Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Emergent Curriculum

I've probably said before somewhere on this blog that I hate the word "curriculum," which reminds me of the word "speculum," and evokes a similar sense of discomfort and coercion.

But considered as a constellation of related objects of study, the concept has some value. Certainly constellation as a word has more sparkle.

This year my kids (12 and 14) have drafted me to help them write a screenplay. We downloaded Celtx, screenwriting freeware that lays out the text in a most professional way, and once a week we have a story meeting. Pictured here and portrayed by my daughter is a wise-talking homeless archer, one of the story's central characters, all of whom are 12-year-olds with remarkable abilities.

My job is to take dictation, help guide the script scene by scene—although the story is entirely, and I mean entirely, theirs, and make suggestions when I think of one.

I suggested, for example, that they might want to read The Writer's Journey, Christopher Vogler's popularization of narrative structure as found in the work of Joseph Campbell (and Vladimir Propp, in Morphology of the Folk Tale). Reading the introduction to that today led us to watching the Bill Moyers interviews with Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, in which he talks about the elements of the hero's journey.

The Hero's Journey is a fruitful framework for considering the X-Men movies we've been watching, and superhero comics, which entered the house in force about a year ago thanks to a weekly class my son takes at at the home of a comic book artist (also a landscape artist in the Hudson River School mode), and helped provide context for our trip to NY Comic Con this weekend, where we saw hundreds if not thousands of young people dress up as their favorite heroes of comics, novels, movies, and games. My kids had already, for years, been reading and re-reading Scott McCloud's books (Understanding Comics, Making Comics, and Reinventing Comics), which are brilliant introductions to literary and film theory in addition to being great practical guides to the craft of visual storytelling.

I think of all this as the emergent curriculum. The emergent curriculum is what happens when you follow your nose, and stands in opposition to its evil twin, the plan for instruction. The difference is directional, and calls to mind a distinction I drew earlier this evening when someone online objected to the term "occupy" being used by the Occupy Wall Street movement, complaining it was militaristic. I think of it more as reclamation than seizure, I said, of public space that has been unjustly privatized. Think of the two senses of "occupy" as the difference between colonization and squatting.

I sometimes think the main trouble with the schooling system has to do with arrows. The standards-based system of testing and pre-approved specula—oops! I mean curricula—is like an arrow directed at the learner. But learning takes place so much more effectively if the arrow is pointed out. What I'm saying is that a good teacher, an effective teacher, is receptive, a good listener. The learner is the archer.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Welcome to the Block

The other day I passed some time thinking about this blog—how it has sat untended, and how my silence here might relate to my departure from the place that inspired it. Watching the dust settle, mouth shut, fingers still.

There are bloggers who post several times a day, compulsive diarists, collectors of flotsam and jetsam pertaining to a pet topic or obsession. I've often wished for a single obsession to write about, and suspect that I write, when I write, in search of one.

With these thoughts in the back of my mind I went with my husband to a birthday/housewarming party for a friend. I found myself in the kitchen with this friend's sister at one point, and reintroduced myself to her—I had met her years ago at another birthday party, also for her sister. All of a sudden she said, "Oh my God, aren't you the one who was renovating your house?" Yes, I had worked on a house, but we had sold it and moved to a neighboring town.

"I think I was on your block today!" she said. I said again that I'd moved, that if she was on my block, it wasn't really my block anymore. Her saying "your block" brought on a flood of memories of the old neighborhood and of the old house, which I drive by now and then, and think about now and then, but not all the time. I suppose I'm oriented to the present.

"No, not your block, your blog," she said.

Oh. Oh. It seems she had spent an hour on this blog, despite not being much a fan of blogs, reading the posts tagged the house. The homonymy of the two words, block and blog, the one a physical and the other a virtual place, nevertheless both "sites" one "visits", had an eerie effect on me. I thought of The Poetics of Space, a book I wrote about early on in the life of this meandering essay about a house, a family, and a lifestyle, and the domestic spaces we make and that make us.

Bachelard's book is largely about memory, and at the time I was renovating the house we have now left, I often experienced a superimposition of my future departure of and nostalgia for the house upon my actual experience of living in and working on the house. It was the same doubling of attachment and loss that Roland Barthes wrote of as defining the moment of falling in love, and as a result of those twin processes, I was in mourning for the house long before we put it on the market.

What are the odds of a physical neighbor (and stranger) becoming a virtual neighbor (and friend) in the way that happened between me and this woman? What are the odds of someone who lives geographically close to me searching the vast internet and pulling up jottings by me that speak so strongly to her? That she remembered my photograph and first name from the blog and put them together with my three-dimensional self strikes me as just as unlikely. And yet we can all cite many examples of such internet serendipity by now.

I'm grateful for this encounter with a wanderer up and down the blocks of my blog. The incident gives me new appreciation for the poetics of space, and even better, made me want to write here again.

Friday, August 20, 2010


An old boyfriend just blogged that his marriage may be breaking up. His wife then blogged her view of things. Both were pointed, poignant accounts of what happens to a lot of marriages in midlife that reach the point of asking what is the point. In her account, I played a very minor role. During the time he and she first fell in love, he was "attached to another." That's me: another.

The word brings up an ancient hurt. I was born to parents who gave birth to a girl. Then another, then another, then another: me. Being the other other other another has been a lifelong rut, and at midlife I still find myself negotiating my way out of it, only to slide down the wall into a puddle at the bottom now and then. Do all of us with a lot of siblings feel this way? If so, some of us lie about how it makes us feel.

I'm in rehearsal for a play right now in which I play the older of two sisters. Despite getting to be the bossy firstborn—great fun, I've done it before—I have to deal with the fact that my character is not Daddy's favorite. At one point, he tells his younger daughter that he is satisfied with his older daughter, but "I'm proud of you."

It's cathartic and instructive, of course, to mine, examine, and release what that provokes. At the same time, it's enlightening to gain access to territory more familiar to my older sisters than to me—it's sort of like being advanced to the head of the class and wearing the dunce cap at the same time. But playing variations on the theme is what invites new themes in.

Midlife is a weird, cliché place. You wonder if you made the best decisions, how things would have gone if you'd made different choices, what you should do about your keener appreciation of the shortness of life. Gangs of others' ideas about success invade when your guard is down, making off with what they can of your archived satisfactions with who you are and what you've built. The best panoply during such a break-in is to have shared some of your life with one for whom you are also the one, not another. The second best is your creativity, which may not protect you from despair, but if it won't, nothing will.

I blogged so much about that house, that house we have now left, that house that has simply fallen from my consciousness, that I should offer an update. After scouring the falling market and seeing that it would be folly to buy again—a speculation that has turned out to be right, as values continue to dive—we found a peaceful cottage at the edge of a village. We are two blocks from bustle but look out on trees and see the stars at night. And there is no mortgage. Things feel freer, more edgy, but not in a way that wakes me at 3 a.m., thinking of foreclosure. Maybe all the shifting ground under my feet will get them moving in new, productive directions. I've tried a bunch already in my life, but I intend to walk another, and another, and another.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Close But No Closure

My husband pointed out that I haven't posted in here since October about our progress toward selling our home and moving. It's been a busy stretch. A buyer made an offer after one visit—she loved the house. We had an inspection and smooth renegotiation, entered contract phase. My husband and I were reviewing the language for a rider the buyer's attorney wanted to add when we received a call saying she'd faxed her attorney to pull out. There wasn't going to be a contract.

Apparently she'd been ambivalent all along, even though she'd made an offer before Thanksgiving and proposed a closing date of December 23rd. Naturally, we had gone into high gear looking for a house to buy, then to rent after feeling rushed about buying. Found a rental several blocks from our house we had to un-rent once the deal fell through.

There were boxes everywhere; we had begun packing. Most inconvenient. From what I hear, the rate of houses falling through at contract has gone up. One house we looked at was going into contract for the third time.

So what did we do? We unpacked a few boxes. Carried a whole lot more up to the attic. Got the (thankfully few) belongings out of the rental house and returned the keys. And decided to spend a lot of time with friends over the holidays. After all, the whole point of buying a beautiful home to begin with was to share it with friends, not spending all our time fixing, painting, and cleaning for prospective buyers, most of whom seem not to be looking for a historic home, not to be looking for a large home, not to be looking for what is, in essence, a lifelong art project. It was great to be here for one last solstice season. Friends came up from the city for the weekend, we hosted a New Year's Day breakfast, we reconnected with the social side of having a hospitable house. We decided to get a tree this year, a real beauty, and the aroma is still filling the room it's in.

But holidays are over, back to showing. We got a boost yesterday from Barbara Corcoran on NBC's Today Show. She listed Kingston, NY as one of the Top 10 Best Cities to buy a home in, citing good prices, good schools, and job growth.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Fishing When the Tide is Out

That's what my husband says we're doing in trying to sell our house. Not only is the tide out, but there are too many of us out here knee-deep in muck, tangling our lines.

We took a walk this morning and pondered this metaphor.

The archetypal home exchange story is the one the Grimms told of the fisherman and his wife, who went from barrel to palace and back again because of her greed and his inability (and that of the prince disguised as a fish) to say no. The woman whose effrontery is so boundless, that the fish prince demotes her below her humble beginnings as a comeuppance, is half role model and half caution. I wouldn't say we're palace residents in search of a barrel, but there's an element of the fisherwoman in every real estate yarn. (See "The Mansion: A Subprime Parable," by Michael Lewis, for a good one.)

We weren't talking about that tale on our walk, but another, a fable called "The Cat and His Visions" by Arnold Lobel, in which a cat imagines a fleshy, juicy fish in a lake of lemon-butter sauce while he sits with his fishing pole. His wait drags on. Dispirited, he pictures a smaller fish. Still he catches nothing, and so his imagination contracts again and he sees a little smelt with a dollop of butter and a spray of lemon. He downgrades his desires to something utterly inadequate—let's say a minnow (we can't seem to lay our hands on the book or I'd tell the story right)—and then to an empty china plate. Suddenly, from the pit of despair, he hooks a whopper, more sumptuous than his dreams. He eats the fish with a whole ocean of lemon-butter sauce.

"Any bites yet?" people keep asking us.

It's an odd metaphor, since we don't want to eat anyone, we just want someone to enjoy the pleasure of dining in this house while we move on and enjoy dining somewhere else more suited to our present needs.

Some people recently decided not to make us an offer because, according to their realtor, they feared 'biting off more than they could chew.' They needed the smelt.

Anyway, on our walk, my husband, my son, and I decided that "The Cat and His Visions" should be our guiding vision. This will turn out better than our worst and best imaginings. Some fisher out there will be likewise delighted at the flounder that lands on their plate when they find us.


This illustration by Kay Nielsen from Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1925.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Julie and Julia

I've read a few reviews and articles about Julie and Julia, not many, but I'm struck by how impressed viewers are that a movie is taking as its subject women's creative drive and search for meaningful work.

It seems to me something subtle is going on in the dialog between the two halves of the movie, something that helps explain for me why I love the Meryl—Stanley portions so much more. Yes, these two stories 'converse' across decades about their heroines' need to find proper modes of self-expression. But the two women are driven differently—Julia longs to identify and celebrate her gifts, Julie craves recognition for talents lying fallow.

Here's where Meryl Streep's unearthly performance sets the heart of the movie on fire. Every moment she appears on screen is capable of inducing tears and laughter, regardless of what she is doing. Her passion is so present it feels like she's made herself a conduit for a natural force. Everyone should be so lucky as to have the epiphany the Julia Childs character undergoes—that what she loves—both the cooking of the food and the eating of it—can be her full-time pursuit. It's this amazing good fortune, and the fact that she shares it with such a deserving partner, that makes her story speak so strongly to women, but it's Streep's ability to tap into all that it means for women that any of us can achieve such a fusion that lifts the film to the heights it hits.

Julie doesn't fare quite so happily. She wants to succeed in a way not entirely unlike her snobbish friends (one of whom, it is pointed out, has started a blog, giving her the idea). Cooking her way through Child causes her stress (contrast her frustration and fear in the kitchen to Julia's lusty lobster bashing and onion chopping), brings about tension between her and her husband. While she may have stuck it out through the cookbook, it's clear that having a growing readership is a great inducement—the pleasure comes as much from the feedback as from the cooking and writing. Think of all those years before Julia's book even comes out, when cooking is its own reward, and compare to how many posts it took Julie to acquire a fan base and the encouragement to continue.

The Julia half of the movie tutors the Julie half, and the lesson is 'follow your bliss.' Julia and Paul steal time for one another (their lunchtime rendezvous), pay attention to one another (the quotation from Paul's letter about Julia's erotic grace in the kitchen), communicate without words (she gestures toward the buttered fish and shakes her head, he answers "I know, I know"). Their love has a couple of seasons on Julie and Eric's, and as it should, it shows. The younger couple are still finding their way with one another; Julie has yet to trust in Eric's unequivocal support.

The movie portrays successful marriages, but without forgetting that a young marriage between young people falters, alters, and grows. And its portrait of self-realizing women is nuanced enough to ask what motivates, what creates happiness, what exactly is, after all, success?

Vacation, Vacation, Vacation

vacation Look up vacation at
c.1386, "freedom or release" (from some activity or occupation), from O.Fr. vacation, from L. vacationem (nom. vacatio) "leisure, a being free from duty," from vacare "be empty, free, or at leisure" (see vain). Meaning "formal suspension of activity" (in ref. to schools, courts, etc.) is recorded from c.1456. As the U.S. equivalent of what in Britain is called a "holiday," it is attested from 1878.

That's from, which I love.

I don't think I've ever experienced vacation in its etymological sense quite as acutely as I did last week, after a year-and-a-half of worrying since my husband's last layoff. We have done admirably well at making ends meet by cobbling together freelance gigs and cutting back on expenses, but the intense work on the house and the uncertainty about what next have been constant companions.

My husband's mother, in an act of lavish generosity, gathered as much of her family as she could in a spacious rental house on Nantucket last week, and our biggest concern was what would we make for dinner on the night we had volunteered for mess duty. We only thought about the house once, when a friend called to see if her about-to-move brother could have a look at it, and only meant a call to the realtor.

Wavy beach or sand bar? Tandem bike or single? Burrito or taco? Contemporary novel or classic short stories? What joyful, strain-free choices.

I've vacationed before, but perhaps never from this much responsibility. Maybe our appreciation of release increases with the number and weight of the bonds vacation is releasing us from.

I'm grateful, and trying to figure out how to hang on to the feeling.

Loan Modification Diary #3

Let me start off this entry by saying that if you have anything to do with selling mortgages, go away. I will reject any comment offered to this blog by salespeople.

Back in May we applied for the federal stimulus program, Making Homes Affordable. Even thought we knew we would be putting our house on the market anyway, we applied, figuring it's best to pursue any and all options.

Flash forward to August, three months later, and it turns out we are approved for a "three-month trial loan modification" (don't ask why it's a trial, I don't get it myself). Once again, they ask if our home is on the market. We call the bank. I'm too discreet to tell you which one, but it's a major major loan institution with the initials WF, whose name was popularized by a well-known song in a famous Broadway musical.

After some hemming and hawing and transfer to a higher authority, it seems we could get away with a three-month trial, do the paperwork, then put our house back on the market. Basically our financial position would be exactly the same, since our tenant, who just moved because our house is on the market, was paying us exactly the amount in rent that the loan mod would have reduced our mortgage by. Ain't that poetic?

We decided we don't have time to futz around with a trial period, we intend to sell our house, so we are staying on the market and giving up the loan modification.

It makes no sense to me, this rule that you can't put your house on the market. Everyone knows the market is very very slow. It's in everyone's interest that mortgage payments get made, that people not wind up in short sale or foreclosure, so why the rule that they can't go on the market?

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Flowers in the House

I don't grow a whole lot of flowers, or think about them much, or often buy them (although when I do, I love Calyx and Corolla's arrangements). Having anything to do with flowers feels so bourgeois that the word itself often embarrasses me. So I'll get around this by supporting local, organic, family farming: the flowers I'm plunking in vases around the house come from Taliaferro Farm in New Paltz.

Taliaferro is the only CSA I've ever belonged to that has a bucket full of scissors next to rows of flowers, and issues an open invitation to members to cut their own. What could be more convenient for someone trying to fill their house with sensory homeyness (although I have to admit, ours generally has homeyness to spare) without baking and having to do all those dishes?

I'm in love with this hearty trumpet-shaped flower that grows in white, pink, and purple. It doesn't rot quickly, continues to bloom in the vase, and arranges itself into exquisite gestures.

If you don't change the water daily, you risk a house that smells like marsh muck.

Farm flower sitting on my great-grandparents' farmhouse phone from Illinois:

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Morning Glories

Somewhere I read that morning glories will take over your yard if you let them, and someone had responded something like, So? Could there be a more happy invader?

It took me three years, but thanks to the torrential rains this summer, it finally happened: morning glories falling up a fence, spiraling along a railing. New residents need time to settle. Fences need flora. Mornings need glory.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Open House on a Blustery Day

There's an unanticipated expense associated with selling your house, especially if you have kids. Let's say you have an open house scheduled for 1 pm, as we did yesterday. You get up, make breakfast, clean up breakfast, run around vacuuming-dusting-mopping, change the water in all the flower vases, get more flowers, check around outside, swish the toilets. Now you're all sweaty so you take a shower and clean the stall while you're in there. Now it's 12:30 and you have just enough time to get out of the house. You forgot to deal with packing a picnic while making breakfast, so you're going to have to find something out there...

Note to self: pack picnic before making breakfast.

Yesterday it rained during our open house. That didn't seem to cut down too much on visitors, but it gave us a hankering for the Village Tea Room in New Paltz. Local food, a menu coded for gluten-free and vegan options, local's a great place. Eating good hearty food on a rainy day makes me think of travel in England. My husband had a Ploughman's Lunch, with a rhubarb chutney, a little tub of blueberries, hunks of cheese, and a lamb pie. He had a pot of Jasmine tea; I had a pot of Brazilian peaberry coffee. Our kids ate grilled cheese and pesto pasta, and I had a salad and a stew. Hearty.

Next stop was Inquiring Minds books, where I sat with my daughter looking at books about designing rooms and tiny outbuildings for kids. She got tremendously excited about decorating her next bedroom, which she plans to cover with a mural and call her Undersea Realm. Then she showed me the secret reading space, complete with magical lights, at the back of the children's section in Inquiring Minds, what a delightful cozy nook.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Like a Rolling Stedge

For many reasons, this new set of steps up the block from me makes me happy. It's made of dry-laid stone. First off, that makes me happy because it's beautiful. It calls to mind the old farm walls common in the Hudson Valley, the work of contemporary sculptors such as Andy Goldsworthy, and the contribution to my own home of its most famous former owner, quarry magnate Hewitt Boyce, who generously paved a path of bluestone slabs to our front porch steps.

Dry-laid stone is more than pleasing to the eye, though. It's practical, long-lived, and easy on the environment. This is from the web site of an organization called the Dry Stone Conservancy:

Dry stone has been a successful building technique throughout the ages because of its unique range of benefits. It provides good employment for craftsmen [sic] without working capital for heavy equipment. Masons need a minimum of tools to erect structures that are remarkably durable; yet, if damaged, are easily repaired. They resist fire, water, and insects. If correctly designed, they are earthquake resistant. The work does not deplete natural resources, and aesthetically compliments and enhances the landscape.

Dry stone structures have many advantages over mortared walls. Walls without mortar rely on the skill of the craftsmen
[sic] and the forces of gravity and frictional resistance. They have a slight flexibility that allows them to conform to foundation settlement without damage. Because the sides slope slightly inward, ground movement locks the structure more tightly together.Importantly, a stiff concrete footing is not needed, saving labor and material expense.

Mortared walls have a shorter life span than drystone walls because frozen rain and snow get trapped in mortared seams and push the joints apart, whereas a correctly-built drystone wall drains naturally without damage. Accidents to mortared walls tend to break out large sections, making damage-repairs costly. Mortared walls also cost more to repair because mortared rock is not easily recyclable, requiring additional new material.

We have a brick-and-mortar planter in our backyard that we never quite got around to replacing with dry-laid stone. The ice and rain heave and erode the thing, so it spews bricks, most of them hanging on to mortar in a useless, asymmetrical way, so I take the point about not being able to recycle these bricks so easily. Plus, they don't look as nice as stone, and don't blend as well with ferns and ivy. So the practicality is my second reason for loving to walk by that new set of steps on my block.

The third reason comes from A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, et al. The pattern is "Stair Seats," and refers to the human need to congregate and observe passersby from steps. One thing I love about Kingston is its roomy wraparound porches, but even homes without them such as this one can have inviting stairs to sit on, and, during the cool evenings we often experience here in the Gateway to the Catskills, they will retain the heat of the sun and become thermally advantageous sit-upons.

The fourth reason involves an appeal to other senses made by the craftsperson's sign that reads "Stone Stedge." I can't pass that sign without saying "stedge" out loud, then continuing to recite rhyming words, many of them referencing things found in the above picture: edge, ledge, hedge, sledge, dredge, fledge, wedge, sedge, you get the idea—all solid, fun-to-say words with rich sensory associations.

So what is a stedge? I could call and ask the talented masons at Stone Stedge, but I think I prefer to speculate.

Could be somebody's last name.

Or it could be a house joke, based on this meaning found at

Used as a substitution for a word in a commonly known phrase, so therefore it does not obscure the nuance of the original phrase. Its sole purpose is to inspire and encourage silliness.
To stedge or not to stedge, that is the question.
If it weren’t for bad stedge I’d have no stedge at all.
If you've seen one stedge, you've seen 'em all.
Inquiring minds need to stedge.

How does it feel
How does it feel
To have a hard, soft edge
To move with ice's wedge
To be a flexible ledge
Like a rolling stedge?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Our MLS Listing

The listing for our house.

August 2, 2009, 1 pm - 3 pm

While I'm doing some selling, I want to re-post some links about Kingston in a little piece I wrote up for Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn about our house:

Business Week
named Kingston One of the top ten Best Places for Artists in America, 2007. The New York Times recently touted Kingston's real estate deals for weekenders: "The New Country Squires", The New York Times, July 2,2009. Those with elementary-age children might be interested to know that the public school two blocks from this house recently adopted a Montessori approach to teaching that just got a green light for more funding and rave reviews from parents. The annual Artists' Soapbox Derby, coming up in August, is a must. The town is going nuts with gardening and other green initiatives. And one of the best things about Kingston is the ease with which you can bop to neighboring towns (Woodstock, Rhinebeck, Bard College, Red Hook, High Falls, Stone Ridge, Rosendale, New Paltz), ski resorts, and boat-launch spots.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Last Paint Project

In the doorway to the kitchen, they have stood barefoot, Sharpie in one hand, measuring tape in the other, one eye on the calendar, the other on the elusive three-, then four-foot mark. (Too briefly, they needed help.) Sometimes unrecorded months passed, then for a few weeks they would measure and chart each other every day, argumentatively, giddily, documenting a spurt of growth or a period of acute impatience.

Remain fixed as a camera and witness the gradual: morning glories blink, the sun rolls behind the Catskills, water replenishes the fussy downstairs toilet tank. Red light!—if you could freeze, if you didn't have to feed and clothe, romp and read, you would observe the invisible increment, catch the tooth in the act of breaking through the gum. Instead of clipping back their nails, you could hold their hands in the evening under a pool of lamp light and behold the waxing of ten moons, quick as an eclipse, sudden, the way tiny shadows lengthen when they dart out to the yard of late afternoon.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Deep Energy Retrofit

I've been googling "deep energy retrofit" and reading about homes renovated from the outside by having their siding ripped off, their walls built out several inches with insulation, then new siding put on.

It's the kind of thing that should be done to big old Victorians like ours, although it'll cost you. I particularly like this piece about how historic preservation and energy retrofitting needn't be at odds. We owners of our world's housing stock need some whopping rebates, breaks, and grants to bring existing buildings into line with green values, and training programs for builders in deep energy retrofitting are probably necessary.

Of course, new homes can be built to be superinsulated, like the ones in Darmstadt, Germany that are so tight they run on the body heat of their inhabitants. I have the dream of building a home from scratch just like anybody, but I still think the 'reduce, reuse, recycle' rule makes as much if not more sense when considering home ownership as it does when deciding whether to buy rice in a plastic bottle or bring a bag from home and get it from the bulk bin.

I haven't stopped thinking about the "faux Hispano-Moorish Society for Creative Anachronism" house. I have a tremendous urge to buy it, rip off the plastic shakes, lay on the foam bigtime, re-do the roof with good rain catchment, stick some solar panels up there or in the yard, and knock bigger windows out of the south side. Re-side in cedar and you've got a great-looking house steps away from a beautiful stretch of creek for kayaking. (I didn't mention over a thousand square feet of shag carpeting and acoustic tile ceiling that have to go, too, but for the right person it's a workout plan: ripping out carpet is probably what, 50 calories a square foot?)

After the last few months, I have to admit I'm tired of endless making nicey-nice. I wouldn't mind finding a place I could move into and just live for a while.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Knowing our MLS listing would go up today, I left the paint brush alone and set my mind on cleaning, planning to vacuum, dust, and mop, room by room. But before getting through all that I became obsessed with the rigorous enterprise of scrubbing creosote off the inside of the glass fireplace doors. I gave myself a good cardiac workout returning them to transparency and pondered times spent in front of that fireplace—hanging out with friends on Christmas day, reading books on the little couch we pulled to face the blaze; Power Day Off evenings lit by firelight and, sometimes, the oil lamp from my great grandparents' farm. I don't know whether it was the exertions of steel wool or memory that sent me upstairs after that for an hour's deep sleep.

When we first moved to our house, we sent out a postcard with a picture of us sitting on the front porch, and this quotation from The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard:

And after we are in the new house, when memories of other places we have lived in come back to us, we travel to the land of Motionless Childhood, motionless the way all Immemorial things are. We live fixations, fixations of happiness.

My husband and I started talking seriously about selling about a year ago, and the pendulum swing from yes to no has slowed, but not yet ceased. I can only imagine the pain of people who've gone through foreclosure, the rugs literally pulled out from under them, how it must feel to flee and leave one's possessions, or have strangers come and take things away.

I would like to say I've gotten used to the idea of leaving, but I haven't.
Maybe I need a clearer idea of where we're headed. For a place to replace this one in our hearts it must be just as magical. I hope the next owner will feel as strongly as we did about making the house greener and more energy efficient while preserving its history.

Here's a whimsical sale blurb I wrote for Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn (hoping another Brooklynite might move up here and take over!):

Amenities: Cozy sun room with hearth, overlooking peach tree. Rainbow fairy staircase realm, favorable flow from room to room, wall-gliding sunlight panels, forehead-cooling marble mantelpieces. AAA hide-and-seek rating. Squirrel antic observation corner. Breakfast with birds. Airy mansard attic fit for future majestic master bedroom or eccentric artist's playground or use your imagination. Seat 16 for Thanksgiving. Backyard foraging for raspberries in summer.

I wish all real estate listings could be written that way, knowing that what is really bought and sold, paradoxically, are intangibles that can never be bought and sold—memory, childhood, yesterday.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

All Over the Place

With our house days from going on the market, my husband and I decided to look at a 'property' today, in hopes of stirring up some affection for the task of making another home.

I knew the place was a long shot, but under what my friend/realtor's husband called the "faux Hispano-Moorish décor"—picture three-quarter-sized suits of armor, knives and pistols, glass decanters, nonfunctional weldware—were, I hoped, good bones. I knew the foundation was concrete block (wishful thinking: thermal mass!), there were a couple of interesting masonry fireplaces and potentially good light, and a peaceful siting across the road from a creek that reminds me of my childhood summer home. The 70s makeover of a 50s structure, with its wall-to-wall shag, iron-and-colored-glass chain lamp, and glitter stucco, all brought back my youth. I thought of Nixon resigning, of gas siphoning and the energy crisis, and of the Jackson 5 cartoon show.

After an hour of knocking on cheap paneling, poking at acoustic ceiling to see what lay beneath, sniffing for mold, and mentally reconfiguring the layout, I realized that the first 100K would solely address aesthetic issues. That would leave little dough for potential structural issues (flat roof, a leak at the foundation, the unknown?) and sustainability investments (geothermal, solar, rain catchment...all the stuff we didn't get to in our present house but feel is essential next time out). Photo above right: here I discover that what I thought was cedar shake with an unfortunate coat of white paint is actually a plastic facsimile thereof.

I also felt I was kind of in Lalaland even to consider home ownership and all its uncertainties. It was a big relief to come home to the solid plaster walls and massive beams in this admittedly oversized but exquisitely crafted house. At the moment, I can't bear to think about leaving. The endless thought experiments ennervate me.

Through the day I exchanged emails with a friend who is a professor. I mentioned the difficulty of inhabiting these different scenarios, and he corrected me, pointing out that "inhabit" is an interesting word that inappropriately conjures images of stability. He wrote:

what i see in me and other people right now, is a struggle to learn the new rules of the game. it's more fluctuating in disbelief between positions and states of mind rather than inhabiting these places. in some cases, people are quite desperate and very angry as they have lost jobs and about to lose their homes. my students this past 2 semesters were all over the place, unable to concentrate or think properly.

After we looked at the house we went to our friends'/realtor's cabin a dozen lots up the road and sat on their porch overlooking the creek. We decided that the most suitable role for the building we had just carefully considered, and rejected, would be as headquarters for the Society for Creative Anachronism, and maybe not just because of the heraldry paraphernalia. The sense of chronological misplacement on entering rooms reminiscent of the decade when I was growing up, distracted by worries about an economy compared to, but less gentler and more absurdly abstract than, the Depression of my parents' childhood, with the miniature medieval gewgaws all about, was soulspinning.

We are not among the desperate, and we know it's happenstance that put us in good digs. I do feel angry though—most of all on behalf of the above-mentioned students or people who have been foreclosed on rather than helped to stay in their homes, or those taxed out of houses on one hand while being told they can't have renters on the other. What good is an increasing vacancy rate to anyone?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What It's Like to Sell a House: A Study in Tropes

There is no getting around how incredibly anxiety-provoking it is to sell a house, but I want to focus for the moment on the exhaustion brought on by the trying
on of possibilities.

The uncertainty of what next must be resolved somehow, and you do it, if you're like me, by imagining and attaching to different scenarios, one every 24 hours.

1. There's a Place for Us: It's like having a calling...there's a town, city, mountain out there with your name on it, with all the amenities you need. It leads you to websites like or Who's Your City?, You take endless surveys, read 'best places' books and sites, interview friends in farflung quarters. You attach to Elsewhere. You become Place: 'I'm a mid-sized city;' 'No sales tax and a running trail circling a lake, that's me,' 'Give me a house by a creek so I can be Staycationland,' 'Walkable town with rail trail and a bus to a major metropolis will do me dandy.'

2. Open Road: Refurbish an Airstream with some solar panels, put your stuff in a Pod, and hit the road. Live small for a while (despite the crappy gas mileage, you'll likely reduce your carbon footprint, or even better, if you're DIY enough, you'll go biodiesel), give the kids an alternative tour of the U.S., forget what it's like to pay an electric bill or mow. Visit all those Facebook friends—f2f! Endless reading of blogs that link from Roadschooling.

3. Back Where You Came From: Why did we move to this house, anyway? Weren't things okay before? Can we go back? Wasn't that where we belonged? The roots myth pretends to be stable and definite, but soon reveals itself otherwise as each of your various roots presents itself as the authentic, deepest delving, original tendril.

4. Grow Where You're Planted: Let's just find a smaller version of this house, one we can afford, one we can retrofit green, let's set out on foot and check everything for sale we can find, let's not disrupt our life, our cat's routines, our friendships, our systems...let's not relive the stress to be found in Square One.

What settles over the whole of this cycling, or beneath it, as an undertow, is a kind of ennui. Normal enthusiasms, necessarily shelved for the moment, give intimations of having disappeared completely. The lists and dreamy conversations that led us to leave the city and make a new life, peremptorily cut short, it seems, are more scattered now than they were then. My husband and I find ourselves skittering along too many hypothetical paths. Or maybe the right image is of two actors madly changing costumes in a dressing room, trying to prepare to go on stage for any and all plays (some of them apocalyptic). The word 'trope,' related to the idea of turning, feels apt. We are turning, turning, turning, and right now, I feel dizzy.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

You Just...

A recurring joke around our house, since we decided to move, is the sentence that begins with "You just...," as in, "Oh, that's not hard to fix, you just knock out the old plaster and re-do it," or "Why don't you just refinish all the floors downstairs? It will make the house sell faster," or "If you just get rid of half your stuff, this space will show better," or "You just seal all that up with some caulk."

I've had four months of "you just." I'm starting to relate to the people who have to flee after foreclosure, the ones who don't have the time, energy, or space to "just" take their plasma TV with them, or their books or tchotchkes or anything, so that it all winds up in a dumpster when the inevitable strangers come to clear the place out. Why didn't they just take some of their cherished possessions? They'd reached their just limit.

Goodness knows, it's great to have a shelter over your head, especially a beautiful, well-tended one like we hope to pass on to an equally loving next occupant, this museum of fine details from a time when craft, taste, and material each held their own and justified the others, this archive of happy family memories—ours and, you can feel it the moment you walk through the door—many others'.

But an old house, above all, is a giant neon sign flashing "You just." If I didn't have so many other "You just" lists, I wouldn't so much mind the length of this one. Still, there's something supremely satisfying, even amidst the smoking embers of burnout, about crossing items off the "you just" list. Tick, tick, tick.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Grahampa's Chair

My Grahampa Graham (I'm spelling that the way I thought it was spelled when I was a kid) was a doctor. This was his chair. When I was growing up, my dad used it as a desk chair. It was stained a dark wine color, and there was gray vinyl padding covering the back.

In the early '80s my parents decided to get rid of the chair. Periodically, they would shed old stuff, and the chair's time had come. But I liked it; I thought it had historical value, or at least sentimental value. I had never known my grandfather, who died of pneumonia overworking himself during the war. He had told women they were pregnant while sitting in that chair; he had a maternity ward named after him in Syracuse; the chair was important. Besides, I was sure it would look good if I sanded and refinished it.

So I did, and it then accompanied me to each of my seven New York apartments, beginning in Brooklyn, where my childhood friend and first roommate painted a portrait of it (see below), and on to the dream house my husband and I are about to sell.

I can appreciate my parents' urge to give away the chair 30 years ago. I have read a lot of books about organizing and simple living (in lieu of organizing my stuff and living more simply), and one thing they say is, if you put something away for six months and don't miss it, just lose it: you don't need it.

I'd been noticing that I don't actually sit in Grahampa Graham's chair that much. Mostly, I throw a sweatshirt on it. It takes up floor space. Months go by and I don't so much as look at the chair or think about the man who sat in it. So I came to the conclusion that I should let it go. But before I did that, I emailed my siblings to tell them my plan, just in case any of them wanted it. One of my sisters thought she might, and she mentioned it to my dad.

As it turns out, my dad passionately wants the chair. Nearly 30 years without it, and he now wants it back. What do you think of that, professional organizers? Toward the end of his life, my dad finds himself needing to sit in his dad's chair. How fortunate that it's still in the family. So, my sisters and I are giving it to him guessed it, Father's Day. A variation on the theme of regifting: passing heirlooms around from one family member to another. A lot of that goes on with us. When Dad is done with it, maybe I'll need it back again.

Sometimes it's hard to predict when, and how much, it will hurt to have given something away. I'm trying to be careful what I let go of right now, because after seven years of accumulation in a house with an attic so big my husband and I could have started a sofa collection, I'm ready to part with stuff impulsively, brutally, and, I have to remember, irrevocably.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Red Eft's Homeschooling Burnout Kit

A friend emailed my local homeschooling list and asked what people's strategies are for handling burnout. Here are my biggies.

1. Do less. During burnout, I have to pull back and ask if I'm worrying too much
about field trips, what the kids are doing, etc. I remember I can trust them to be
doing interesting things. I'm still wading through all the books, art, media, etc.
they have produced while I had to attend to other things.

2. Go away—have an R&R weekend with a friend or family member, go to a conference or colony or institute of some kind. It helps to have a supportive partner who works at home, but family and friends may be willing to help.

3. Attend to your own creative life. I can't let that slide too much, or on top of burnout, I'll have rage. This one is hardest because I have trouble not comparing myself to others in various fields that I feel have 'accomplished more' during the period I
was homeschooling. Also, I now have to work for extra money so where's the
time for creative stuff? But I do what I can work in, knowing that I go through cycles when I have more time for myself.

4. Remember that hs'ing is "a front-loaded proposition." A woman my husband and I met with early on to explore hs'ing called it that, and the phrase returns to me often.
All the time we put in during the early years helping our children develop into self-directed explorers of their interests makes it easier, year by year.

5. Find families that fit for childcare trades. We've done a bit of this, I'd like to have done more. The kids love it.

6. If you're feeling burnout, do something about it right away. Have an arrangement
with your partner and/or closest friends where you can say "Emergency! I need a day
off right now!" I could be better at this. Right now it seems like all my friends are equally overloaded, and there's no one to appeal to. That makes it trickiest of all.

7. Keep the Teenage Liberation Handbook or some other ridiculously inspiring book
nearby to dip in when you need fresh inspiration. Even a phrase to call on in times of need is helpful (like the above-mentioned 'front-loaded proposition.' Another one I like is from the Tao Te Ching: "Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.") You need a mantra to remind you that it's not all on your shoulders. You're only one mineral in the soil.

Friday, May 29, 2009

"My dreams torment me, but they're not bad..."

My daughter is writing a story about a place called the Valley of Sadness. In order to write this, she sometimes sits at the computer, sometimes writes in her journal, or, like this morning, puts sentences on little scraps of paper, hurrying sudden ideas to the page, any page, to be written down before they disappear.

This is the luxury of creative process that I would like to see everyone have: enough solitude, enough time, and enough lack of tampering to hear those voices and run to scraps of paper to record them. It is only by living apart from other interfering voices that we can hear the ones we carry inside us.

The snatch of monologue above is a perfect example, I think, of what the voices say when you listen to them. "My dreams torment me, but they're not bad." People who work with the human energy field as healers sometimes call it "being in allow:" in this case, the idea that if you allow emotions their honest expression, they may surprise you. What seems negative may not be negative. You may be tormented, but that might not be bad.

The above picture shows how she holds her pencil between the third and fourth fingers—in standard parlance, the "wrong way." But it's her way, and I can relate: after trying to sit cross-legged to meditate, and finding again and again that I'd rather kneel with my cushion under my butt, I have abandoned the correct position for my own. Now I can focus on my breathing!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

So-Called Friend of My Youth

When I was a kid, traipsing up and down a little grassy hill from our summer camp in St. Lawrence County to and from the lake where I swam, I delighted in the sight of the orange flower we called devil's paint brush. I loved its yellow center with orange ring, its fuzzy green leaves, its sprightly emergence from the grass around it, I even liked the way it died when I cut it and put it in water, the way a dandelion does.

So I was moved to see it on my back patio last year, hundreds of miles south of the lake, right here in Ulster County. I thought of the herbalist's maxim that the botanicals you need tend to follow you, and I was seized by the mystical notion that I needed this blossom, vibrant with lower chakra energy, in my zone. Then it occurred to me that maybe, more prosaically, it had hitched a ride back from the lake on my shoe and fallen on the patio while I was hanging laundry. I pried it out from between bricks to plant it in a proper garden plot. I even tried to get it to winter over inside, though it wasn't happy and shriveled in my window. Here in the picture is the first one up this spring.

One problemo: this lovely flower, brought here from Europe by enthusiastic fans, is taking over the country. Considered a major pest out west, Orange Hawkweed, as it's more commonly known, or Pilosella aurantiaca as known by botanists, is warned against by those who have seen it overtake meadows, fail to nurture livestock, and even kill plants trying to bed down next to it. My little buddy is an Invader and Pillager!

I will have to think of another botanical friend of my youth to get all misty-eyed about—maybe Indian pipes or water lilies. The New York Flora Association is a nonprofit field botany education group that's creating an atlas of native flora in the state. Looks like a good resource for running a background check on one's little seed-spreading friends.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Loan Modification Diary #2

Monday, May 18, about a week after requesting a loan modification, we got the "worksheet" from our mortgage company to fill out and fax back with a "hardship statement," a copy of our last tax return, and copies of our income.

The letter wasn't signed, and the phone number went to the top of the tree, so that required going through their system again.

My husband faxed the form and called to verify that it had been received legibly, as we were instructed to do.

"It takes three days for the form to show up online," said the representative.

My husband found this irritating, since he wrote a program in 1994 that allows one to fax a document to the web instantaneously. According to this representative, somebody has to scan the fax so it can be viewed online.

"That's not what the rep said last week," I said. "She said the fax would be electronically captured and viewable online right away—that's how the loan will be reviewed."

Just a single facet of a huge, sparkling bureaucacy.

Let's hope the loan at the end of this costs less than the one we have now. This article in The Nation (More Mortgage Madness, April 29, 2009) is not raising my hopes.

Friday, May 15, 2009

It's a Mod Mod Mod Mod Mortgage: Loan Modification Diary #1

If you're trying to renegotiate your mortgage, some info here may help you...GOOD LUCK!

One of the many paths my husband and I are scurrying down at present relates to mortgage renegotiation.

I can't go one step further in talking about our mortgage without pasting from etymonline:

1390, from O.Fr. morgage (13c.), mort gaige, lit. "dead pledge" (replaced in modern Fr. by hypothèque), from mort "dead" + gage "pledge;" so called because the deal dies either when the debt is paid or when payment fails. O.Fr. mort is from V.L. *mortus "dead," from L. mortuus, pp. of mori "to die" (see mortal). The verb is first attested 1467.

Could there be a better name for this system than "dead pledge?"

Like I said, I'm scurrying down many paths, but I'll have to forgo that one and talk about the stimulus package, which, after being shooed away by our Wells Fargo mortgage broker on our first try, we now seem to have a hope of qualifying for. In case you do too, and you are utterly confused, here's what I can share:

The first hump to get over with the stim package is finding the right website. Apparently, everybody and their sister wants you to know they are offering "Hope for Homeowners." Save yourself some google pain and a visit to Mr. ScamMan and head right to:

Here you will find a nice big button to click on that says "Find out if you are eligible." Click it and take the test, grateful that it could lead to thousands of dollars of relief, more than you can say for the "Are You a Music Master?" quiz on Facebook. This is the first screen for eligibility for refinancing, or for loan modification, which offers more relief.

Because my husband (primary earner) was laid off one year ago, and therefore can show one and not two years of self-employment on our taxes, we were ineligible for refinancing before the stim package. Our other roadblock, believe it or not, was that our payments were current. The stim package money, unlike everyday bank refi, apparently is not contingent on your failing to make payments.

The governmental program is confusing, because it's called variously "the stimulus package," "Hope for Homeowners," "Making Home Affordable," or "HARP" (that's the refinancing portion), depending on whom you're talking to.

In our case, we went back to our mortgage broker and said the magic words: "We took the eligibility quiz at the Making Home Affordable website and it says we are eligible for both refinancing and loan modification. We would like to be considered for loan modification under the Making Home Affordable program."

That led to two more phone calls—one to a more central office of the bank that holds our mortgage, and a second to an 800 number of the same bank that is taking all requests to apply for this program.

The agent interviewed us at length about our mortgage particulars and expenses, then we were told an application will be sent out. Here's what the schedule looks like as of May 2009:

-5-7 days to get application
-30-45 business days to hear anything

They are getting a lot of calls. I called back a few days later to see if the application had gone out. It had, but the helpful person I reached gave me the following good advice:

-call back twice a week to see how your application is progressing
-anything you fax is being captured electronically, and there can be problems with transmission, so call after any fax to be sure all pages were received and that they were legible

Mileage may vary with your bank, but if you're in this process too, good luck

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Stray Thoughts Found Under the Ceiling

Latest project: replacing a small bathroom ceiling, the casualty of an old leak from the days before we put a giant rubber diaper on the roof.

I'm not a fan of exposed lath. Something's hiding behind there in the dark. It makes me think of every horror movie I've ever seen. I don't even want to say their names—you know the ones I mean, the ones that resonate with the theory popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point that broken windows and other signs of dereliction correlate with increased crime rates.

I think about this a lot, because I live in a neighborhood where the homes run the gamut from kempt to unkempt, words that derived from the Old High German for "combed." The fanatically tidy properties are just that: they look like their caretakers comb the lawns, paint constantly with a nail brush for added accuracy (though you never see them do it), and buff their windows with rabbit muffs. In their way, they make me as uneasy as the unkempt places.

We lie somewhere between on the kemptitude scale. Having read that health favors a grown-in lawn, I keep ours at four or five inches, mowing with my rotary pusher from Sears,leaving the cuttings as fertilizer, and I gotta say our grass is lush. Our yews are tangled, with shoots of lime green waiting to be lopped off. We are capable of leaving a frisbee on the lawn or a scooter on the porch. It's the 'lived-in' look you want in a community. You want evidence of human habitation, and broken windows and empty half-inch lawns, abandonment and sterility, say the same thing: nobody is around.

I'm trying to imagine a movie in which broken drywall is as scary as exposed lath, but I can't. Broken drywall isn't scary. Drywall is scary when it's perfect and new.

Going back to our kemptitude scale, the horror genre has, on the one hand, unkempt broken lath horror films, and on the other, fanatically kempt one-inch grass horror films.

Lath-and-plaster aren't scary when they are perfect and new because they are never perfect and new, the imperfections of form and surface are what make these materials sing.

That said, I think we're about to cover that ceiling lath with a big piece of plywood.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Meet the Comparables

Yesterday I went with an agent to check out houses that fall roughly in the same range as our house (although it still hasn't been priced). The idea was for me to see what's out there, what's selling or isn't, how much and what kind of work people are doing or not doing before putting their house on the market, and most important, how much should we charge? I didn't get an answer to my question—so much is uncertain right now—but I did discover that I'm plenty opinionated when it comes to home decorating.

The first house was a Victorian-era brick affair with lots and lots of rooms, including a ground-level apartment with a separate entry. The owners had done a great job spiffing up the place—muted paint colors, a new kitchen with simple cabinets and soapstone counters, and a wood deck out back with a view of the Catskill mountains, if one's chair were carefully placed.

After that, things got ugly.

A house with a generous wraparound porch that promised a lot delivered a dreary vestibule painted the darkest possible shade of olive green. The kitchen had been redone, in defiance of the period architecture, with 70s track lighting and vinyl flooring. The bedrooms had that "asymmetry is interesting but where will I put the bed" configuration, and in the finished attic we found not just tin ceilings but tin walls, which, I learned, cause vertigo, at least in this experimental subject.

There was a mansion that had the feng shui of a fun house, with passages leading to dead ends, pillars without purpose, and a kitchen counter jutting from the stove at a 45-degree angle that gave my hip a bruise just to look at it. The furniture said, well, screamed actually, "Don't you dare touch me!" Nothing personable had been left to help a visitor envision living there. Such is the fallout of the methods of staging. More on the loathesome practice of staging homes in a post to come.

One house with tons of square footage had it oddly distributed: a tiny vestibule that made me duck opened to a grand but useless hall lined with metallic, tropically themed paper from the 70s (19-, not 18-); a suite of parlors painted espresso brown—I'm being nice by calling it espresso—were unable to be illuminated (for some reason the switches weren't working), so they hid whatever treasures they may have offered to make up for the wall-to-wall olive green shag. I like olive green in the right place at the right time, but I don't think a potential buyer should be wandering through a home saying "I can't see a thing in here; is that a door or a book case?"

Then there was the place that hadn't sold after months on the market. The other realtors had been beating their heads against the wall trying to figure out why. My guide and I walked in, turned to one another and said, "It's the smell." In the kitchen, a loud belch erupted from the plumbing. I made a note, "the sink has something to say." A house with a strong odor—whether from bleach, a burning scented candle, or in this case, I suspect, a toxic chemical cleanser—has something to hide. So does a house with wall-to-wall rugs. Why are people so enamored of woolly, dust-loving fibers under their feet? I left with a sore throat and that Matrix sense that the house was an illusion disguising some horrible truth we'd need a red pill to get to the bottom of.

If this sounds like a cranky rant about people's rotten taste, it is. Since I'm flapping my gums about this, here's how I think a house should be prepared inexpensively for market: repair cracks and prime the walls that need it. If painting, light, airy shades show a house off best, and my guess is, neutral is preferable. There's a dark shade of purplish-red that is quite common in decorating, it's a color that comes with an odor, or maybe that's my own synaesthetic response, but imagine a cloying, commercial smell, let's call it Country Berry Pie; it makes me nauseous—especially in bathrooms and in wallpaper strips people inexplicably love to paste under perfectly beautiful moldings. When I see this color I'm done. A few steps away from blue toward yellow on the red scale, though,and I'm fine. Maybe everybody has these sensitivities; maybe they govern the pace at which a home sells.

Color aside, working lights and plumbing are most appealing; I'd go so far as to say: necessary. As for the bayberry tea lights some folks leave mysteriously burning to welcome visitors, I wish they'd save them for a romantic evening. They make me gag.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Parlor Plaster

We have two parlors with marble fireplaces and antique mirrors, behind which we never looked until recently. In our seven years in this house, we've never gotten around to painting these rooms and filling them with bookshelves. I imagined a little window seat in the front parlor, and cupboards below the shelves, for board games. The back parlor is our music room, it's where we keep our piano. The mirrors are a bit over-the-top for me—we didn't buy a Victorian house because we like the Victorian aesthetic. We bought the house because it's a happy, rambling, lovable house.

As it turns out, the mirror in the front parlor concealed something rather unfortunate and scary, a bulge like something out of a Cronenberg movie.

No matter how much you love your house, you don't want it to breathe.

You don't want the sense that your house is about to vomit on you, or something worse.

This wall was that kind of wall. Creepy.

Once we had carefully and nervously removed the heavy, valuable mirror from the wall without breaking it, I got a good look at the bulge. As if I didn't need more evidence that my house is just another version of my body, the damage, most likely the remains of a long-ago-addressed leak, reminded me of the belly cast my husband and I tried—and miserably but hilariously failed—to take when I was nine months pregnant with my son.

Well, we got our restoration craftsman to come, circle the room in plastic, and knock it out. Now it's looking fine.

It never ceases to amaze me how frightening it is when even a hairline crack appears in one's house, yet how relatively easy it is to address most problems. Most, anyway. Maybe a house with nothing wrong, nothing showing that's wrong, is similar to a false sense of security. It's just a matter of time before things get thrown out of balance. Lately, I'm getting to appreciate the false sense of security. It's better than no security at all. In fact, we should be really grateful for any sense of security. Its falseness matters no more than an effective placebo's falseness matters. What matters is the effectiveness. What matters is feeling good, right?

Knocking out old crumbly walls and laying down a fresh skimcoat feels good: cool, smooth, clean plaster. No cracks here.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


We're in the process of replacing some basement windows that have rotted around the edges because they were in contact with the earth. Of course, plenty of people replace perfectly good windows for other reasons, e.g., to replace them with more efficient ones, and they leave them out on the street. A special little truck comes and takes them, but anybody could take them.

We have a bunch of bricks in our backyard sort of lying around, that we're about to put on the Yahoo group, Hudson Valley Ecycle. And bricks wash up on the shores of the Hudson River all the time thanks to the old brickyards—aesthetically distressed by the tides! It's a public service to haul them away. A former next door neighbor of ours scored some large bluestone tiles to use on his patio, when he noticed that the town of Hurley was mysteriously yanking and trashing its historic sidewalks. And there are abundant sources of junk metal for the enterprising welder.

It strikes me that Ulster County is a good place to build your own house of found materials, if you're handy enough, have the time, and own a pick-up truck. What you don't find by driving around, I imagine you could find on Ecycle or elsewhere on the internet, or through Hudson Valley Materials Exchange, or some other way. How about an annual award for the most recycled+reclaimed house? It could be the sadder-but-wiser sibling of those fancy LEED competitions. I'm willing to bet that the lower carbon footprint is made by the scavenger.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Oil Up with Golden Flax

It's a smell of after-hours, moonlighting, passion; it comes with images—slugs of paint in all colors, with a tactile sensation—the slide of oil paste beneath a thin metal palette knife, with a sound—a clinking brush stirred quickly in a baby-food jar of turpentine. Smell of linseed oil, and memories of watching my dad paint, after he got home from work and on weekends.

I spent a weekend recently rubbing linseed oil into the wood in my dining room, wood once covered in a lifeless shade of blue paint, which was only the latest of around ten layers I think I counted at one point. As I scraped I could sometimes see them all at once, like the rings of a tree, from wood to creamy milk paint to something scary from the 50s or 60s right up to the blue. I could almost hear the wood's sigh of relief as I scraped all that gunk off it.

I don't like paint on wood or walls. I like a nice plain of plaster with its fine grain, hairline cracks, and skid marks from the trowel. (I hope I can tolerate going back to the construction equivalent of fast food after living here, 'cause Sheetrock, USA is most likely where I'm headed).

Give me some raw woodwork and a bottle of linseed (I used it straight, but I also used a nice polymerized linseed oil by Tried and True in Trumansburg, NY). Give me a tablespoon of flax oil on my oatmeal every morning and I feel even better. You can make clothes out the stuff, too...flax and hemp, the basic needs-meeters.

People who come into our dining room now are moved by the scent; they comment on it. Either they are artists and they love it because they're at home in a linseed atmosphere, or it brings back a happy memory of making art or being near art making. There's no pattern in A Pattern Language for smells, is there? —maybe there should be: Lavender Drawers at the Top of the Stairs, Aromatic Pathways to the Kitchen, Pockets of Linseed Memory...

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Missing Prosperity Corner


It goes something like this...I am reading about feng shui, a sporadic hobby that coincides with my feeling like things are sliding out of control, in other words, my husband has been laid off again.

"Here's the problem, honey. No prosperity bagua! Look, that whole corner of the house is missing—there's nothing there but that brick patio with the moss and the tufts of grass."

My husband objects to the theory that the root of his professional rootlessness can be explained by feng shui. It's the economy, and before that it was the dot-com bubble pop, ya dope!

"Ah hah! But the last time I put a purple flowering plant in our prosperity corner, you got that job with the emergency notification people!"

Why did I lose that job then?

"Because the purple plant died when winter came, and I didn't replace it with another purple royalty object to draw prosperity chi to the missing bagua!"

My garbled, simpleton's rendition sounds strange even to myself, but I know there's wisdom in philosophies of color and placement in the home, whether feng shui, Vaastu Shastra, or just common sense. Lately, I'm willing to go around closing toilet lids, which everyone is always leaving open, draining chi out of our bank account. "Cluttered house, cluttered mind!," I have been known to snap at others (though I may be the chief pile-maker around here). I am not too proud to sleep with a box of coins under the bed, and there's that new energizing-red front door, mentioned in my last post.

Comparatively speaking, of course, my husband and I are materially and metaphorically prosperous. We are rich in children and the time to be with them, we are healthy and happy, and if neither of us has hit it big in the fame and fortune category, it's been because our definition of prosperity is what it is, what we've chosen.

But none of that stopped me from marking our prosperity corner with Plum Pudding Coral Bells the other day, in the hope of getting our asking price, in honor of spring, to summon a nice family to take over for us here, or as a wish that everybody everywhere, government and governed alike may be wealthy, healthy, and wise...take your pick.

v AFTER v Plum Pudding Prosperity Plant

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

All Hands on Deck

I think we identify with our houses like we identify with our cars (I can't be the only one who feels sated after a filler-up at the gas station). Working on my house, better yet, having a crew of other people work on my house, has always felt like self-care to me; the confusion runs deep enough that it didn't surprise me when a friend, offering to help paint, said "Benjamin Moore is my boyfriend!"

But the labor gives me sore hands and shoulders, so I've resorted to less metaphorical body work twice in the past two weeks. I'm fortunate to have had someone recommended to me—two years before I finally went to see her, unfortunately—who is extraordinarily gifted, and achy shoulders and that twinge behind my left scapula are already nearly gone.

I wonder why, when some of the most gifted healers we have are massage therapists, reflexologists, and people who fall under the hazy but nonetheless invaluable rubric of energy work, our plans for better national health coverage don't include these modalities as 'preventive medicine?' Preventive medicine is still viewed largely as screening programs, which are fine as far as they go, and sometimes fitness club memberships or a nutrition class here and there, which are also fine as far as they go.

I can feel the pain draining down my arm and out my fingers as I write this. Massage is good for the muscles, the lymph, the adrenals, the spirit. Maybe it could be the tar and paint job for our ship of state, too. With the stress of economic and other upheavals, with all our knots and blockages related to addictive military spending and gay rights, with all the bold and subtle signs of imbalance around us, mightn't our body politic benefit from a crew of massage therapists?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Kingston Retrofit

For a time I considered calling this blog "Kingston Retrofit," and focusing on our slow and careful process of remaking our 19th-century Victorian house into a 21st-century sustainable refuge. I decided instead to blog about whatever interested me on any given day, but as I look back over the years writing this blog, which is mostly about my children's youth, our field trips and holidays and dreams, our unschooling experiences, and our aspirations toward living more sustainably, what I've blogged about has always circled around the house. It's the column that's supported our life for seven years, and like any good column, it shifts with the movements of the earth, it's sturdy yet flexible. "My staircase, my spine," as I called an early post.

My husband and I have loved living in an old house, and all it has to offer: the craft involved in the building and all its details, from mouldings to plaster to stone; the great ventilation that makes an absurdity of an idea like air conditioning; the pride of preservation. We've had a great life here, and it's ending a little sooner than we thought it would. Halfway to adulthood, our children find their parents looking for a new place to raise them, when we thought it would be here, just here.

Speaking as one of millions of people putting their homes on the market right now, I have to say the hard part is dealing with change and uncertainty. We don't know where we're going, if we'll buy again, whether we can keep some bigger things like our piano. All we know is: smaller place, lower expenses. I'm having to get used to not knowing, and not forcing the issue before its time.

Meditating helps. Contemplating impermanence helps. But what triggers anxiety about impermanence and change more than the loss of home? The word "home" is a promise of stability, reliability. Home is a repository of memory; without the home, where are the memories? Home represents the meeting of all the other basic needs: home is shelter, food, warmth. This is why homelessness, and a country that doesn't address homelessness, is such a core issue of justice and compassion, why "foreclosure" sounds like "murder" to many of us.

So right now I'm scraping and painting, sifting and weeding and ecycling, raking and edging and planting, making nicey-nice and staging. I'm finishing household projects (for someone else) begun years ago (for me). I'm re-reading books about feng shui and hoping the chi starts bum-rushing this place soon. How do you like the red front door, by the way? I can feel the pumped-up chi traffic already.

I'll blog the journey, knowing it's one a lot of us are making these days.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Aria Grill, Kingston, NY

It took me six months too long to check out Aria Grill on Broadway in Kingston.

Its owner, Peter Barak, is also owner of Peter B's, a deli run by his parents and brother (the family moved here from Queens several years ago) on Wall Street in Kingston, a good place to pick up warm bagels and a cup of coffee.

Peter returned to his roots to make the menu for Aria, which serves Afghan and Persian foods in a soothing, candlelit open space. My two children, my husband, and I had sambosa with yogurt sauce, naringe palau (rice with saffron, orange peels, almonds, pistachios), shrimp kabob, and lamb korma—all delicious and prepared with care. We sprinkled just about everything with a table condiment we had never tried before, but are now devotees of, made from dried, ground sumac, commonly used in Mediterranean kabob rubs. The Afghani green tea spiced with cardamom, hot and fragrant, came in a nice big kettle. Peter visited the table to chat and see how we liked everything. We gushed.

We were too full for bakhlava, firni (rosewater pudding), or sheer biringe (rice pudding). Lunch special is $8.99; it could become a habit.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

STAR Exemption for NYS Homeowners

What is a STAR Exemption? I never heard of one when I lived in Brooklyn. I moved to Kingston and didn't hear of it for six years. Then, last year, a dear friend who is also a realtor mentioned it to me and my husband.

From the New York state web site:

"The Basic STAR exemption is available for owner-occupied, primary residences regardless of the owners' ages or incomes. Basic STAR works by exempting the first $30,000 of the full value of a home from school taxes."

You have to get the form from the web site, where you can download a PDF, or go to the assessor's office for your municipality. Both last year and this, when I looked at the forms with my husband, we got confused and thought we made too much money for the Basic Star exemption. We didn't. No one does.

But the form asks for your age and your income. This is only to determine your eligibility for the second kind of STAR Exemption, called "Enhanced." If you live in your home and it is your primary residence, you qualify for the basic exemption.

We almost missed yesterday's deadline of March 2. Luckily, our above-mentioned friend walked us through downloading the forms, found out that the deadline was a postmark deadline, so that as the day grew longer, city offices closed and the post office closed, we still had a chance to squeak our form in. "Go to Staples," she emailed me at 8 pm. "They're a UPS center and they're open until 9."

So we did. And as back-up, my husband went to City Hall at 8:15 am to hand another application to a staff person as soon as they arrived. We need every penny now, and so does everyone else.

I hope this info finds its way to another person who didn't know about this program!

Monday, March 02, 2009

New Owners at Burgevin's

Uptown Kingston is a little less gloomy since new owners from Fleishmann's (if I and my husband remember right, their names are Al and Lydia) took over Burgevin's Florist. They bring a touch of the much-missed Well Seasoned Nest to the digs, with some home-furnishing type stuff and a less kitschy aesthetic. They also bring cats with them: Smokey, Cali, and Midnight. Having cats in store windows goes a long way to making a shopping district look lived-in. Uptown Kingston could use more store pets. At any rate, you are safe ordering your next bouquet from these folks, you'll get more than carnations and baby's breath.