Tuesday, January 26, 2010


When you move to your first house after living in dorms and apartments and condos you quickly learn that no landlord or association is going to fix your house stuff--it's up to you. There are problems with any house: refrigerators break ; chimneys get clogged; toilets leak; hot water heaters stop working and you don't know a whole lot about how to fix them so you need reliable help. After a few years of that, you may move on to the home-improvement phase of home ownership and then you realize there are even more things you don't know like how to build a fence; design a brick patio; or the big kahuna--put an addition on.

You need help. You need professionals to come do stuff for you and you learn quickly that it is not a good idea to randomly choose someone from the phone book or the internet. No, like dating, it is much better to get a recommendation instead of going into it blindly. So you will soon find yourself asking all your friends "do you have a guy for_____" fill in the blank: painting, plumbing, HVAC, taxes etc. That's how I have found almost all my guys--from friends recommending them.

I have always found wonderful people this way. Like marriage, when you find the right guy, it is a thing of beauty. A serendipidous thing that brings to your life so much more than someone to fix something. In it's best form you will find someone who enriches your life and leaves you better for having known him.

So here, I pay tribute to some of my most memorable guys.

Richard: Richard was truly my first guy. A handyman who worked for the village by day and fixed everything in the neighborhood by night. When I called him to replace my bathroom door which had a split right down the middle he declared it was too fine of a door to replace. Instead, he took it home and glued it with boat glue and charged me a fraction of the cost of a new door. He did a lot more around the house and then he disappeared. Phone disconnected and everything. I suspect he really did retire to Florida (even though he was only 35) as he often threatened to do on the money he made off of all of us (every penny earned). A good handyman is almost impossible to find, even one you've used before.

Sean: Sean came to paint the outside of our brick house one spring. He only worked when the conditions were perfect so he wasn't there every day and he was meticulous. He did not even start painting until Fourth of July because he had spent a month scraping the old paint off first. He took the shutters down, primed them, put them back to cure for two weeks, then took them down and painted them again. He was Irish, still had his brogue, and said "shite" for "shit" which slayed me. He was a former trader who wanted to stay home to keep an eye on his youngest who was an adult but mentally challenged. She had had leukemia in the seventies and was cured but given so much radiation it had affected her mind. He would paint and then get a call from his wife asking for help with her and off he'd go. I didn't mind one bit. He did not finish the job until Halloween but he charged me just a fraction of what the others had bid the job at. That paint job has lasted more than ten years. He told me he really only worked for something to do and if someone asked him to bid on a job and he didn't like the people he just gave them a ridiculous quote to get rid of them. He was a wonderful man and I hope he is still around enjoying his family.

Duncan: Duncan is a landscape designer and the person who gave me his name described him as a genius who looks like a dirty Santa. This is true. White hair and beard, ample belly, and dirt under his nails because he does his own planting. I had contacted him once but he didn't seem in any hurry to do the job. Then one Saturday, without warning, he appeared in the back yard and asked if he could sit and draw up some plans. He got a card table and chair from his truck then set up in back with paper and pencil. He asked me questions like "How do you use this space?" "What feeling do you want to convey?" He told me I didn't really want a pergola (I had been quite sure I had) over the patio because it would make the back too busy with too much going on. What was the pergola for? Shade? Then he'd get me a nice shade tree. While talking to him about family I learned he was the father of 10 children. His wife had died years before and he was raising them alone. I commented that it must be hard and sad. "Not really, she was more needed with God then she was here. We'll be together again some day," he said with true conviction. I also learned that his oldest son was a Wilms Tumor survivor--the same kidney cancer that Lilly had. My Belief that these wonderful men are not sent to me randomly grows. By the way, the shade tree is gorgeous and the pergola really would have been too much.

Andreas: Andreas is my yard guy. He came to me a few years back when I realized Jeff and I had completely given up any notion of taking care of our own yard and it was starting to be an embarassment. He cleaned up a year's worth of overgrowth and neglect in two days. The next week I asked how much to move two small trees for me. "$150" he said. Later he came with his helper and they dug up the trees in the pouring rain, transplanting them and their sizeable root balls by hand with a wheelbarrow. When he came to the door, soaking wet, he said, "That didn't take as long as I thought, I will only charge you $100." Seriously. I had to beg him to take the full amount. Then last winter I called him to see if he could get some ice out of my gutters. He went up on the roof and shoveled it all while his nervous looking helper held the ladder. He did that for over an hour (it was about 6 degrees that day)then came to the door. "I couldn't get the ice off so I really can't charge you anything." Seriously. I had to beg him to take $20 for shoveling my roof. I have to mention that Andreas is from Mexico so I doubt shoveling roofs is something he's terribly comfortable doing but he tried because I asked him.

Michael: Well you all know about Michael. He's my nearly mythical contractor that put the addition on for us six years ago. He comes back a lot to do odd jobs for me. Right now he's downstairs walling up a doorway I've always hated. He's a little like Eldon from Murphy Brown if you remember that character. The kids just say good morning over their eggs like he lives here when he lets himself in. I think maybe I've grown a little too accustomed to having him here because yesterday, after we conducted a brief meeting about the aforementioned door opening, I realized I was still in my pajamas.

So those are some of the guys in my life. Just a small listing really. I didn't even tell you about Painter Dude or Tile Guy or my accountant Bob who made that problem with the IRS go away in about ten minutes or Joe who invests our money more cautiously than I would. When Lilly was sick Joe and Bob (who do not even know each other) pretty much did my taxes for me that year. I love them all and thank the universe for bringing them into our house and our lives. May God bless you with some great guys too.

Friday, January 15, 2010


A thing of ridicule to many: a work of art to others.

"You see," Lilly said, trying to explain her fascination with the candle shaped like an owl she was clutching as we stood at the end-cap in Target, "It's a candle AND it's an owl! I HAVE to have this!"

Mmmm. No. I did not see. It was a crappy little tchotchke the kind you find sitting on the back of the toilet in your Grandma's house. I said something to that affect.

"Exactly!" Lilly was thrilled I'd finally seen the intrinsic value of the object of her desire, "I LOVE little old lady stuff!"

"I don't know if you should have candles in your room, honey."

She looked at me as if I were nuts, "I'm not going to LIGHT it! Then it would be gone! I'm just going to keep it."

Since she is only eleven this is kind of odd. I guess there are old souls and then there is Lilly--she has an old-people-stuff soul.

I could see she really did want it, but alas, as she stood clutching the owl candle she must possess, she did not have enough money for it. I told her she could save up for it.

"But MOM! It won't still be here when we come back! It's on sale! And look, there are only," she paused to count, "Eighteen left! There's no way there will be any left when we come back!"

I assured her they would not exactly be flying off the shelf but she did not believe me. For days she alternately worked to earn money and warned me that if we didn't get back there soon those precious owl-candles would be sold out.

I first became aware of this little-old-lady thing she has going when we were on a charity dog-walk last summer, raising money for the bunny shelter she works at. In front of us was a woman with her dog. The woman was in her late 60s I'd guess, long silver braid down the middle of her back, gauze skirt, Birkentsock sandals. You know the look. Lilly nudged me and pointed at her, "See that! That's what I want to look like when some day. AND I'm going to have twenty cats and ten dogs."

Is it normal to aspire to be a cat-lady? I thought it was something you sort of accidentally became after everyone you know dies and your rotten grandchildren stop checking in on you. I pointed out that she would probably not have a husband if she went that route. She shrugged. Whatever.

When she finally had saved enough money for the owl-candle she made me promise we would go to Target that next weekend which we did. Much to my surprise the owl candles had been a big hit. There were only three left. "See, Mom! I TOLD you these would be big sellers. You know why?"

"Yes," I recited dutifully, "Because it's a candle AND an owl."

For Christmas I found the perfect gift for her. Soap on a rope shaped like a pig. She opened it and held it aloft with delight. "Look Grace, it's a pig AND it's soap! We can hang this in our bathroom and NEVER use it!"

I have no idea how she instinctively knew what to do with soap-on-a-rope--she's never seen it before, but somehow, like a little-old-lady savant, she knew you hang it up and never use it!

The pig will look great in the girls' new bathroom and since she'll never use it, it will last for years, which is great because some day she can hang it in her cat-lady-house bathroom.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


The girls' bathroom is the only original room in this house. It still has hideous peachy-orange tile with black trim. Apparently that was in style when the house was built in 1947. When we first moved in I replaced the vanity (I did that myself I might add and will NEVER attempt a do-it-yourself plumbing project again. There's a reason plumbers make so much money) but even that was a decade ago and it is looking sad. Then there was the leak. Michael gave me the bad news last month--the clamp he put on the leaking pipe which is in the floor of the bathroom/ceiling of the downstairs-- was only temporary and about the only way to get at it is to pull out the old tub. Might as well re-do the whole bath.

To my surprise Jeff agreed. "Absolutely. That bathroom is hideous." And so it was decided.

Since Grace is the one who spends the most time in there I enlisted her help. She immediately got out her colored pencils and drew up three different plans of where the new vanity would go, how many new jets would be on the new shower, and what the tile would look like.

Unfortunately for Grace the bathroom is only 8' x6' (hard to believe it was the only full bath for the first 50 years this house existed and I know for a fact there were four boys living here in the 70s) and Michael informed me there really is no way to move anything anywhere nor is there room to expand anything. After the time she spent drawing up the elaborate plans we can't use she was exceedingly disappointed. So I told her she could choose the new vanity.

After an extensive internet search she chose one of those things that looks like a bowl set on top of a dresser. This is progress? This is what our great-grandparents washed up with--but I know they are in style right now. "Umm, Grace, I don't know if this is practical," I cautioned. "It will be hard to clean and also it's too trendy."

"TOO trendy?" she blinked. "Isn't trendy a good thing?"

"Oh right. Usually but you know, it will be really outdated in ten years or so."

"Ten years?" she blinked again. She's a very expressive blinker. I may as well have said a hundred years. What is ten years to a 14 year old? More than half her life that's what. Sometimes she doesn't understand me at all. I thought about it. Why on earth would she care if our bathroom looks dated in ten years? In ten years she'll be in her first apartment in LA waiting tables at night and going to auditions in the day. (A side-note here about how quickly time passes when you're old--I know, a recurring theme for me--last week I was making chili and I thought, "Hmm, this chili powder is probably a few years old now because my ex-sister-in-law bought it for me and they've already been divorced two years, so I checked the expiration date: 1995. The kids were howling at me.)

Anyhoo, sometimes I have to remind myself that one of the bad things about getting older, wiser, and more practical is that if you're not careful you can end up with a suitable, non-trendy bathroom that won't go out of style for twenty years (and 15 year old chili powder). It's nice to have kids around to remind you of that (and laugh at your old spices).

So after more thought I'm ditching my practical approach. Next time you're over make sure I show you our new bathroom. It will be trendy and look great.

But look quick--it will be out of style by 2020.

Afterwards, we'll have some bland chili.

Monday, January 04, 2010


This is one of the dreariest days of the year--the first Monday after the holiday season. There's just no way to put a good spin on it. It's like the first day of school without all the fun. It's just the first day back after a nice break with no relief in sight. Add to it that January is perhaps the bleakest month of all with no real holidays and you're looking at a long stretch of the doldrums.

Knowing that this day was looming as the vacation was waning I decided to be pro-active. This year, I made sure the tree was down, the decorations were stowed away, and I even vacuumed up the tree needles. Because if your house has a hangover when the kids and hubby head out the door it makes it just that much more depressing. That way, I thought, I could focus on making sure everyone got out of the house and in to the new year on the right foot, with a hot breakfast in their tummies, and a big encouraging kiss from me.

But that didn't really happen so much. First, Jeff could not find his parking pass. It got lost in a holiday-car-switcheroo and is no where to be found. He quietly stormed around the kitchen looking for it, sucking the life from the room and mumbling until I reluctantly got up from my NYT and coffee to pretend to help him look for it. How do I know what he did with it? This man is notorious for losing things. He loses his wallet at least three times a year. He has lost two wedding rings. A parking pass is nothing. After a few moments it was clear it was not going to reappear so I went back to my paper, silently willing him out of the house. (Oh come on, like you've never willed your spouse out of the house before?)

Next came Grace who was in a tizzy because she could not locate her gym shirt. Really people? Can none of you gather your belongings the night before? Anyway, she found it under a pile of Atticus's dirty clothes in the laundryroom. This means Atticus had committed two egregious crimes: 1) he had kept her shirt in his room after I had mis-placed it there and 2) when he gathered up all the dirty clothes on his floor and chucked them into the laundry room yesterday he gathered up her clean gym shirt too. Grace was not letting this crime pass unnoticed and pointed it out to one and all rather voluably. But then another crisis arose and fortunately for Atticus, she quickly turned her ranting on her little sister who had the nerve to have misplaced her favorite pink mechanical pencil.

"I CAN'T FIND MY PENCIL AND IT'S LILLY'S FAULT!" she screamed as she stomped around the kitchen. I pointed out that there were four perfectly good pencils in the drawer but she kept screaming that she cannot write with a regular pencil. Okay, now I had put up with her nonsense up to this point but here I had had enough and I decided I needed to put an end to her tantrum.

First I threw the pencil at her head then I "calmly" explained that she needed to learn to use a regular pencil. The words "spoiled brat" may have entered into the "discussion". (Oh, like you've never called your kid a spoiled brat.)

Ahhh, good times.

Finally, I got the big kids to school and only had Lilly left. She mercifully is a low-maintenance person so I got her to the dropoff line without incident. Unfortunately, the automatic door had frozen on the van so I had to get out of the car to give it the hipcheck it requires (Oh like you never had to hip-check your frozen van door). Most unfortunately for the man in the car behind me who was dressed nicely on his way to work, I wearing my usual morning driving clothes: slippers, pajamas, a really long robe, and a winter coat. I looked like a deranged escapee from an Arctic insane asylum. I smiled and gave him a nod. He did the same back. Probably he was thinking, "Wow, I'll bet she's hot underneath all those layers." Yeah.

So that's how we started off the New Year.

I hope yours got off to a better start but if it didn't, rest assured, you're not alone.