then I would likely never return.

I didn’t want to go back to the place that both was and wasn’t what I had known and loved, the stage to such an important story in my life. It’s that way for me with the school, and I realized this weekend that it’s that way for me with the town itself.

As much as Burien is the same place it’s always been, it has also changed, as much as my parents’ old house is changed.

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This arch is new, part of a revitalized downtown area. Familiar things were gone, and there is a new library/city hall building in their place.

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This house belongs to our old next-door neighbors, who I stopped to say hello to. As I talked with Mrs. Frye, she told me how much she missed having my parents in the neighborhood. “Your folks are gone and the Careys are gone,” she said. “We’re the only ones left from your time. It’s just not the same any more.”

Since my marriage ended, I have envied those who have deep history at the foundation of their lives. Long friendships and marriages, long years lived in one place. There is a kind of richness we can find in relationships that can only come with time. There’s nothing like a 30th reunion to help you see that time has run out for some kinds of things. That kind of relationship to home is one of them for me.

As I drove around my old hometown after a night spent with old friends, part of me longed to return to Burien. I have feelings for that place that I doubt I will ever have for Gresham. I loved the idea of once again living in the place where I might renew friendships with those I’ve known since the beginning of my life.

But my history is now inextricably entwined with that of these people:

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For them, Gresham and Mt. Hood and Oregon and our funky old split-level are what Burien and Washington and my parents’ little pink house are to me. Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to take our children away from the place that’s been home to them.

And, honestly, if I left Gresham I think I’d feel some of the same loss and longing. This is the place where Cane and I and our kids have become family. It’s the place where I’ve spent my entire career, and it’s been landscape to my life more than twice as long as Burien was.

Driving south that day toward people I love like no others, I did feel sad that I’m never going to know the richness of a life lived in one place, but I also realized that mine is one with a different kind of richness, the kind that comes from  a multitude of experiences and relationships.

I’m pretty sure the grass is green on both sides of this particular fence–it just grows in different shades. And since I can’t go back and do any of it any other way, I’m going to appreciate and admire the grass I’ve got. It’s got its own kind of beauty, you know?

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Another view of downtown Gresham.

In other news…

This week Cane was able to move his right eyebrow just a little bit–the first time since Bell’s palsy struck in July! I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to finally have a sign that recovery is happening. I’ve really missed this smile and can’t wait to see it again:

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(Took this photo right before he became ill, when we took our little field trip to the Frank Lloyd Wright house.)

I return back to school next week (and everyone else does the week after that), so the pace of life is going to be changing around here. I’ll be starting a new job, and one kid is starting a new school, and Cane is still recovering–which means the usual September stress will be a bit heightened this year. I’m not sure how often we’ll be able to post until things settle down.

You may have noticed that we’ve been off our usual pace here. The last month has been challenging. Between Cane’s illness, the death of my old friend, the decision to release our contract with Purple Clover, and my reunion, I’ve been pre-occupied with all kinds of thoughts that have little to do with home.

I’m sure we’ll get back in the swing of things again soon. In the meantime, we’d love to hear how the end of summer is going for you. Feel free to let us know in the comments.

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While we’re on the topic of old houses and summer winding down, Cane and I got one last summertime walking-around-Portland day recently–something we don’t do much of when the weather turns cold. I visited the neighborhood I lived in when I first moved to Oregon, and this is the first house I bought. I was so happy to see it looking better than it did when I lived there. It’s a sweet little 1920s cottage-style home, and I have fond memories of it.

KISSing our family room fireplace

KISSing our family room fireplace

A for-real comment from my 1st grade report card:

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Obviously, I was born the English major I eventually became. An inability to accept an easy, simple answer served me well when it came to detecting and analyzing literary motifs (a HIGHLY useful life skill, I might add ;-)).

It has not, however, served me so well in many other endeavors. Sometimes–many times–the KISS principle works so much better. Such has been the case with our family room fireplace make-over.

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Earlier owners painted the brick a bland beige color, and the unpainted mortar was a dark brown. We’ve never liked it and have always planned to paint over it. When I painted the room early last summer, I fully intended to paint the fireplace soon after, but it never happened.

I’m glad I never got to it, as we decided this summer that the wall color just wasn’t right. After determining that we wanted a mid-tone grey for the walls, we played around with a few different color ideas for the fireplace using Sherwin-William’s online color tool. We considered several options, but finally decided that we wanted to go with a bold orange/red color.

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This choice was cemented for us when we found an old storage cabinet with a bright orange laminate top:

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The palette in our living room is much more subtle and subdued…

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…and we want our family room to have a different feeling from that room. Around the time we were playing around with color ideas, I discovered an online treasure-trove of 70s decor images, and I decided that our family room needs to be infused with some 70′s inspired rec room goodness.

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 Image via superseventies.tumblr.com

Orange was the only possible choice for the fireplace.

But not just some simple orange, no siree.

I knew I couldn’t get back to the original brick after reading many posts about the difficulties of doing so (this one is my favorite), but I got this idea that I could capture the spirit of the original fireplace. With paint.

I did not want to try some sort of faux-brick look through paint (although this post by Pretty Handy Girl did tempt me). While I saw some that looked pretty good in pictures online, I was afraid that anything I might try along those lines would just look cheesy. In a Cheez-Whiz kind of way, not a Tillamook sharp cheddar kind of way.

I wanted something that was obviously paint, but that gave a nod to the fireplace’s origins. I wanted something fun and bold like the 70s. Which is how I found myself with four little tester pots (and 4 adorable little paint trays) of some really bright orange paint back in early July.

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I had this idea that I would randomly paint the bricks in these four colors, creating the kind of color variation you see in unpainted bricks. Kind of like this:

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Luckily, I posted some shots on Facebook:

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Luckily some of our followers (gently) told me: Um, not loving that so much.

I decided the problem was not in the complicated idea, but in the shades of orange (too bright and cartoonish). I got out a whole bunch of orange/red paint chips. We settled on these three:

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So wish I could tell you what brand Uptown Girl is, or what the name of the middle Pantone color is. But I don’t remember and those chips are long gone. Bad, bad blogger am I…

Then I went back to Home Depot and came home with more little pots of orange paint.

I did one corner with the new colors, and then I realized that it was the idea that was all wrong, not the colors. I conceded defeat and then each of the other corners in a solid color so we could choose one color for the whole thing:

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We went with option #2, Pantone’s Marmalade, which we had the Home Depot guy match for us in Behr.

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I so wanted my idea to work. I wanted it to be original and awesome, something no one else had done but that others (preferably thousands of others, since I was dreaming) would go ga-ga over. I wanted to be crazy-bold in a good way, like Mandy of Vintage Revivals so often is. (See her Sharpie wallpaperfor example.)

Or maybe I just instinctively knew how flippin’ boring it was going to be to paint the fireplace all one color. Because it was. Not even Mad Men on Netflix could really redeem the experience for me (though I am now in Season 3, finally, thanks to this fireplace).

Even though the bricks were previously painted, the mortar was not. It just sucked in the paint and required multiple coats. So many little grooves. So mind-numbingly tedious.

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Following the advice of other DIY bloggers, I bought a cheap brush for painting the mortar. It was good advice–the brush was pretty trashed after being smushed into all those rough crevices. Over and over and over and over again.

That shot reminds me that I forgot an even less-fun part:  Cleaning the fireplace.

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Before you can paint, you need to take off the screen and clean. It was messy, dirty work.

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TMI? This is what my feet looked like after cleaning the sooty mess.

When I began cleaning the soot and realized that whoever painted the fireplace before didn’t bother to remove the screen before painting, leaving some of the original brick unpainted, and that the original brick was a lovely, mid-tone orange that we would have LOVED, I tried to be magnanimous and not curse that person.

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It was hard, though, because I was hot and sweaty and my feet were gross and Cane was just sitting on the couch watching me and playing on his computer and snapping the occasional picture.

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OK, maybe he was working on a post about his kitchen table, which I’d asked him to do. Maybe. Still annoying.

Speaking of the fireplace screen, I’ve sorta hated its big old brassiness for some time, too. I really wanted to get a new one in antique bronze (the metal finish of choice back when our house was built), but that was going to cost a pretty penny. More like 30,000 of them.

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I tried to talk Cane into it, using the argument that we’d saved so much doing the floor as we had, but I didn’t try that hard because I didn’t really want to spend that much money, either.

Instead of buying a new screen, we bought a few cans of black spray paint.

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It was pretty easy to remove the doors, tape the remaining glass, and spray away. Used fine steel wool to prep the surface, then gave it a light sanding between each very thin coat of paint. I think it took about 4 coats.

And we put the fireplace all back together and now she looks like this:

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This is not the kind of after photo that I’m just dying to share. There’s more to be done–but, when I do a side-by-side of the before/afters, I’m pretty pleased with our progress:

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We want something to put on that mantel, but we’re feeling a little stumped by that. You can’t just put any old piece of art in front of that orange. We’ve been on the lookout for a cool clock, but right now all we’ve got is the old creepy-faced clock, which has just had its second make-over–another example of the virtues of keeping it simple, by the way.

You might remember this post from last fall, in which I transformed this thrift store “find”…

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…into this:

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If you click on that link in the last paragraph, you’ll see that I went to all kinds of trouble to create some clever numbers, which I never really liked. I much prefer the simple circles of color I put into the clock this week:

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Although, that did lead to this exchange:

Child: How am I supposed to know what time it is? There are NO NUMBERS!

Me: You can tell the time. You know what number each circle represents.

Child: No I can’t. What time is it?

Me: Don’t be ridiculous. It’s 11:40.

Child (looking at phone): No, it’s not. It’s ELEVEN THIRTY-NINE. I can’t tell that with your clock!

Me: Oh, speaking of time, I just remembered: It’s time for you to do your chores today!

*End of conversation*

We also need to figure out what we want to do on the sides of the fireplace. We may go with some art, but we’re also considering some shelves–but shelving is a subject for a whole other (likely equally long) post.

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In the meantime, we’re really enjoying this room just as it is. It’s come such a long way from the space we saw on our initial walk-through of the house:

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The family room formerly known as the previous owner’s man cave.

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The family room today. In progress, but definitely getting there.

If you’ve got any great suggestions for the mantel or the sidewalls (or anything, really) we’d love to hear them. Or if you’d just like to cheer us on, please feel free to do that, too. We love your comments!

(If you’d like to suggest a different shade of orange, however, we’re not so much interested in that. I’m DONE with painting this fireplace! :-))

Sharing over at Pancakes and French Fries.


The not so great book review

The not so great book review

I am so full of such big plans at the beginning of every summer.

I’m going to clean!

I’m going to paint!

I’m going to organize!

I’m going to exercise!

I’m going to read!

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And then reality (often in the form of the 3 kids we are raising) sets in. I’m happy to report that I’ve actually done a fair amount of painting and exercising. Reading? Not so much.

But back in June I promised a review of Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big Life, first on a list of books I’ve wanted to read for some time.

not so big life The not so great book review

Several of you joined me on this one, and I can’t wait to hear what you thought of it. Because I don’t have a whole lot to say about it.

The main reason is that I didn’t finish it–which I know is a kind of review itself.

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Unfortunately, I fell asleep soon after this shot was taken.

My first challenge in this book is that it contains exercises. One is supposed to have a notebook in which to do the exercises. I wanted to do a good job of reading this book–since I’d gone all public with my intentions and all–and it seemed to me that one couldn’t really comment on this book if one didn’t read it as the author intended.

So I got hung up very early in July, waiting for a time when I could fully do the exercises. I lost a good two weeks this way. I did do the first exercise, finally. It was OK. No clouds parted for me or anything, though.

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I decided to take the advice of some of you and just keep reading and not worry about doing the exercises. Or, to simply think about the questions even if I didn’t write the answers to them down. Doing that got me going through a  next little part, until I hit  the exercise in chapter 3, which was to help me understand my relationship to time. There were a full 7 pages of questions! With, like, one question on each line of the page!

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The irony of not wanting to take the time to answer questions about my relationship to time was not lost on me.

I skipped it. I mean, I did skim the questions, but I didn’t answer them.

I was OK with the next chapter (“Removing the Clutter”), but she really lost me in chapter 5, “Listening to Your Dreams.” I stuck with it part-way through Chapter 6, “Learning to See Through the Obstacles,” but that’s as far as I got. (I’ll still write what I thought about the book, but please be aware of a big caveat:  I didn’t actually finish the book.)

So, what was the problem?

The biggest problem for me is one that’s particular to me, so it might not be relevant to many other readers. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I’ve read all this before.

I did really enjoy and appreciate the house renovation metaphor that runs through the book. It’s the same one that runs through this blog, and I was interested to see how Susanka developed the metaphor. But in terms of the nuts-and-bolts of how to renovate a life, I didn’t learn anything new.

And, frankly, I was irritated by what feels like glib platitudes. Such as this:

“By making the time and place to listen to your inner longings, you’ll start to live them. You’ll find that you are capable of a lot more creativity than you had thought, and you’ll find opportunities falling into your lap that allow you to do what you’ve always wanted to do–not by your seeking them out but simply because you are ready to engage and able to be present in what you do.” (14)

I mean, yes:  There is truth in this. I know this from my own experience–to some extent.

But making this happen is not easy, and making the time and place to listen to your inner longings not some magic bullet to a smaller, fulfilling, meaningful life.

I guess my main issue with this book is that it feels as if it is written from a perspective of privilege that many don’t have. There seems to be an assumption that all the activities we all engage in are a matter of choice, and we can simply choose a smaller, more meaningful life. We just need to know what to choose and make a commitment to choosing it.

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I’m glad for the shift in perspective that’s made me slow down to appreciate the simple beauty and pleasure to be found in a bowl of berries. But even this is an image of privilege.

Reading this book, I felt the same irritation I felt when reading this article about reinventing our careers in mid-life. Each person profiled in the article already had a successful, professional career–as well as an affluent spouse who could provide a financial cushion during the transition period from the old successful career to the new one. Nice work if you can get it.

Susanka posits that we are all addicted to “nut accumulation” (56) and our real problem is that we don’t realize when we have enough nuts. She makes a connection between the (often unquestioned) idea that a bigger home means a better life lived in it and the idea that a “bigger” life is better:

“There’s a perfect parallel between our attempts to find home by building bigger and our attempts to find satisfaction by buying stuff and staying busy… . A bigger, busier, flashier life isn’t necessarily a better life. But we’re taught from an early age that that’s what we should aspire to, and we rarely stop to wonder whether this is really the case. We can’t we tell ourselves–we don’t have time!” (42)

I think there’s a lot of truth in that for many of us, too, but I couldn’t help thinking of the years in my very recent past when I truly did not have enough nuts–and of the many, many people in the world who still don’t. For many of us, our lives are “big” with doing all the things we need to do to take care of our families’ basic needs.

I couldn’t help thinking about how, through my own efforts at simplification and much more mindful consumption, I’ve greatly reduced the amount of “nuts” I earn and bring into my life–but it’s still a challenge to live “small.”

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Because Cane and I joined our households (simplifying!), we bought this house–which is bigger than the one I lived in when it was just my kids and me. And yet, I can’t imagine fitting our blended family dynamics into a smaller space. We use every inch of this place.

Here’s the thing:

Yes, a few years ago, I did make some changes to create a “smaller” life. I moved closer to work and to my significant other. I sold a house I could no longer maintain myself. I began working less (not by choice, but I am now glad that choice was made for me). I consolidated my home with that of another family (Cane and his daughter).

These changes all brought “small life” benefits, but they have all come with costs, too.

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While my life grew smaller in some ways, it grew larger in others. I have a much, much greater knowledge of what my “inner longings” are–and I also have (at times) greater frustration because I have not yet figured out how to fulfill them in ways I would like.

I’ve got two teen-agers that I am raising apart from their father. While my combined household does provide more help with that at times, the combined household at other times creates more complications. I’ve got to have a job that provides for their needs and financial agreements I’ve made about meeting them. I truly can’t ditch the job that gives me migraines to follow some other kinds of dreams I have–at least, I can’t do that for a few more years. Getting to small is no simple thing when the non-negotiables of your life are complicated.

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Right now, her dreams are more important than mine. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

All of that said, I think Susanka’s book is a great introduction to the idea of living a more meaningful, mindful, simpler life. I probably would have benefited greatly from it earlier on my journey, and I really do love the house/life metaphor. I think her basic plan (the parts of it I read) is sound:

  • Notice what inspires you
  • Identify what isn’t working
  • Remove the clutter from your life
  • Listen to your dreams
  • Learn to see through obstacles
  • Improve the quality of what you have

I would just have liked to see more of what these steps look like in the context of a life that looks more like mine.

The last few chapters of the book might actually provide the thing I’m looking for–a more concrete set of how-to’s for getting to that smaller life. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get past some frustration and irritation to get there.

Enough about me:  What about you?

If you read Susanka’s book, I’d love to know what you thought of it. I know from some of you that you had a much different experience from mine. I really wanted to like this book, so I hope you help me do that!

Please share your thoughts in the comments, or if you’ve written your own post about the book, I’d love for you to share a link here.

And a little PS:

Thank you so much for your kind wishes last week. It was a hard one. Nearly two weeks ago, Cane developed Bell’s palsy. In addition to paralysis on one side of his face, he also experienced vertigo, ear ringing, terrible headache, and severe fatigue. These symptoms are not typically part of Bell’s palsy–at least, not to the degree Cane was affected–which had us worried that the problem might be bigger.

A late-night visit to the ER led to further tests, which was scary but ruled out the possibility of much bigger problems. He’s still got some vertigo and fatigue, but things are much better. The prognosis is a long recovery (months, not weeks), but most people do fully recover.

As you can see below, nothing slows this guy down completely for long:

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He needs to wear an eye patch some of the time. Because of the paralysis on his right side, his eye lid doesn’t fully close and his eye can become irritated. Sexy pirate jokes are allowed. :-)



Short hiatus

Short hiatus

The last week has been challenging.

It brought a new job, a serious health issue, a death, and a trip out of town to visit family.

In other words:  fear, sadness, indecision, nostalgia, regret, worry, joy, anticipation, hope, loss, and gratitude. A rich, complex mix.

Sometimes, a person just needs to retreat for a bit, sit out an inning on the bench. I just don’t have it in me right now to write about any of that, much less progress on house projects.

We’re all OK and going to be OK, but I need to take this week off from the blog.

We’ll see you next week. On Monday, let’s talk about Susanka’s The Not So Big Life. Really looking forward to hearing what others think of it.

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My mom, on the other hand, is still swinging. She and my dad have been playing baseball with my kids since they were little guys, a tradition that’s still going strong. She’ll be turning 70 this year. Go Grandma!

“No” is the new “Yes”

“No” is the new “Yes”

This is a post about passion, dreams, painting–and economics.

Yes, economics. Specifically, the economic concept of opportunity costs.

As Investopedia defines it, an opportunity cost is, “The cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action. Put another way, the benefits you could have received by taking an alternative action.”

In other words, if two roads diverge in a wood and I can only be one traveler, whatever cool thing that lies down the road I don’t take is the opportunity cost of going down the road I do take.

When it comes to making/renovating a home, there are opportunity costs in every decision we make. A recent case in point:

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We spent much of last summer painting the exterior of our house. Correction:  We spent much of it painting the front and back of our house. We did not get to the two short sides.

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Last summer, we did not want to pay what it would have cost us to have someone else paint the house (several thousand dollars). We are educators. We don’t work at our jobs during the summer. We figured we have more time than money, and it would be a good investment of our resources to paint it ourselves.

The opportunity costs of that decision were far more than we anticipated. If I’d been clued into the whole idea of opportunity costs back then, we might have made a different choice. But I wasn’t, and we didn’t.

What did our decision last summer cost us? The list would include all of these:

  • Strained relationships (with each other and with our kids)
  • Books we didn’t read
  • Restorative time in our hammocks
  • Afternoons at the river
  • Leisurely dinners
  • Long walks
  • Conversations about things other than the house
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The paint roller thrown across the back lawn at a low point last summer.

Of course, there are things we gained, too. And, if we’d had some kind of emergency that required the money we saved by doing it ourselves, I’m sure we’d think the decision we made was the right one. It might have been. We can’t really know, even in hindsight. (That’s the maddening thing about trying to calculate opportunity costs.)

We’re really pleased with how our paint job turned out, and seeing how we’ve transformed the curb appeal of our home gives us a lot of pleasure. Knowing that we’ve done it ourselves is very satisfying.

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(Still gotta get to that mailbox project…always something.)

However, this summer, we aren’t painting the other two sides of the house. We’re hiring that job out.

One side is very high up. We don’t have the equipment to get up there, and even if we did, I just don’t want Cane that far above the ground. It would take us many days of hours of labor to get both sides done, and it will take the person we’re hiring one day.

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Our frugality in other areas makes it possible for us to make this choice–which has given us much more than a paint job. We’ve made good progress on several other house projects, and we’ve also had time for restorative sleep, other work, a drive-in movie, a design field trip, regular exercise, a day on the lake, good food, movies, walks, long talks with friends, and more.

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We’ve had time to stop and smell the lily pads this summer.

In a recent post on Slow Your Home, Vanessa Salas asks if one can own luxury items (she longs for a Birken bag) and still be a minimalist–and the answer, of course, is yes:

“The point (of minimalism) is to remove all the extraneous stuff so that you can have the space – literally and figuratively – to focus all of your energy on the things that you value the most.”

We do lots of DIY and thrifting and penny-pinching because that creates space that allows us to do what we value most–which, I think, it what eyeing decisions through the lens of opportunity costs is all about.

Paying someone to do a job that needs doing, but that we don’t derive any other kind of value from (not much fun or creativity for us in putting paint on a huge wall) does not violate our ideas about frugality and the value of doing what we can for ourselves. In the case of our exterior paint job, finishing it ourselves has other costs that we simply don’t want to pay. And we’re grateful to have the ability to make that choice.

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Figuring out how to paint the fireplace? Now that kind of painting was fun! (Reveal to come soon…)

It is this kind of thinking, too, that’s behind our decision not to renew our contract with Purple Clover, the new site we were almost-peeing-our-pants excited about writing for just a few months ago.

While the idea of getting paid to do something (writing) that we do here just for love and kicks was pretty great, we’ve discovered that it’s a whole different thing to write for someone else for money. I sorta already knew that, but I thought that the kinds of things we were going to be writing about would make it a good experience for us.

It hasn’t been bad, but it’s taken us away from the some kinds of things we want to do both here and in other areas of our life. I hated the weekly Monday morning deadline that cast shadows over every weekend. It’s been manageable during the summer, but I knew that it wouldn’t be once we returned to school/work in the fall.

A piece of writing that really helped me get clear on the right next step is Naomi Dunford’s 7 Reasons I Decided Not to Become a Prostitute, a smart and funny piece on the pitfalls of taking something you love doing for free/fun and turning it into a business or a job for someone else. 

The biggest thing we’ve learned this summer is that we aren’t very interested in writing for others. If we are going to do that, it’s got to be a perfect fit with who we are and what we want to be about. Purple Clover isn’t that (much as we wanted it to be). We love writing for you and for us right here, in this online space. If we’d kept the Purple Clover gig, we would’ve made some money, sure–but the opportunity cost of that choice would be some other things we want to do here.

That’s a price we don’t want to pay. We’ve realized that doing what we do here just for the enjoyment of it is reason enough to do it. Making space in our lives for this blog is our version of Salas’s Birken bag, and we think everyone should make room in their life for a few meaningful luxuries. Writing is not my livelihood, which means that I get to choose the luxury of writing only things I’m passionate about.

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We want a creative life abundant as our driveway garden.

Calculating opportunity costs is not easy. No matter which roads we choose in any arena of our lives, we will always feel the rub of opportunities we’ve lost or have been unable to take. Yes, I’d love to write a post a day here and build this into a bigger blog –but I’d have to give up my day job (and a bunch of things it gives me) to do that. Our day jobs are the source of the total freedom we have here. In calculating opportunity costs, I choose fewer posts, a smaller blog, greater economic security, and greater creative freedom.

Every time we say “no” to one thing, we are saying “yes” to something else, whether we’re making decisions about which projects to do or how to do them. Seems to us that the trick to renovating a home or a life well is to be clear about what we are–and aren’t–choosing.

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One afternoon this week I said “no” to working on the family room so that I could say “yes” to an afternoon read/nap in the tree fort.

 How about you?

What kinds of choices have you made? How do you calculate opportunity costs? Is this a concept that’s helpful in making decisions for you? Your comments are a huge reason we love writing here. Hope you’ll share your thoughts with us.

(Sharing this post with the William Morris Project at Pancakes and French Fries.)

Lessons from Frank Lloyd Wright

Lessons from Frank Lloyd Wright

Rita and I had a really nice summer day last weekend. We’ve  been so busy with DIY projects that we decided to take a day off and make a short road trip. About an hour and a half drive from us in Silverton, Oregon is a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home, the Gordon House.

It’s the only one in the Northwest that is open to the public. It was commissioned by Conrad and Evelyn Gordon in 1956 and completed for about 50 thousand dollars, double the original budget. It’s a beautiful example of Wright’s Usonian style house. Although Wright often worked for wealthy clients, his Usonian homes were designed for typical, middle-class Americans.

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This is the view of the house while walking up the driveway. It really is a small house.

We’ve both been to the house before. Rita did a poetry reading there some years ago (Silverton has a thriving arts community), and I had visited probably 10 years earlier. We both wanted to see the house again.

We showed up at 2 for a guided tour, and we weren’t disappointed. The house really is something else. The grand living/dining room is one of the simplest and most elegant spaces I’ve ever been. Wright really knew how to make you feel like you are inside and outside at the same time. The space is actually fairly small by today’s standards but the tall ceilings and the floor to ceiling window glass really invite the outdoors in and make it feel 5 times larger.

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Here’s a view of the great room. I’m standing at the back wall taking the photo so I could capture as much of it as I could. Look at the gorgeous light.

This is the only large room in the whole house. The rest of the rooms are very small. The house has 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. The master bedroom is on the first floor. It has a door that leads out to the patio and a small, adjoining bathroom with a vanity, toilet, and stand-up shower. Wright designed all the furniture in the bedrooms as built-ins. No headboards for the beds and no dressers or night stands. It’s all built in.

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Here’s the master bedroom (now used to show a PBS video about the house). You can see the shelving along the wall and the built in dresser. All the ceilings were red cedar plywood and the walls were simple painted cinder block.

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Here’s an upstairs bedroom. The light in this room was fantastic. The beds were simple plywood platforms designed by Wright. Notice the shelving built into the wall again.

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Here’s the upstairs bathroom. It’s simple and bathed in beautiful light. The pink tiles, tub, and sink all matched perfectly.

We were struck at the simple elegance of the house. Even though there was minimal furniture, it didn’t look empty. Most of the storage was already built in. From shelving to closets, Wright had thought of everything. I loved the library nook that he designed at the back of the great room. It’s a fabulous place to sit, and hidden behind the cushions are storage bins.

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Here’s a view of the seating nook from across the room. The cushions were designed and commissioned by Wright. When he designed a house he took care of everything down to the color of fabric.

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Here’s a detail close up of the seating.

The kitchen is very tiny. There really isn’t much room in it at all. Wright preferred to call it a work area instead of kitchen. The design is all-business. It’s not like today’s kitchens where people hang out  while food is being prepared. No room in this one for that.

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Here’s the original kitchen. It’s hard to photograph because it’s so small.

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Even though the kitchen is a small box the ceilings are amazingly tall. There’s a huge skylight that dominates most of the ceiling space. This is more for function than for aesthetics as the tall ceiling allows all the heat and smells from the kitchen to rise up keeping the room cool.

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With the exception of the dishwasher all appliances are original.

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Here’s a detail of the floors. The downstairs floors are all concrete. The red color is not paint. It’s an additive mixed in with the concrete when it was poured.

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Here’s a good view of the fireplace in the great room.

There were so many great small details, I’ve collected them in the gallery below. Clicking on any of the images will cause a larger version to pop up.

Lessons Learned

Wright’s Gordon House delivers great lessons in simplicity. Everything was simple in design but also perfectly functional. There is an economy of means we found really appealing. There is barely anything decorative or extra to be found anywhere in the house, yet it is one of the warmest and most inviting spaces I’ve been.

Although Wright is (obviously and absolutely) a designer, we see a few key take-away ideas that we’ve been attaching to our idea of UnDesign:

Less is more. I was awestruck with how full the spaces felt even without furniture. The spaces that did have original furniture showed how simple and functional Wright thought of furniture. Take a look at these.

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This is the dining table designed by Wright.

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Here’s a low coffee table.

These are super simple pieces that were likely built right on site. They fit into the house unobtrusively. There was no need for anything more. Sometimes the simplest and most efficient design is the best design, an idea I’ve been playing with in the table and bench I’ve been working on for our kitchen. I can’t imagine a Nagouchi coffee table working better in this space.

Don’t be afraid to work with simple materials. Wright used locally-sourced materials, so this house contains western red cedar everywhere. The walls were simple cinder block. All the cabinets and furniture were made of plywood, as were the intricate cut-outs you see in the windows.  The floors are concrete on the first floor and simple oak on the second. If you notice the light fixtures in the pictures, they are simple recessed lights. There is no marble, or expensive tile, or exotic hardwood floors anywhere. None of the spaces need it. Wright was able to design beautifully with these simple materials.

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 Bigger is not always better. The house is small. The bedrooms are tiny. The kitchen is as small as you’d find in a mid-range apartment. Although the ceilings in the main area and kitchen are high, the ceilings in the bedrooms were very low. Wright felt that high ceilings were wasted space in a bedroom. Despite the small spaces,  none feel cramped at all. Even when we crammed 10 people in the small kitchen or the tiny bedroom it didn’t feel tight.

Wright creates spaciousness by adding access to outdoor spaces and natural light, so that the outside almost seems part of the inside space. He also does this by using space super-efficiently.

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Each bedroom had an outside balcony or patio attached to it.

Don’t over-decorate. If a space is nice adding more stuff won’t always make it nicer. The beautifully designed spaces in the Gordon home would not benefit from more of anything at all. Adding more furniture or art or fabrics or light fixtures or anything would only clutter up the space. The more things you add to a room the less impact the individual things will have.

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There were just a few simple items on most of the built-in shelves.

We had a great afternoon touring the Gordon House, and it definitely gave us some inspiration we’ll be drawing upon as we finalize our design for storage and shelving in our family room renovation project.

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We’re planning to put a desk, media shelving, and office supply storage in this nook and on the wall you see here. We’ll be using simple materials and design.

How about you?

Ever get design inspiration from a house tour? Have you applied any of Wright’s principles to the design of your own home? Would you like living in a Usonian house? We’d love to know what you think about Wright’s work and ideas. Hope you share your thoughts in the comments.

Simple Living in Real Life

Simple Living in Real Life

If you follow our Facebook page, you might already know that Brooke at Slow Your Home is one of my favorite bloggers. I’ve chosen several of her pieces as my FB lunchtime read of the day–because she’s smart, practical, honest, and down-to-earth on the subject of creating a better life through simple living.

I loved her most recent post on how easily social media can have us slipping into dissatisfaction with our lives and homes–because we lose sight of the truth that all those perfect images we see are not the true reality of anyone’s life.

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Looks pretty perfect, doesn’t it? If you read Brooke’s post, you’ll learn that appearances can be deceiving! (Clicking on the image will take you to it.)

So, I was more than pleased when Brooke asked if she could feature us on her blog. (OK, after I responded to her call for suggestions of people to feature for her Simple Living in Real Life series and said, “Us!” :-))

As long-time readers know, we’ve struggled at times with reconciling our love of home design with our desire to live a simple, sane, and meaningful life–and that’s the focus of our interview with Brooke. If you’d like to see the interview, please click here.

And if you are visiting for the first time from Brooke’s site, welcome!

We hope that you’ll stay and poke around a bit. If you’d like to see a sampling of some favorite posts, you can click here. If you’d like to know more about us and why we’re blogging, click here. And if you’d like to know our philosophy about making home, you find that by clicking here.

Wishing everyone a week with peace and moments of joy. We’ll be back soon with some updates on our summer projects.

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We’re pretty pleased with the DIY paint job we did on the front and back of our house last summer. We’ll be writing soon about why we hiring someone else to do the remaining sides.

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I have finally finished the fireplace painting project. Can’t wait to show you our economical make-over and share why this project was mostly a joy.

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We are super-stoked about the eating nook table and benches that Cane has built entirely from plywood, requiring nothing more expensive/difficult than a radial arm-saw. A tutorial and finished pics are on the way.

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Our deck was in pretty sad shape at the beginning of the summer, but we just don’t have the funds to replace it. We’ve come up with some making-do solutions for that space that might work for you, too.

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We recently toured the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in Oregon, where we saw all kinds of simple design principles we think are great ideas for any home today.

As always, we struggle a bit to find a balance between doing projects and blogging about them. You can see that we’ve been pretty busy with the doing and have fallen behind on the blogging about the doing. We’re not sure how fast we can get these posts together, but they’re all on the docket.