Sunday, July 31, 2011

The good, the bad, the electrical

I had some vague idea that this summer would be relaxing, that I could leisurely undertake some modest home improvements, that I could spend a couple hours each day working on a creative writing project, that I could imagine my courses for the fall as I planted hostas and watched my jalapeƱos grow. I thought that just maybe J and I would drink cocktails on the patio in the evening, marveling at our good fortune and savoring the fresh summer dinner that I’d just whipped up with delights from the farmer’s market. I’d even open the dreaded dissertation manuscript and start the revisions. Oh, and we’d surely travel to Michigan and then out East, for a meandering road trip in our new car.

All of this seemed possible as I packed my bags in Philadelphia. After all, the blogs I read each day make it seem so easy, so beautiful, so perfectly uncomplicated. So unreal. How did I forget that home improvement doesn’t actually happen in the space of a blog post? How did I forget that my relationship to writing is so vexed that I’d rather make the bed, mow the lawn, and pick up dog shit than sit down and put pen to paper? Why didn’t I remember that having a puppy is like losing an arm and having to work one handed, the other one constantly throwing the ball, removing the bottle cap (or the rock, the sock, the sleeping pill bottle (!), the drano bottle (!!), the shoe, the sandal, the rug) from that damned puppy jaw? And wait, what about this whole marriage thing? Why didn’t occur to me that it would actually take time and energy, patience and fortitude to negotiate all of this with another?

And so now, as we scramble to get out of town for one last breath of coastal air before the grind begins, I feel frantic, made ever more so by the first major house problem. A little bubble on the kitchen ceiling, one that I diagnosed even before I’d mounted the step stool turned into this:

Well, actually, this is the brand new fix. I was too horrified by the problem, I guess, to get a good picture of the old lead pipe (yes, it was actually lead) that was so contorted that it had practically split in two and was spilling toilet “water” into the ceiling. I’m trying to forget the fact that we had just had this ceiling redone a few weeks before. I’m also trying to forget the fact that this drama was playing out on top of our refrigerator. Gross.

The plumber was here all day yesterday, dashing out every hour or so because he was missing yet another part or tool to fix this decided singular set-up. He spent most of the time sawing cast iron and lead pipes, spewing metal filament all over the kitchen. In the fruit bowl, on every plate, glass, and mug. He draped the kitchen in a black snow. And so I spent last night drinking a stiff gin and tonic and mopping up the mess. This all would have been well and good had I not insisted on standing on the counter to wipe the top edge of the window trim. It was then that I noticed that all of his banging had actually dislodged a new light fixture above the sink. I was annoyed and wanted to see if I could sort of jimmy it back into place. I grabbed the metal bar and zap, I felt the shock shimmer up my arm. The light went out and I thought, huh, that was sort of weird, but I didn’t register the problem. So I turned off the switch and grabbed it again. Another zap and then another. I thought maybe I was losing my mind and so I made – forced, really – J to try it also. And of course, electricity knows no favorites and he got zapped also.

This struck me as truly bizarre. How could a fixture be zapping us if the circuit was turned off at the wall? I still don’t know. But a quick google search suggested that we were liable to burn our whole house down. And faced with an unlabeled breaker box (now on “the list”), we decided to be safe and flipped the entire house breaker. Good thing it’s summer and we found the flashlights beforehand. I took down the fixture today, resigned myself to calling an electrician, and I’m forcing myself to just walk away from it for the moment. Argh.

But wait, wasn’t this post going to be about everything evening out? About finding balance in the midst of struggle? Wasn’t I planning to linger on the good, the beautiful, the moment of grace that washed all of this away? Well, I was. Really, I was. But come to think of it, this moment has no beauty and has no grace. It’s just a hot day in Kentucky with a hole in our kitchen and a few singed hairs on our arms.

That last bit, well, that’s just a bit of narrative exaggeration for rhetorical effect. Arm hair remains healthy and growing.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

outtakes from a fortnight away

After six weeks of moving, painting, hauling, and settling, I was ready to hop in the car and head north. I came for these sunsets over the bay. Each night I’d sit outside, usually with Homer biting my ears, and try to impress the reds and blues in my mind, storing them for the waterless year ahead in Kentucky. It was hot, though, even in Michigan, and Homer took to wading in until his undercarriage was submerged.

I arrived with great ambition. I was going to get started on a conference paper and write my fall syllabi. Instead, I read a mediocre novel and a couple good memoirs, and I delighted in seeing my family. I drank with my Aunt and hosted a visit from close pals. But mostly, I just slowed down, lay on the hot sand, and tried to quiet my mind before the frantic push of the new school year begins.

Monday, July 11, 2011

marital edibles

It’s funny how marriage makes you eat differently. What’s suffices as a perfectly adequate meal for one tends to flop as a dinner for two. J’s standard issue pile of beans and canned chicken -- yes, I said CANNED CHICKEN! -- doesn’t go over well with me. And my overcooked scrambled eggs on a soulless corn tortilla from a bag hardly passes the muster with him. But we both end up stretching here and there. He’ll eat the whole wheat blueberry waffles when I make them (even if we have no maple syrup), but he’d rather just grab a fistful of almonds and get to work. I’ll try yet another stir-fry, usually persuaded after a bite or two. We haven’t quite found a rhythm though. It’s unclear who is going to cook what and when and how. And all the while, we have a real dining room mocking us. It’s this dedicated space calling out to us, to eat, to put our work away, to throw Homer out the door, to break bread -- err, kale -- together.

And small town Kentucky certainly prompts one to cook. There’s a semi decent Indian place about ten miles up the road, but you can only eat Indian so many days a week. Instead, we troll the farmer’s markets and pick through the “World Foods” aisle at Meijers. I’ve been working my way through Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Everyday. This is the first cookbook that just absolutely works with my ideas of good, simple food. A couple days ago, faced with the slimmest of slim pickings in the fridge, I flipped through its pages looking for lunch. The micro greens that I haphazardly “planted” (i.e. I tossed seeds on the ground) a couple weeks ago were going crazy in the soil, but I needed a vehicle for them. Swanson answered my call with an open-faced egg salad sandwich that uses plain yogurt instead of mayonnaise. I picked some thyme and threw it all on German whole grain bread. The next day, with even slimmer pickings, I tried her chickpea salad recipe, added a couple slices of local tomatoes, and J and I both swooned. Now if I could only find black mustard seeds and rye flour in the land of Hamburger Helper and Mountain Dew.

Saturday, July 2, 2011


When you get a puppy from the roadside, you can’t be sure what you’re going to find. Homer is delightful in so many ways: he’s peppy and happy, free of solemn brooding of Arlo. But he has several idiosyncrasies that prove rather challenging. He loves, and I mean really, really loves, to bite our ankles with his jagged puppy teeth. Sometimes he gets a running start and just barrels into our calves at a full sprint. We both look like we’ve been sleeping on a barbed wire bed.

He’s also terrified of the leash. As soon as we clip it to him, he nosedives into the nearest brush and plays dead. Utterly unwilling to move, he gets his entire little mass onto the ground so that we have no choice but to surrender, unclip him and proceed with the walk. And then there’s the issue of his walks. In some strange twist of marital encouragement, Homer will only agree to walks if both of us are with him. Otherwise, faced with just one of us, he flops on the ground and simply refuses to move.

I suspect that we’ve quickly become hopeless slaves to his whims. But this hasn’t been all bad. We’re working on the biting and we’ve found ourselves walking together each evening. Last night we headed to the nearby Pinnacles for an evening, July 1st hike. I think we both like the fact that Homer has brought us together for these romps. We coo over him and look like absolute saps, delighting over his log hops and trail navigation.

But what do you expect, we’re a childless couple with a new puppy and it’s summer.

Friday, July 1, 2011


There are still stacks of boxes (lots of them) and unpainted trim upstairs and old ceiling tile that needs replacing. The walls -- newly coated -- are bare. I haven’t hung a thing, save for a single painting by my Aunt Mimi. Rugs are a distant hope. As are curtains. Reupholstering the couches is on the list, but it keeps falling below the more urgent need of the day, like fixing the hissing toilet or replacing the lousy shower head or making a vodka run to the next county over. My painter, the one whom I hired just to paint the ceilings but who has now become a third member of the family, can only work in the afternoons because he is -- and I’m not joking -- a bounty hunter the rest of the time. He’s not working today because he’s on a hunt with his pepper gun in some strip mines in Eastern Kentucky. He’s twice offered me a job, once to be his partner, “50/50 all the way!” and once to photograph children riding his miniature donkeys -- still not joking -- at county fairs. Extraordinary.


But this isn’t about my painter turned bounty hunter turned breeder of donkeys. It’s about the slow changes happening around here. When we moved in, the living room was a creamy beige and all of the walls were shot through with old nails and anchors and holes. I spent the first week here filling and then sanding all of those holes. Hundreds of them. My mom came down -- bless her -- and we painted the next week, in the 95 degree heat. Though she and J had some initial misgivings about the color -- it’s “moonshine” by Benjamin Moore (I ask: how can you not paint your walls moonshine if you live in Kentucky?) -- everyone fell into a kind of dreamy rapture once it dried. It’s downright gray on the paint chip, but it’s blue on the walls. We were all so smitten by it that we went ahead and gave the dining room and kitchen the same treatment.


The couches are old and I’ve loved them since I was a child. They spent their first years in a mid-century house in Midland, Michigan with my grandparents on my Dad’s side. They’re Danish, teak and wicker on the sides. They even fold down into little beds. I’m not sure, but I think they’re from the late 60s. After awhile, they traveled north and resided in my hometown. Eventually, they ended up with my Aunt Barbara, who moved into my grandparents’ house at some point in the early 90s. Or was it the late 80s? I don’t remember. After that, they ended up in the East Village with my cousin Margaret and her boyfriend, in a fourth floor walk-up with narrow halls and steep stairs. As soon as we bought this house, I knew that I needed them. So I begged my Aunt -- who kindly obliged, even if she was mystified by my ardor -- and J and I went and fetched them in a rented zipcar before I left Philadelphia. They’re perfect for this space, even if they desperately need to be recovered and are virtually begging for some funky pillows.

After again.

The space is certainly inchoate, but it’s coming. Slowly. For now, I like to fall onto a couch, catch up on my stack of unread New Yorkers, and pretend that I’m thinking about my syllabi for the fall. Homer sleeps on my chest and J fusses in the kitchen. It’s happening. We’re settling.