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Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Little Shingled House That Could

This is the story of a small house with a big heart. I thought it would be fun to share the story of a fixer-upper that consumed our days and nights--a few years before we had babies who consumed our nights and days. Hubby and I owned the house when we first were married. It was in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it was almost one hundred years old. Sure, in many parts of the world that’s not an old building. But in California, that’s old.
I remember the first time I laid eyes on it. It had a greenish split pea soup paint job only its mother could love. It was small and needed a lot of TLC, but we were full of ideas and energy. We opened up the roof and walls and poured a lot of love into it.
Our house--BEFORE

Our house--AFTER (lots of blood, sweat and tears!)

This was in 2000, before I had a digital camera, so I catalogued the transformation with film. I made an album of all the projects we did at the house—and by “we,” I don’t mean contractors we hired. Hubby and I did most of the work ourselves.
Perhaps the craziest part of the whole thing was going without a bathroom for five weeks. Yep, you read correctly: we did not have a functioning indoor bathroom for more than a month while Hubby redid our only bathroom. Because he was laying wooden floors in the bathroom, Hubby had to remove the sink, toilet and bathtub. We showered at friends’ houses and used a camping potty at home. It was not glamorous. But we survived the experience and I was never so glad to have my own functioning porcelain throne again!
This is our only bathroom, midway through its renovation. Note the alluring camping toilet in the background.

Bathroom (after). Bye, bye, camping toilet.

Here is a little background on the house. It was built in 1905 and was Transitional Victorian style. This means that it had certain Victorian features but without all the gingerbread. The exterior was shingled in wood, as was common at the time. (Although at some point, the house was covered in stucco for fire protection. And then painted swamp green, to scare away fire.) The house had two bedrooms and one bath, measuring in at 865 square feet. I loved it from the start, even with its murky paint job. Before we moved in I’d been living in a one bedroom apartment with cracked linoleum floors (and I actually really loved that apartment, too), so it did feel like an upgrade to move into the swampy green house!

I could write for days about that house—the actual renovations as well as my feelings about that time. But I’ll try to keep this to a manageable length. The photos speak volumes, but I always like adding anecdotes that you would not know from the photos alone.

What’s tricky/fun/maddening about fixer-uppers is that they often have endured various makeovers throughout the years (well-intentioned but not necessarily ones that still look good after the 1970s). Our little house had been given its 1970s redo and there still were odd elements that only that decade can claim. There were the light fixtures made of chains and jars. There were the green textured glass windows. The master bedroom closet had a structure that jutted into the room and had shingles on it. It looked like Snoopy’s doghouse (and not in a good way.)

Here's Snoopy's Doghouse (aka our closet). Groovy, eh?

One afternoon when we had been in the house only a few months I found Hubby sawing through the greenish stucco outside. I was confused—weren’t we supposed to be improving the house, not cutting holes in it? Hadn’t it been through enough already? Turns out Hubby was curious about whether the original shingles were still underneath the stucco. They were. Unfortunately, the shingles were not in great shape. Termites had dined on them. Once we knew that the house originally had been shingled, we thought it would be a fitting tribute to return it to its shingled glory. While I was at work one day Hubby hired a crew to strip off the stucco and I came back to a very different looking house—dark and shingled. Eventually we stripped off all the old shingles ourselves and put new cedar shingles onto the exterior of the first floor and shiplap onto the exterior of the half-exposed basement. We both loved yellow houses (so cheerful) and so we painted the house two shades of yellow, with white and royal blue accents. We replaced the windows (Hubby installed them), redid the kitchen, redid the floors (Hubby did it himself), redid the grass, changed the front door, redid the bathroom with a claw foot tub, and Hubby reframed Snoopy’s closet. Hubby rebuilt the front stair case and I planted flowers near the front. We sweated and lifted and moved dirt for months. We placed every single shingle on our own and painted the exterior ourselves. Hubby put insulation into the attic and framed and installed a skylight in the bathroom. Our days were full, and each night we slept deeply. Every morning I awoke to the sound of my early bird husband drilling or hammering something outside. He was (and is) a hardworking dude.

One aspect of our renovation was not part of the original plan. In its nearly one hundred years, our house had sunk a little bit. A marble placed onto the floor would roll toward the back of the house. I might have lived with the sloping floors and described them as a rustic, charming feature of an old house. But Hubby had other ideas. He bought car jacks and literally lifted the house. I would no more think to do that than try to build my own space shuttle and fly it to the moon. But Hubby researched it and thought it would work. He had to replace the mudsill and the studs but he taught himself how to do it all. Lifting a house was uncharted territory for us, but Hubby loves a challenge. Neither of us love heights, though, and at times the renovation tested our limits. I wish I had a photo of me, up twenty feet, shingling the peak of the house.

There were times when we worked too long and got a little crabby with each other. We’re human. But we were so proud of what we accomplished with our first house together. It was our baby in a way—a split-pea-turned-crumbling-shingles-turned-cheery-yellow-shingled newborn that we nursed to health. I’ll always be proud of it.

I love where we are now, so I don’t lament selling that house and moving back to San Diego. I think you can build happiness almost anyplace you live. It’s not about the size of the place or the fixtures. It’s about creating moments of fun every day and making your home your own. Building happy memories. Our current place is still a work in progress, and that’s okay. Your needs change, your taste may change and your ideas change over time. When we first moved in here, we noticed that there was flocked wallpaper in the bathroom, among other unusual elements. Fixer-uppers are a good deal because of their lower price tags, but they also afford you the chance to make your home how you want it to be. (Unless you wanted 1960s flocked wallpaper anyway, in which case you change nothing and celebrate its period charm!)

You may wonder why I am writing about our old house today. Most of my blog posts are about things I’ve made or done recently. We sold that house more than fourteen years ago and moved back to Southern California, where our roots are. But for some reason an image of our old house popped into my mind today and I decided that it would make a good blog post.

As a side note, let me say that in 2000 there were not yet a zillion home improvement shows on tv. Not that we had cable tv back then, anyway. But my point is that what we were doing was not something inspired by what we’d seen on tv. It was inspired by the need to do things in a less costly way. And both of us are big do-it-yourselfers. We like challenge. We like putting our stamp on a house. It was a good team project for the two of us, time we could spend working and laughing together on the scaffold—and nothing says newlywed romance like scaffolding and a camping potty. You know what they say--the couple that lifts heavy concrete and gets covered in dirt from scalp to toe together stays together. 

We didn’t plan the renovation to be a newlywed litmus test, but in hindsight it seems like an interesting study in social behavior. It reminds me of the Survivor tv series—putting people together under challenging circumstances and seeing how they interact. Which ones become stronger? Which ones crack? Thank heavens we didn’t have a tv crew filming us as we worked. No newlywed couple needs that scrutiny and pressure. (And if memory serves, there were a few newlywed couples in Hollywood whose brand-new marriages weren’t improved by the presence of a camera crew.)

A house with only 865 square feet would be hard to live in today, as a family of five with three growing kids. (I know some families live in quarters even more cramped than that, but I am grateful that we have more space now that we have more people in our house.) Living without a bathroom would be extra tricky with a houseful of kids.

We did the renovation over the course of two years, and during more than half the time we both worked full-time at our jobs. Some phases of the renovation involved small changes, but there were months when we worked seven days a week on the house, shingling, painting and renovating. I thought I was busy then—which makes me laugh now. Once I had kids, the concept of feeling busy reached a completely different level. But at least we had a functioning toilet…

Our old house holds happy memories for me. When you do something yourself you appreciate it in a different way. When the house starts out needing a lot of TLC, you have a real hand in bringing it back to life and it sets up shop in your heart.  We learned so much from that experience and it was a memorable process. It grew from a swampy green wallflower into a beautiful yellow show-stopper. Like almost anything in life, the house changed for the better when we poured effort and time into it.

You know the children’s book about the little engine without a lot of power or experience? The engine chanted to itself as it chugged along: I think I can. I think I can. Our first house was that engine. Not everyone saw its potential--but we did. It was the little shingled house that could—and did.

Thursday, July 14, 2016


Summer (and all that goes with it) is here.

This was made clear to me the other day. At home I emptied a toy box and out poured sand. I do live in San Diego, where some people are on the beach year round, but still—sand and summer go hand in hand and the cascade of sand certainly brought it home that it’s summer. As in literally brought home the summer (sand).

Today at the park a few friends and I chatted while the kiddos frolicked nearby. The adults hid in the shade while the kids turned the play structure into a castle. One friend mentioned an upcoming trip to Spokane, Washington and we started talking about differences between the Pacific Northwest and Southern California. This unleashed several happy memories for me and I decided that a blog post about summer was in order.

First I’ll set the scene before we stroll down memory lane. I grew up in Southern California, and some might argue that there’s barely a difference between winter and summer here. There’s a touch of truth to that, yes. But there are differences and some of my memories are clearly summer memories. Here are a few of my favorites:

Camping. The first time I camped was the summer when I was six or seven years old. I was young enough to feel that bringing a doll (and her accessories) was essential for a good camping trip. My grandparents organized the trip, with Grandad planning for every possible need with the precision that an engineer brings to everything s/he does. The tents and cots were old—olive green canvas ones from Grandad’s military days. These days camping cots are better designed than the old ones, but in the camping trips of my youth, I slept soundly on the cots (as kids tend to do). It was exciting to sleep somewhere different. We’d wake to good smells coming from the camping stove. Another camping memory was from a different trip, years later. After arriving we decided that there was a spot a little better nearby. We did what all pioneering campers do (when they’ve already set up the tent)—we picked up the domed nylon tent and walked it the few hundred feet to the new site. Easy-peasy.

Running through the sprinklers. In the 80s, when I was a kid, we didn’t worry about drought in California. Sprinklers and hoses weren’t just for decoration—they were for using. They were for fun. Jumping through the arcs of water on the front lawn was such joy. Sometimes I’d hold the garden hose near the nozzle and make swirls through the air, the drops of water making wiggly shapes as they fell.

Barbecues and dinners outside. At times Dad cooked on the barbecue in our back yard, and other times we brought dinner Mom made in the kitchen out to the picnic table out back. At my grandparents’ house nearby, outdoor eating was a summer staple, and always meant using the grill. My grandfather used a charcoal grill, which took hours to get hot. But like everything else he did, he liked taking the time to do things just right. Grandad cooked hamburgers on his grill, wearing a chef’s hat (usually in red and white gingham) and we often had watermelon at the end. I can still hear the “whap” of the screen door closing as we made trips from the kitchen out to the patio, bringing plates and food outside. My grandma always heaped praise on my sister and me for being such helpers. To a kid, these words were like gold. Today my grandparents’ picnic table is in my back yard, and we sit at it when we grill at my house. I think the gingham chef’s hat is long gone, but I believe my grandparents are at the table with us in spirit…

Sundresses. There are a number of photos of my sister and me, taken on summer trips when we were kids. In many, we wear sundresses--sometimes matching ones. Sundresses were summer clothes. Ditto for shorts. There’s a funny photo of me in shorts when I’m about seven. We were visiting relatives (in Maine?) and I’m hiding behind my dad because there are geese nearby. My fearless, younger sister is playing with the geese but at age seven, I was scared of everything. In shorts my legs were clearly vulnerable and what am I? A goose snack? I don’t think so.

Swimming. On the street where I grew up, an elderly neighbor, Ann, had an above-ground pool. She allowed my sister and me to come swim whenever we liked. We’d pester Mom to call Ann to see if it was a convenient time to come over. Ann was always home and never turned down our request. I remember the smell of chlorine as we walked through Ann’s detached garage, which led to the back yard and pool. The pool was magic. We liked swimming and coming up with games to play in the pool. Sometimes we’d bring inner tubes that Mom bought us. We must have gone swimming in her pool for several years at least (when I was aged seven until eleven, I’d say), and at some point the pool became a mixed bag for me. When I was nine or so I decided that a snake lived at the deep end of the pool, underwater. I know you’re laughing--but when you’re little, snakes and other scary creatures are frightening. I never asked my mom to look at the deep end (which was hidden with a plastic cover)—I kept the fear to myself. But I sometimes cast a nervous glance toward the deep end—just in case. Better not to be caught off-guard. At some point I must have decided that the snake no longer lived there, and the pool became a purely fun place again. I still see Ann’s backyard in my head: the blue sky overhead, our shrieks of joy, the splashing, the wonder of having a kindly neighbor whose pool was five or six houses away and open and waiting for us whenever we liked. Thanks, Ann.

Berry picking. Berry picking is just an everyday thing for people who live in certain climates. For instance, our relatives in Canada see blackberries growing wild all spring and summer, year after year. But there are few things less familiar and more exciting to two kids from Los Angeles than seeing blackberries growing by the side of the road. STOP THE CAR!!!! Giddy with excitement, we’d beg our parents to pull over and let us pick berries. On several summer trips to see relatives, the berry picking stands out as a happy memory. You’d have to watch for thorns, but that didn’t deter us. Sometimes a large spider web stood in the way of the perfect clump of ripe berries and we’d have to weigh the threat of a spider encounter against the glory of reaching the clump of berries. (Add fear of spiders to my childhood fears of snakes, geese, dogs, big kids, going fast downhill on roller skates, and fear of my own shadow.) Berry picking wasn’t something I could do in LA, and it remains a hugely nostalgic memory from my summer trips. Recently I decided that I might like to have my own blackberries to pick so Hubby gave me two blackberry plants for Mothers Day. I am delighted to report that they are growing. We probably will not end up with huge walls of blackberry plants, like they have in Canada, but this summer I’m getting a lot of joy watching my own blackberry plants grow.

If you grew up somewhere with real winters, you still might insist that in Southern California it’s always summer. But summer does have a different feel than the rest of the year. A later sunset. Walks in the neighborhood after dinner. Swimsuits and campfires and lots of free time. The break from the school routine was important. Having a chance to just be made summer good.

What are your favorite summer memories?

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Wacky Wednesday #61—Ocean

Today I am dressed as the ocean. The idea started with an assortment of shells—mostly ones I’d picked up on San Diego beaches over the years, plus a few from a necklace I took apart. At first I pictured a long necklace and head ornament of shells, but my imagination kept going, insisting that I make seaweed. Soon I was picturing a dress that looked like water, and so here I am today, evoking the ocean.

One thing I’m particularly pleased with is this dress. I found it at a thrift store. It fit well and the dark and light tones of the tie dye reminded me of the ocean. The forest green was darker than I liked so I bleached some of the green out and dyed it turquoise. Here is the dress before and after its dye bath:

I love that this dress isn’t one color. The ocean has many shades within it—and some parts are murky and some are crystal clear. I think this dress captures that feel. And I will wear this dress even after its costume debut, which is always a perk.

The seaweed is made from corn fabric. (An obvious choice, right?) The corn fabric was left over from my Thanksgiving dress last November, and it had some of the golden and brown tones I needed for seaweed. Don’t be afraid of turn something into what you need it to be. If there are glimpses of corn in my seaweed, I think this is visually more interesting than if I were using a uniform brown fabric. I painted the fabric, which made it look more like seaweed and gave it the rigidity it needed.

In case you’re curious, here’s what I spent to bring this costume to life:

Dress, thrifted                                   $ 3.99

Turquoise dye, on sale                    $ 1.95

Fabric from stash                             $      0

Hot glue sticks                                   $   .80


Total                                                    $ 6.74   

When I’m at the beach I usually study the shore for shells. I’m always amazed at the treasures half-hidden in the sand, and how detailed the shells are. The necklace I made is fairly heavy but I don’t do things half way--and I wanted the shells to stand out against the ocean dress. I will return some of these shells to the ocean after I wear this costume, as a thank you to the ocean for lending me its jewels…

Here’s a fun fact. Did you know that there are more than 15,000 species of bivalves living in saltwater and freshwater? Bivalves have two identical shells held together by a flexible hinge. Here are two tiny ones I found last week:

Here are some other shells I’ve found over the years. It fascinates me to see how detailed they are:

Today’s outfit isn’t funny the way some of my costumes are. But I’m cool with that. Sometimes my creations are heavy on the funny elements and other times they are tributes to something inspiring. Today I pay homage to the majestic oceans of the world—to their crashing waves, their salty air, their shells, their calming blue tones and their cooling breezes. Thanks, oceans—we love you!