How to survive a renovation with your marriage intact

Steve and I have lived through a half dozen renovations together. I was finishing a renovation when we met and one of our first dates was a picnic on the floor of my new kitchen. We sat on 24 inch wide reclaimed pine flooring. I remember thinking that I would be there long enough to see wear in the golden planks and wondering whether Steve would be there beside me. I was sort of right. Steve didn’t leave me but we both left the pine floor to move in to our little house on the lake. That move was the weekend before our wedding, which also took place at the house. Within a few months we were opening up the basement apartment into a wide open guest room flooding the views and light all the way to the back of the space.

That wasn’t the only thing that flooded. The drainage issues on the sloped site hit the bottom floor hard, and what was eventually going to be the foundation of a bigger home became compromised. So instead of living downstairs and renovating upstairs as we had planned we moved out. Oliver was 10 months old, Leo was incubating, we were both working full time. We looked for a rental but with two dogs and four cats and a super tight rental market we ended up buying a starter ranch out towards the suburbs.

The day Leo was born was the same day we tore down the house on the lake beginning the process of building our forever home. As if. Eleven months after I went into labor we were moving into our labor of love. We decided to rent out our neighborhood ranch instead of selling it. The market had slipped and we were happy to find a young family who was thrilled to be there.  Right around the time we decided to leave the house we built from scratch we discovered that our ranch renters where hoarders. Evidently they moved out with two tractor trailer trucks under the cover of night. When we went to investigate we found 6 dump loads of things to get rid of. There were dead things in the freezer and other unidentifiable objects. We needed to rip out floors and walls and went though a mandatory renovation on that place. Meanwhile our next home went through two rounds of renovations. First the kitchen and living room. Then the mudroom and dining room. Two moves later we are going into our fourth year in our house in Denver. When we bought it we knew it would need a new kitchen, two baths and upstairs re-work. The only way to the master bedroom was through Oliver’s closet. Which was the size of a stand up shower stall.

We moved into a rental down the street and tore through that project. Now it is time to make some changes again. Our neighborhood home prices have gone up so much that even with a correction we have equity in the house. We are dissastisfied with our 3/4 car garage and entrance directly into the kitchen. We are working on plans to change those things and maybe, possibly excavate beneath the garage to build a dark scary space where I can watch sports. That last decision will depend on zoning rules and return on investment. Basements are not the best.

Here are some areas that were most important to make sure that Steve and I made it through our renovations as well as our houses did.

Ensure that renovation is the best answer. 

  1. To build or not to build… The first question to ask is will your renovation solve the problem you are looking to solve. There are times when moving is the right choice. When our kids were little and our house was very isolated. We wanted them to have friends and build independence from us in a family neighborhood. No amount of renovation could have changed the reality of our location. So we moved.
  2. Will your renovation”overimprove” your house? A realtor can give you a free valuation of your house as is and using comparable sales in your neighborhood help you understand your maximum home value  at this time. If what your purchase price plus the cost of your changes are higher than the max value of your home you should have a serious conversation with your partner about whether to move forward, or just to move. Steve and I have made this mistake. We grossly overimproved a house which we sold before the market could rise to make up the distance. We lost almost 20% on that house, wiping out all of the gains we had made on past renovations and sales. It caused us enormous regret. Luckily we did learn from that. When we did our first renovation on our current house we cut back on many things. Although we replaced three walls with steel beams to open our space we left in tact a fourth wall that would have necessitated us pouring new footings to support the posts. I had to mourn that loss for a bit, but it helped to remember the feeling of our last overexpenditure. We also set aside the idea of a garage addition at the time. We were new to Denver and I had a track record of relocating us from house to house. With the garage we would not have been able to get our money out of our house. Three years later that is no longer the case. We can add a garage and the market “should” be able to bear the cost of our addition. There are no guarantees of course. Which is probably the most important thing to have in mind as you embark on a renovation.
  3. Are you choosing the best places for your money? There are lots of sources that let you know what the return on investment is for your building project. Ti varies year by year and region by region. These numbers are huge averages across the country. Your case may be different. Even though kitchen renovations have dropped in ROI from 110% to 87% (at the time of this writing) I believe that our renovation was closer to the high end. The old kitchen was tiny and odd. The new one is open and generally appealing. We have not always paid attention to what the numbers say. A few years ago we knew that our passion project (turning a dining room into a mudroom) was one that would appeal to very few people. In fact it was likely that it would decrease the value of the house. Even though we were mindful about making changes that could easily be reversed back to a formal dining room we still took a risk. We thought that our needs and experience trumped any unrecouped expense. That was not our experience when we went to sell. Instead we felt regret at our choice to make a renovation that did not have mass appeal.

Determining that renovation was the best choice will help you get through the dark days of cooking only in a microwave or coughing through drywall dust.

Admit that your marriage will be a threesome.

This one is tricky. I often think that there should be research on the relationships between builders and their clients. It is rare that I come across one that is neutral. There is a strange boomerang of power difference that comes from the client paying but the builder holding the project in his or her hands. There is also the fact of the sheer amount of time and space you will share. Your heads will come together over drawings and tile samples, you will talk on the phone about granite slabs, you will likely spend as much time with your builder as your partner. It is your builders job (for the most part) to try to make your dreams come true. There is something appealing about that. I have become friends with my builders in the past. Many of the men and women I worked with in Vermont came to our parties and invited us to dinner. For a time we were friends with our Colorado builder as well. I remember sitting outside at a concert and watching him on a call with a client. His wife nudged me and said “that is one of his other girlfriends.” I was ashamed and a bit jealous. Not of his wife, who I really liked, but of his other clients with whom I had to share his attention and time.

Yet that is not the only story. There are times that you and your builder come close to divorce. Deep into our whole house build I felt as though I was making changes every day. Changes are frustrating for the builder and expensive for you, the client. However each of these changes were pretty important. This contractor was particularly demeaning about my choices, and I found myself doubting my instincts. When I pulled out my drawings for the niches for the art on the stairway and he questioned my request for a crisp plaster edge instead of wooden framing I felt defeated. After so much push and pull I finally gave in and scrapped the kitchen skylights that he didn’t feel happy about putting into the standing seam roof. On the heels of this discord he installed the posts in the living room, the organizing principle for the space, in the wrong spots. When I went to correct this he had a fit and I ended up having to go over his head to the company owner. I was crying with anger. I didn’t work with him again. The project however went on the win awards and be published in multiple books and magazines.

Even though it may not feel it at the time your primary relationship is with your partner…not your contractor. Steve and I took time almost every night to talk about progress and set back in the project. This kept us on the same page. I recalled conversations and disagreements that I had with the builders on various renovations. He was always in the loop both practically and emotionally, and even though this was sometimes awkward it was always helpful.

Get ready for a rift in the space time continuum.

  1. Whatever the architect and builders say you should calculate that it will take 50% longer and be 50% more expensive than planned. This means that if you have a hard and fast budget DO NOT allow the initial estimates to run close to that budget. DO NOT. Eliminating the stress of unexpected expenses is one of the best things you can do to preserve your relationship during renovations.
  2. Think about moving out. Before things begin you can imagine plastic perfectly sealing you off from your project. That is not the case. The dust gets everywhere. But more than that there are people in your space. There is noise. And dust. And noise. There are workers peering at you in your PJs at 6:30 in the morning. It is annoying when they are there and annoying when they aren’t there. (Where IS that electrician?) It goes the other way too. Too much of you can slow down construction. A set daily or weekly visit depending on the stage of the project is best even if you are just on the other side of the plastic. Then both sides can save questions, time, and give each other space.

Focus on what can’t be changed.

  1. It is very very very easy to get bogged down in the details. There are endless decisions during a renovation. Which light switches switch which lights (something I have NEVER gotten right.) Where do the outlets go. Grout color on backsplash tile. Counter finish. Hallway width. Most of us get hung up on the counters, but they are not the big story. Those finish materials are just the jewelry. The bit you can’t change is the proportion of rooms, direction of natural light, and flow from room to room. The best book I have ever read on this is Patterns of Home. Steve and I have a basic system. We work together on those big things. The permanent things. Then I limit the choices for finish materials and present him with just a few. This way I like all of the options and he is involved in the big and little picture.
  2. Figure out what you will go to the mat for. In our family for Steve it is the kitchen layout. He is the chef. For me it is windows and natural light. We are both willing to give up other things to afford what mean the most to us. This way we don’t argue over small details.

Money money money

I talked about the 50% rule. It is worth repeating. Whatever the estimate expect to pay 50% more. Unexpected leaks in the walls, 10th hour changes, material upgrades…none of these things are in that first go around. Also factor in rental costs if you are moving out for the construction (good idea!) Additionally consider what you might spend on new furniture for your refurbished space. Sticking to your budget busts the number one cause for discord during a renovation.

Renovations are tumultuous. Schedules are up in the air. Money and space and time are all difficult to navigate. There are people in your life intruding on personal space and time. It is important to remember that renovations are temporary and your partner is forever.


Living with a bad case of nostalgia

We have returned to Vermont and I have caught a bad case of nostalgia.

My symptoms are obvious. I walk around sighing deeply my phone at the ready to capture images of things I remember. Something is wrong with my vision because I only see in sepia tones. As my son eats his creemee I see him in triplicate. He is a toddler and a young child and here his is now, on the same bench under the same tree with the same country store behind him. He is even giving the same sigh of pleasure as he makes the maple mustache that he never seems to see.

As I type these words I feel that I have written them before. Perhaps even at this table in the corner. Likely at this coffee shop. Certainly in this town.

After dropping Leo off at the field house for soccer camp just as I did four years ago I walk the few blocks to the village center. As I go I want to head down the lane to the carriage house that used to be my office but I pass by, worried about trespassing. It is part of a larger sense of no longer belonging. The sign in the town green says “you are here” but I read it “you were here.” I am a visitor in my own life.

Finally I reach the worn stairs and see the same lovely young mom that I passed each morning many years ago. Now she has three kids but the young ones are echoes of the first born I knew when I lived here. I ask her what she has planned for the day and she tells me “play group and nap.” Her present is my past. There is no more playgroup. There are too few naps. I wonder if the nostalgia I feel is for this place or for the family we were when we live here year-round.

A few weeks ago we were eating lunch in Burlington at Flatbread continuing our tradition of Flatbread Fridays. We are friends of this restaurant, Steve has brewed beer here and the boys know the menu (or their small slice of it) by heart. They sit, like always, in a table in the closed section of the bar with a backdrop of City Hall Park through the picture windows. They are silhouettes in the sun my sons. I see the lemonades in tall glasses that they are now old enough to order from the bar and say please and thank you without prompting. They carry them with confidence to the table and I wouldn’t give it a thought except that I remember the times when this would not have been possible. I am not the only one remembering. Leo asks if they can slide down the stair rail at City Hall “for old times sake” and I wonder if he has caught my case of nostalgia.

When I pick up Leo up from soccer camp I ask him how it went. His eyes are bright “I rescued a frog” he trills. “I knew just how to save him. I put him back in the pond that we went to in Kindergarten.” He goes on “I wonder if it is the same frog?” “Was he sort of brownish, faded around the edges, and did the theme from Wonder Years play when you held him?” I asked. Leo writes off my wistful description with ab arched eyebrow and we drove away, stuck at the same traffic light as always, thinking about frogs and photo filters.

The next day I know Oliver is also suffering. We are at the playground at their old school and the stories are coming quickly. “This is where I fell and hurt my knee, this is where I ran the jog-a-thon, this is where my friends knew how to push me just high enough on the tire swing.” But this last one is not true. The playground is new. There is no tire swing. I try to read his face but it is neutral. Leo has bumped into friends and they are off playing soccer in the field, everyone exclaiming over his short hair. Oliver, now 12, is climbing around the playground alone. He has almost outgrown it. His body is broad and strong. He is in a new setting and for now I see him just as he is. A boy who holds my hand and still also offers the advice of a much older soul.

He walks towards me slowly where I sit on the picnic table which dates back to our years here.

“I am not sure if it is nostalgia” he tells me. “But I don’t like this playground as much as the old one.”

“Yes” I tell him. I open my arms and he leans against me. Too big to play, old enough to know what he has lost, but no matter where we are, still and always, my little boy.




There are lots of places like home.

Our time away from home was all about home.

Oliver and his friend used to eat Creemees every Wednesday.
Oliver and his friend used to eat Creemees every Wednesday.

We started in Vermont. I was sort of crushed by it. Unlike last summer where Vermont was wearing its sunshine finery it was grey and chilly for most of this visit. Last year we went tubing on the lake, to outdoor concerts, and BBQs at the yacht club (whatever you are picturing when you read the phrase yacht club you are incorrect- it is quite un yacht like.) This year we shivered. Even so as we branched onto Falls Rd at 11pm past the literal country store with its sign for Maple Creemees I began to cry. And it wasn’t 100% because I forgot to take my pills that day. It was for a time and place lost to us. It was for my little boys who had grown medium and a town which was a postcard come to life. It is a place where I knew individual trees and had helped veterans craft the message for their monuments. Now we were outsiders.

Don't those stairs look tiny?
Don’t those stairs look tiny?

Except of course we weren’t. In the light of day (slim and grey as it was) we were swallowed back. Breakfast on the farm, sitting by the pool, eating in restaurants owned by friends the farmers market. It was the same stuff, just a little colder. Steve sent me a video of the boys sliding down the stairs of city hall in Burlington after a lunch at Flatbread. The stairs had gotten smaller. Of course they hadn’t. It was the boys that had gotten bigger. Almost too big to slide. Walking with Oliver’s hand in mine he remembered things. So so many things. The video he filmed to educate crossing guards, the tree he fell from, the bridge he built, the favorite food spots, the trick or treating. He didn’t remember the days inside in the cold, or the time the smoke from a Montreal fire drove us inside from the playground. He didn’t remember all of the days that were the same as each other as we worried about what was for dinner and whined about bath time. We had frozen Vermont into its best bits. So I traveled the whole emotional spectrum as I drove the familiar roads past crumbling barns. My sense of place was lost, then found in memories. As usual I dragged my family to real estate showings. At the first house Oliver wept. Please, he pleaded, please can we move back. I didn’t bring him to see any other houses.

The boys found some of these eggs still warm under hens.
The boys found some of these eggs still warm under hens.

We decided to re-claim a little slice of Vermont. We would spend summers in Shelburne and all of the other seasons (which magically actually do reveal themselves as three) in Denver. So 15 minutes before we hit the road for the cape Steve and I whipped through a 2 acre property with a huge yard and woods to the river and decided to put in an offer. So much for putting our move in perspective. We drove for about 45 minutes in silence to make sure my excitement wasn’t going to unduly influence him.  We stopped at our friend’s farm to see her piglets and take 2 dozen gorgeous eggs to the cape. She calls her farm “Next Chapter Farm” which is perfect for her and, I felt, instructive to us. As we drove away Steve turned to me with a shining face. “I think we should do this. I think this would be really great for our family.”  So I sent the text and we made an offer. Two houses…and hopefully two homes.

Pretty much what we do at the beach.
Pretty much what we do at the beach.

As our rental car crunched on the gravel of the beach house driveway that evening I wondered if my mother would be there. For 14 years she would meet us at the end of the weathered grey walk making the same chirping excited sound as she reached both for a hug and a suitcase. Then last summer it was different when her partner was in the hospital and she on crossed the bridge from Boston to the cape one time all season. They both have houses here. It was where they met. This year he is as well as a 90 year old can be, walking the dunes down to the water, working, enjoying the ice cream. Even though there is no hospital she doesn’t live here anymore. She lives with him. When she leaves us to go to him she says she is headed home. Then she pauses in confusion. “I don’t know what to call it.” She tells me. But I know what she means. He is home to her.

Boy with fish spine
What freaking spine is that?

We stay for 2 weeks on the beach. The low tides are not quite low enough to find as many critters as usual, so Leo doesn’t kill any wildlife. This time he finds them washed up and dead. Decaying horseshoe crabs and smelly fish spines. It was a huge spine. Despite his scrubbing it had to leave the house as well. We host a few people. Cameron, who always sparks a debate in our family about whether he is a kid or an adult, brings a friend and they take the boys kayaking. Leo seems particularly dedicated to slotting people into age groups. At 9 almost 10 he has researched the phrase “tween” and decided that the majority of sources grant him that status. I am tempted to agree as he tries on teenagehood much more frequently than his unflappable brother. Finally he has a ranking system in place. Infant, toddler, child, tween, young teen, teen, young adult, adult, and old. It is a verbal version of Ombre, the divisions growing further apart and darker as he continues.

The not teen, not adult, my college friend, her daughter and lobstah.
The not teen, not adult, my college friend, her daughter and lobstah.

We have lunches on the deck with new friends and old standbys. Steve makes his office wherever he lands. We have a bonfire on the beach with five families.My father has been gone for 16 years and the best of his work and collection is out in the world. He has pieces at the Metropolitan Museum, the MFA, the Smithonian and many more. Including the cape basement. I hold my breath and head to down to the safe room to inventory my father’s art. This was once a collection that we curated together. (Not the new overused version of curated but the actual literal use of the word.) Now it is a chore. Or many chores. I photograph and label. I dust and sneeze. I think about legacy. What he left for us when he left us. Mostly I think about just getting this done and getting back to my book. I rarely read here, generally the house is full, vibrating with the breathe and plans of a dozen people. For all but a small handful of days it is just us here.

Who could get angry at that man? Not me. Not for long.
Who could get angry at that man? Not me.

My mother watches the boys one night while Steve and I head out to dinner. We start out with oysters in Wellfleet village. Or he has oysters. Despite my love of steamers and mussels oysters still feel like I am swallowing someone’s detached tongue. After wandering the shops and somehow managing to leave empty handed we drive back to Truro for dinner. We go to our favorite spot. The one where we decided to have the third kid that never came to be. The one where we held hands across the table because we couldn’t stay apart. This time we fight. It is so rare for us to fight that we barely know how to do it. I find myself aware of the family at the table next to us. I am worn thin and uncharitably begin judging them. I don’t know what they are doing here in the outer cape, which is scrubby both with pines and people. This family is polished. For all I know this is their big night out and the kids were in flip flops and three day old t shirts just hours ago. I want to send them to the Vineyard where “casual” is carefully constructed. Undoing its essence. Instead I pull my attention back to Steve, back to our discussion. We are not sure about the Vermont house. We are not sure about his work. We are not sure about our priorities. Not only do I recognize that these are problems of privilege, but I also remind myself how lucky we are that this is such rare confusion. We generally disagree about things so minute as to be funny. Here I am not sure we are disagreeing at all. By then end of dinner we have not resolved anything. Probably because there is nothing to resolve. Yet the energy has left the fight. There is no electric field pushing us apart the way it normally pulls us together. We drive home quietly. Usually we take a meandering route through marshland and oceans. This time we had straight back. Home.

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I can never photograph the magic. But you get the idea.

It isn’t though. All vacation my mother has been telling me it is “my house.” We are sleeping in the master bedroom, we are changing light bulbs and washing windows, we are ordering water filters for the fridge. We are acting like it is home…but it is not. It is a magical lovely family place. It is a place to share. Pushing open the door revealing the huge windows with views of the bay from Plymouth to Provincetown I see my My mother and Robert  rocking next to each other watching the sun begin its nightly bedtime routine. The room is cast in a rosy glow.  They tell us of an afternoon of totems on the beach and report on the unsatisfying amount of protein and vegetables the boys ate. We stand for a few more moments watching the sun slip away. Then it is time for them to go home. I thank them and they make their way slowly to the door. It reminds me a bit of walking down a long hallway towards a stranger. When do you wave or nod? Too soon and you need to duck your head for your final approach steps. It is hard to get the timing right on their departure. I thank and hug them over by the rocking chairs but it is several minutes of moving to the front door. I re-thank at the threshold and again there is a pause, my mother holding the door for Robert then heading down the walkway with his things. The reverse of our arrival.

mom swimming with boys
Unicorn. A picture of me in the water.

Fully packed we take less than the normal amount of sand and head to Boston. I grew up a few miles outside of the city but it never felt like home. I left as soon as I could and have never returned for more than a weekend. I know it is a city many people love. It has sport and architecture and education. It has a park system designed by Olmsted, of Central Park and Shelburne Farms fame. It is smaller than NYC but somehow not more humble. We meet friends for dinner in the South End. Drew is unerring in his pick of great eateries. In Denver he takes us from low to high East to West each meal more exciting than the last. His partner is in Boston for the summer. He is a Boston virgin and is clearly charmed. I know they will move here in a year. Drew grew up a town away from me and it still feels like home to him. In fact the restaurant he picked is “in the neighborhood he would live in.” It has a park with a fountain, and behind the 1800s brick facades I see the glass angle of the Hancock building. I do something I never do and swim in the hotel pool with the boys. I understand the idea of baptism. Moving from one place, one stage to the next.

boy jumping into river
Oliver jumps into the river at Steve’s favorite spot.

The next morning we fly to Indian River. Well, obviously we don’t fly to Indian River because that is impossible. We fly to Travese City and drive 2 hours to Indian River. This is where Steve grew up. He takes us to the green docks on the river where he cooled off in the summer. He showed us state parks and lakes. We slept in his childhood bedroom and Leo sorted through his baseball cards realizing with dismay that the Rockies were not represented (which might be the first time anyone really wanted a Rockies card.) The boys had a great time. It was hard for Steve. He lamented lost trees. His wooded neighborhood had been truly stripped bare. Behind his mother’s large lot there was mini-storage and one of those frighteningly large power poles. Along with these changes came upgrades. There was a rail trail that led 50 miles in either direction. The small park had a fresh playground. The main change though was that his father wasn’t there. He died over 3 years ago but this was only our third trip back. I know he could see him there. Echoes and memories. Also there were tangible signs of his absence. The siding was peeling and the septic needed repair. Steve’s happiest moments in Michigan were when he was sweating in the sun tearing apart the deck to reveal the septic system. It was ready to be repaired now.

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Father and son and sons.

On our last day in Michigan we went to the cemetery to visit Steve’s father’s grave. It is decorated with flowers but not by a headstone. I imagine that permanent marker would make things just that. Permanent. His grave is in a shady spot adjacent to a golf cart path. He was a golfer, and a coach, right up until the end of his life he was the volunteer greens keeper for the course that flanks the cemetery. They have brought him home.

Home. At least one of them.
Home. At least one of them.

Now we are back. I am back in Denver. I already weeded most of the front garden. I walked to the back patio to look at the lemon tree and hibiscus, the tomato and sweet vines, the snap dragons and tall grasses. They were all alive in their pots. My cousin and 4 other families had tended them while we were gone. Now we can take care of them. We are home.

We are we?

Yesterday I watched Leo lie in the dentist chair receiving his first filling. After a fair amount of thought we agreed to the nitrous oxide. He lay outstretched, nose covered by a grape flavored mask, mouth stretched by dental tools, eyes wrapped in sunglasses to shield him from the bright light. I found myself looking away from his face, at his still tanned legs. Looking at scrapes, and pen marks that told the story of his last few months. He is a newly eight year old. He is my son. He is not a patient his legs told me. Except he was. In regular life I am more than a mom, although I don’t know exactly what else, and in this small room I am only a mom. He is only a patient. The dentist and her assistant refer to me as “mom” whether it is for Leo’s sake or theirs that is what I have become. I am fine with that. For now I really am only a mom. I don’t exist outside this chair. There is something about medical care, even something as benign and quick as a filling, that strips away all of our other identifiers. We don’t live beyond that room.

It makes me think of other moms. Moms whose kids are acutely ill, who spend not hours but days and weeks and months in the hospital. How do they keep their kids whole? Battling both the disease and the separateness from real life that keeps us away from the activities and responsibilities that define us.

Moving to a new place, spending my time in different ways, and being asked at school pick up and dinner parties what it is that I do has set off a newly old string of questions.

Can you be a writer if you don’t write? Can you be an investor if the last check you wrote was a month ago? Can you be any one thing?

How much are our current actions tied to our current sense of self? And how much can we and do we rely on our past as identity and guide?

It is the difference between the noun and the verb.

One of my new friends in Colorado lost her sister years ago. The exact number of years ago that she had been alive. So each day from now on makes more life lived as an only child than as a sister. But does that make her an only child? Certainly not. Is she still a sister? Can you sister in your mind?

I wanted to have three children. I wanted the act of brothering to be multiple, so each relationship was unique between two, but the definition of a sibling was based on a few. Like being a daughter was for me.

I was such a different daughter to my father than my mother. Adoring, attentive, amused. It seems anathema now as I am alternately tolerant and bitchy, curious and judgmental, open and closed to my mom. It is a living relationship with the contrasts of most, changed by the weather of my mind. And hers.

I am a daughter. I am a daughter to my mom. I am my father’s daughter. It is woven into me. But can I be his daughter when I don’t daughter?

My father would rule a room. Seated at the head of the table he would command attention by being provocative, or introducing a novel idea, or just being mean. All eyes were on him. I have a bit of that now. One on one I am a real friend, listening and talking, remembering dates and events and following up and through. In a group I am the entertainer. Afterwards I am tired, I tell myself to listen more, leave jokes untold.

I don’t think of myself as a social spark. But at some point do our actions start to tell the story more than the descriptions in our minds.

Oliver was a Vermonter. Just a few months ago he lived there, and in his mind he will again. Eventually he will be able to control that, but for now he talks about Camel’s Hump and maple creemees, he talks about his old school’s jog- a thon, and the fall weather. We moved a lot within the same town, so his home became broader than our walls. His sense of place was the state. Is he still a Vermonter? By the twist of an early birth he was born in Massachusetts, but he forgave himself because he was living where he was meant to be. Now without an origin or a present he is Vermontless. And he feels like less because of it.

Is he a Vermonter? Will he always be?

How much of our sense of self comes from the verb?

Who ARE we?


Because I am a rule bender my first public 5/5 post (inspired by Christina) is actually a 1/5. One image, five quick written thoughts.

Screenshot 2014-06-05 07.49.07

1 & 2. Summer and child. These two are timeless. They could be from any era. Mostly I see her arm. Look at how strong it is. It has carried trays, her body in countless yoga poses, friends and now this one. She is an old friend, who knew me in my last life. I remember times when she was not so strong. I was not so strong. She prompted the first painful shot of loss last night at our goodbye Vermont party. And then told me she was leaving too.

3 & 4. Jess and belly. She was the very first employee of the waiting room. She stayed from first day to last. Her talents are legion. She writes and takes photographs, and generally adds beauty to life. She treads lightly in life. I want to say with caution if there is a more gentle way to say that. But really, at least in the days I knew her moment to moment…with caution. And more than a decade later she puts forth the ultimate act of optimism. The cataclysmic change of motherhood.

5. The relationships. You can see their connection. I can feel mine behind the camera. I think anyone can see the silken lines that connect those 3…4. Behind them stand other friends. Ones I have loved differently, more like balls on a pool table at a comedy club. We need that all. Life and friends cant entirely be slender connections revealed by the sun slanting just so. Even if they take center stage in the photo.

Escher I hardly know her

Screenshot 2014-05-08 11.41.31 As a girl I had this poster on my wall. I would lie in bed and reimagine the illusion into something rational. I walked my fingers along the stairs and tried not to fall off. Escher’s mobius world wasn’t changed by my imagination or tiny finger steps.

Last night I dreamed of stairways.

The pretty patterned stairs that connect my kitchen to the second floor had been replaced by some sort of retractable spiral space saving nonsense. I got halfway up and they would retract again, send me twisting back down.
One time I made it halfway up and was clinging to the edge as the stairs disappeared beneath me. It was like exiting a pool in the least glamorous way as I heaved myself back up to the bedroom level of our house.

I was greeted there by my dead cat. He was not all pet cemetery ish and I was glad to see him. I couldn’t figure out how to get him to Denver.

Its the midlife version of learning that you had been enrolled in a class the entire semester the day before the final exam. This was a nightmare of I had in college and a bit beyond.

Then came the driving with no brakes.

Now the stair problem.

This sort of anxiety dream only comes up during big transitions. Moves, graduations, new jobs, business launches. They are not regular.

Awake it is easy to understand both the illusion and the reality. I have already packed my diploma, the car has a service scheduled, and the stairs are solid beneath my feet.

It is still going to be tough to get that dead cat to Denver.

Do you have nightmares that you remember? Do they surface during the change of season, sad moments in the calendar? Times of transition?

Ash Thursday


Our furnace stopped working sometime this week.

There is a symmetry to this, the furnace in the house we are buying in Denver also has amotivational syndrome. We live here now though, so we need the house to be warm. On the upside it took us a while to notice that it wasn’t working. Thats how well built this house is. On the downside it was 0 degrees last night, so we did begin to notice.

Today as Steve and I worked from home he lit a fire in our kitchen. So I decided to burn things. What other response should I have really?

I burned through old credit card statements, lease agreements for buildings sold, printed lists of the plagues from passover sedars, brochures from non profits that I somehow saved. An entire folder of student loan paperwork, after years now paid. Menu drafts from The Waiting Room, water heater rental agreements, raw data from tax returns from the nineties, business plans from business wannabes.

The fire raged.

I watched the flames lick the edges of the pages, then tear through them with ferocious speed when I fed it individual sheets. It was gentle when I placed in entire sheafs of paper towards the back of the hearth. The air from the fire turned the pages; glowing edges and grey centers transformed into ash. Letters and numbers were just legible as they broke into particles and lifted up. Lighter. Gone.

Steve said the fire felt good. It really did.

My favorite bit was 22 pages of amortization from an owner financed purchase of the 101 Main Street building. A fire in the building led to our sale. Now I was burning the last vestiges. The LLC that my business partner and I used to buy the building was Cart before the Horse. So true. On these pages it was abbreviated Cart before the Ho. I watched row after row of dollars we never paid, remembering the year of negotiations with the insurance agency. It worked out in the end but for a while that fire left us standing exposed. The building itself waited 5 years to be buttoned up, a process that you can check out if you live in Vermont.

Those numbers have lost their power. Those concerns long ago put to rest. Not every paper represented something I was glad to see go…I was moved by carefully filed pet records of the pets already turned to ash themselves.

A few things escaped the flames. The mailing list for my father’s art shows. I know almost none of those colleagues live in those houses anymore, but there are a few bits of his handwriting, adding husbands names to wives, stars that meant he wanted to add personal notes before I sealed the invites. These few strokes of the pen made me put the files back in the bin. Perhaps to be burned next time.

Have I told you our new house is on Ash street?

Work Out

I moved out of my office yesterday assuming the next few months would be too busy to spend time there.

Just 20 hours later I am sitting at Village Wine and Coffee trying not to listen to other people’s conversation as I research spending on Early Childhood education.

The problem is I find the ladies of Shelburbia more interesting than studies from 1960. I don’t want to. I want to focus on the piece I am writing for a pre school in Rhode Island, but the competition in the middle school girls basket ball team is so intense, and their voices so passionate that I can’t turn my ears away.

There are four tables occupied in here today and I know three of the groups. The fourth is hosts an attractive couple probably in their seventies and at one point they introduce themselves to table three based on a bit of conversation they overheard and I overhear them and realize they are parents of a friend. I stay out of it, or else it will get really loud in here. And I am supposed to be working.

It was one degree as I drove in. Denver is 34. It doesn’t sound so warm on its own, but 33 degrees is significant. The boys were guessing they will have indoor recess. This winter just won’t quit.

So I will quit it.

Next weekend I am packing up our winter stuff. Maybe not the kids, but Steves and mine. That’ll show it. Our life is getting smaller. Disappearing into boxes. No office. No wintage linens. If we host it will be on a bare table. Which incidentally is how we always host. Saturday I threw out the art supplies. Cracked glitter glues, dried up stamp pads, single googly eyes, half twisted pipe cleaners all of which have gone untouched since the neighborhood girl retreated into her house at the beginning of winter. 9 months ago.

Sort of like me with the office Leo grabbed some recycled paper yesterday and told me he wanted to make a project. “Good luck”, I told him, “I got rid of most of the supplies.” I came up with a great roll of small point pens that are usually off limits. He eschewed them asking for his stamp pads. Gone. I told him. “Like Simon?” he asked. “Why are you giving away all of our stuff?”

I decided not to mention the vintage linens. That might be the last straw.

I’m pretty sure he can work it out.

Through the window of the coffee shop I see a friend approaching. She has recently moved and I remember her telling me how much she got rid of in the move and how little she missed it. I believe that.

The new house has very little storage. A one car garage and a dirt basement from 1913 that I plan to pretend doesn’t exist. I am hoping it will encourage me to stay lean, stay away from the glitter glue and delete the ebay app from my phone. It will however have an office. So I won’t have to work out. Which, if today is any indication, is a good thing.

Ready to Roll

More than a block away from the school I hear a click. Then BEEP BEEP BEEP. My mother is riding shot gun and we are near enough to our destination for her to have unbuckled. I imagine her rolling from the moving vehicle to achieve maximum efficiency.

Returning to the house with chattering boys she does it again. As soon as we pull onto the street she is free, ready to leap out, on to the next thing.

Leo thrills at this and unbuckles as well, the van gets angrier, the beeps speeding up. I am on 3 and a half hours sleep and between the beeps and the boys elation at having me back and Granny here it is LOUD. Suddenly rolling out of the moving van sounds a little appealing.

I get the email between flights. One of our long term renters has decided not to keep the house for the school year. On its own this would be a small problem to solve, but in the context of a move, having a house on the market, needing to replace the furnace in the Denver house , etc, etc I feel like I have taken off my seat belt and the van is beeping at me. No contract on the house, no decision on your audit, no renters for the other house, no news about Steve’s job. beep. beep. beep. BEEP. BEEP.

I am trying to channel my mother’s attitude. Seat belt off, ready for the next thing. This ride is so OVER. Instead I feel vulnerable. Searching the road for the next thing that might hit me, or that I might crash into.


Can’t get enough of Shelburbia? (part 2)

Now you can live in the very house that has hosted this blog.

Screenshot 2014-03-13 19.32.06

Some of our highlights:
•making smores in the kitchen fireplace
•building a bridge over the creek
•the boys washing each others’ backs during full family showers (tmi? too bad)
•a mudroom that swallows instead of spits
•puzzles in the late afternoon sunlight
•late dinners on the screened in porch
•jumping off of the stairs
•a mid winter neighborhood store where neighbors actually trudge through the snow to buy things
•building forts in the basement
•learning to play pool in the basement
•sampling beer from three separate beverage fridges
•sitting at the table long enough for the candles to burn down
•jumping around the furniture without touching the floor
•crafting signs for clubs
•watching for the bus in the window seat
•listening to frogs in the pond
•catching frogs in the pond
•golfing in the front yard
•spraying ourselves in the face trying to figure out the bidet
•actually enjoying the song of the washer and dryer completing their cycles.
•watching the sunset over the woods
•walking to town through the woods

And the flipside:
•using the kitchen fireplace at the same time as the indoor grill, having the hood suck the smoke into the room and set off the smoke detectors
•falling through the bridge over the creek
•two slippery boys shoving each other into the glass door during family showers
•I cant think of a downside to the mudroom
•late afternoon sunlight interfering with the screen in the living room
•wondering why I can dim the lights in the screened porch but not the dining room. Easy fix, but still.
•feeling panicked about Leo breaking himself jumping off of the stairs
•Having the kids try to charge us to buy our groceries back.
•Having the cats pee all over the basement
•Pool balls ricocheting every which way, including into a box of breakable items
•Hearing the sad beep of the beverage fridge as its door has been left open for the umpteenth time by a small person living in our house.
•Actually almost lighting the house on fire letting the candles burn down.
•That inevitable bedtime burst of energy from the boys as they almost literally climb the walls shrieking just when the grownups are done parenting for the day.
•Stepping over signs for clubs that have been sitting on the garage floor for months
•missing the school bus…despite a clear view of it driving by.
•Being kept awake by the frogs through the open bedroom window
•Having to convince a six year old that a frog would not fare well as a pet in a house with cats
•Wondering if there is something wrong with you that you cant really figure out the point of the bidet. I mean, its the worst part of the shower and almost as much work.
•Doing so much laundry that you find yourself singing the washer dryer song.
•Watching the sunset at 4:00 for so much of the year.
•Being eaten alive by bugs when you try to walk in the woods in the “spring”

Its hard not to feel an attachment to this house. Our family has been our family here. The highlights are so bright that the flipsides hide in their shadows. Just like the toys and clothes we give away to help us move more lightly we tell ourselves that someone else will love it here. It is hard to imagine the sights and sounds and smells of a new home. I bet there will be fewer frogs.