A Tree Lends a Hand… Branch?

Back in the 80s, Eat’n'Park, a local franchise akin to Denny’s, began airing this commercial. The holiday season is not official without the airing of this commercial during the Macy’s Parade, and thanks to YouTube, everyone can enjoy it, even if they no longer live in southwestern Pennsylvania.

I get goosebumps every time. And sometimes tears.

Have a wonderful holiday, fair readers!

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LowesHack: A Pretty Spinning Windmill

In early summer, I was obsessed with finding a pinwheel for the yard. Not a flimsy paper pinwheel, but a nice, sturdy steel one–but not one that looked overly old-timey country. Our aesthetic, after all, is more Mad Men than Little House. I drove myself crazy until I found the Kinetic Steel Wind Spinner at Lowe’s for $40, the result of a happenstance glance to the right when I usually would’ve glanced left. (The one in that link isn’t quite the same as ours, but I couldn’t find an exact match.)

It was just what I wanted: six feet tall, two spinning wheels, and a spinning pole that would allow the pinwheel to rotate as well as spin. Groovy! Only problem: it was all black matte steel, and virtually invisible against our wooded hillside.

Fortunately, I’d just been spray painting all of our patio furniture, and had a brainwave: I could paint the interior white, and the exterior glossy red, for a nice double-colored effect when the wind blows. It came out perfectly: a barber-shop-like spinning flower in our backyard, placed in full view of our living room. Our neighbor liked it so much, she went and bought her own, painted it blue and white, and put it just across the fence. (It’s barely visible in the video below.)

The best part? Now that the leaves have fallen and landscape has gone the brown of Pittsburgh winter, we can enjoy a wildly spinning riot of red and white flashing against the landscape every time the November wind gusts up from the river. And I can’t wait to see how it looks in a full snow.

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Prototyping the Kitchen, Part II

A few weeks ago, we cut a hole in the wall. We do that a lot. Last time we did it, it was to reopen a hole in our front hall–one that was in the original house. I’ll post about that some day. Then, of course, we cut a giant hole in our living room. And there was the time we cut about six inches from the dividing wall to our bar area, known as Kitchen Island, Prototype #1.

Usually it goes like this:

“So I was thinking… maybe we could cut the hole in the wall today.”

Then I call my dad, and say, “Dad, we’re going to cut a hole in the wall today.”

And then he brings power tools and old clothes, and my mom and I take the kids to a craft store, and my husband and dad make everything very, very dusty.

And we go from this:

Note how the recessed lighting actually bounces off the whole thing and makes it glow. Glow, I tell you!

To this:

Tarps are important when drywall's involved.

To this.

No, it's not load-bearing. They checked.

That was a few weeks ago. We’ve been making some trips to IKEA in the meantime, spec’ing out cabinets for underneath the island, talking about configurations. But I’m someone who actually has to see a design to understand it, so this weekend, with the help of a few wood planks, clamps, and tablecloths, we came up with a reasonable facsimile of what our new semi-wraparound island will look like.

It'll be shorter from wall to end, but wider. The shelf will be lit from underneath, and hide unattractive things like the iphone charger and butter dish.

Of course, the IKEA cabinets that will best match our gray steel cabinetry is the Akurum Abstrakt line in glossy white, which, for IKEA, is expensive. For anywhere else, I think it’s about right. Plus, with a butcher block top, David can cut out the compost hole (I love a compost hole, and ours uses a steam table container, set right into the countertop), and we can get a pull-out trash drawer.

Of course, we’ll have to cut the remainder of the dividing wall out, which will involve some rewiring and minor ductwork. They’ve promised me it’s easy. I hope so, because what we really want is to have a line of outlets on TOP of the counter, conference-room-style.

The opposite side is a different story. The cabinets will be part of the living area decor, so glossy white will look far too sterile. I’m hoping we can either get an accent door from IKEA in lime green or turquoise, to match the colors in our mural, or even get unpainted cabinets and go crazy with it ourselves–preferably with high-gloss, as well, to repeat the steel cabinetry look.

Look at that hole in the wall!

Ideally, the butcher block top would extend out past the hole into the dining area, which would allow room for a fourth barstool (we’d fit three along the side) and really complete the flow of the kitchen as the heart of the house. Of course, that means we’d be cutting out THAT wall, too, and also moving the HVAC.

And we’d like to have the bulk of it done by Thanksgiving, when we’ll be hosting my sister and her family. I think we’re gonna need some more dropcloths.

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DIY, Meet PIY.

Sometimes, you don’t want to do it yourself. And when it came to installing a second twelve-foot sliding glass door in our living room, we went with PIY, instead of DIY.

Here's the backyard before we moved in. Note the lack of toys, and also the lack of toys.

Our two main reasons were:

  1. Cutting a large hole in your house is inconvenient, and we wanted it done quickly.
  2. Cutting a large hole in your house is risky, and we wanted it done correctly.

My dad, of course, insists he could’ve done it, despite being in his late 60s. I’m sure he’d have done a reasonably good job, and for a lot cheaper than what we spent, but it would’ve taken six weeks and we would’ve had no legal recourse if, say, he totally bolloxed the job. So we went through all the steps of hiring a contractor: called around, had a few appointments, collected bids.

The Wall.

A few things: some contractors just don’t call back. I don’t know if it’s because the job was too small, or they weren’t interested, or were too busy, but being in the client service industry myself, I was surprised by how many people just didn’t bother with us. Of the three who provided bids, the first was an efficient man with a family business who talked fast and provided us the lowest bid. He also called back for updates a few times, corrected his bid when we asked for it, and kept in close contact.

Then some guy cut a hole in it.

 

 

The second bidder was a proper Irish gent, six feet tall, handsome in a gray-haired, fisherman’s sweater kind of way, and wore a proper tweed cap. To be honest, we were both rooting for him: David because he liked the cap and me because I wouldn’t have minded hearing the accent around the house for a week. But his bid was the highest.

The third contractor was nice, and very thorough–took pictures, more notes than the other two combined. He was also, in David’s words, “an uncontrollable farter.” I left the room to answer a phone call, and the moment I was out, apparently he lost control of his sphincter and peppered conversation with, “Oh, excuse me. Sorry about that. Excuse me.”

And then they made the hole REALLY big.

 

 

After wiping the tears of  hysterical laughter from my eyes, we agreed he probably wouldn’t work out. And he neglected to call back with a bid, anyway, so we went with Ricciuti Construction, the first bidder.

All in all, we were very pleased with the work they did. They had a crew of three men–they did demolition and installed the door all in one day, and thankfully, the weather cooperated. The next two days were detail work: trimming the door, building a step, wiring up light fixtures and a new outdoor outlet.

Thar be windows in that wall!

Of course, any time you’re paying a lot of money and doing something drastic, there’s an undercurrent of anxiety: what if I really, really hate it? But we don’t. We love it. The heretofore unused corner of our patio has immediately moved into an extension of our living room. We’re planning how to beautify that side of the yard because it’s now a part of our view. And the sunshine in our living room has quadrupled, literally overnight.

After!

 

We can’t wait until winter, when we’ll really be able to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labor: the sun rises on that side of the house, so our living room will become a truly cozy sunroom.

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I May Be A Garden-Talent Fairy.

I once killed a pothos plant. You know the ones: the vining plants that they give to teenagers to use in science experiments, which is to say, they’re so unkillable that we give them to teenagers to use in science experiments. I was leaving town for two weeks, and left it outside so I wouldn’t have to worry about watering it. And it rained for two straight weeks, thus drowning the Rasputin of house plants.

So I stopped. Period. Never touched a plant. My husband has a knack for moving a plant a quarter-turn counterclockwise, and watching it bloom; when I would bring plants home, I’d tell them, “I’m giving you to him,” thus assuring them of a long, long life indoors.

Now I have a yard, and if you’ve been reading, you know that my obsession started small, and expands exponentially with each passing day, blossoming like so many delicate lobelia flowers cascading down the side of a cement planter. And it may–just may–be encroaching on the territory of insanity. Every new leaf brings me closer to a conviction that I am a master gardener. Every time I break up a hosta or lily, and replant it, and watch it thrive, I become more convinced of my supernatural powers.

What was once three clumps of plants have become ten!

Clearly, between the fairy house, and my newly grown hot pepper, I am a magical being in touch with the green things of the world. Maybe I’m a wood nymph; maybe I’m a wood wizard; maybe I’m just Rosetta. I don’t know. But clearly, something magical is happening, because there’s no other explanation for it.

Cast thine eyes upon the golden zucchini blossoms!

The thing is: it’s easy. I thought this would be impossibly difficult, but I find a plant that goes in the shade, and I plant it in the shade according to the directions on the tab, which usually involve “dig a hole twice as wide as the pot, stick it in, fill it in with some garden soil or compost, water it, and mulch it. And then water some more.” And then the thing grows. Even the coral bells that I planted outside the fence, the ones that our local bunny rabbit nibbled to stalks, have bounced back nicely with a replanting. I dug out a rain channel that works. My herb garden is bursting with flavor, my peas are climbing a wire, my zucchinis have blossoms, my tomatoes are budding out with little green globes. I am a green goddess.

The spicy, spicy fruits of very little labor!

I am willing to concede that maybe gardening’s just not that difficult. That it just takes a lot of nerve–hey, let’s stick that thing there and see what happens!–and a certain pleasure in beautifully mindless activity, like digging holes and deadheading flowers and the ineffable mind-erasing peace of watering plants in the morning sun. Even when you’re growing living things, after all, nothing is permanent, and if the rhododendron doesn’t like that spot, let’s dig it up and try it over there.

My entire life, I’ve been convinced gardeners, like my mother, are wizards and have some innate insight into the world of green things that is esoteric and insane, like baseball card savants. So it follows that I might have inherited her green gene, as it pertains to putting things in the ground, instead of in pots inside. After all, she comes from a long line of backyard tomato-and-basil growers. So maybe we’re Italian old country fairies.

But maybe… OK, probably… if it’s something you find pleasure in, you’ll find it’s actually not that difficult at all. Give it a shot. At worst, you’ll have a whole bunch of new tools, new magazines, new knowledge, new apps, and a new way to bore your family, friends, and blog readers. Isn’t that worth the time?

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The Rocket Home for Wayward Fairies

Whilst browsing online for garden ornaments, I found a site entirely devoted to creating “faerie” kingdoms in one’s own backyard. Its name? efairies.com, of course.

Efairies: for all your online fairy needs.

Being that I am the parent of two little girls, and I am recently obsessed with gardening, I perused their online catalog, which is astonishing in the breadth and depth of fairy products. I imagine some little old cat lady out there, dodging hanging crystals in her one-room cottage, doddering out to her full fairy village, complete with cottages, churches (I didn’t know Pan had a church!),  outdoor stairs, fences, bridges, and, oh, hell, why not the 50-Piece Fairy Garden Set for only $1580?

And don’t get me started on the accessories, which run the gamut of post office boxes to teeny weeny galoshes for placing outside the fairy door. It’s like a feminine version of an HO train set, only the conductors have wings and the streetlamps are shaped like mushrooms.

I began to give up hope that I’d find anything at which my husband would not roll his eyes, when I landed upon this guy, the Old Cave Fairy Home (fairy not included).

It’s sweet, small, simple, and would fit in well with the hillside in our yard; in fact, it would fit perfectly into our newly built faux retaining wall. I could add some shade-loving ground cover, and presto! We have a sweet surprise for our more observant guests. With shipping, it cost about $35–not too bad for something that would surely bring the girls great delight.

It arrived last Friday, when we were in the backyard, and languished on our porch for hours, until I checked my email and read that it had been delivered. And yes, I, adult parent of two, got out of bed at midnight to run to the front door and tear open my package of fairy magic.

The next morning, before the girls got up, I removed one of the stones from the wall, replaced it with the fairy cave, and planted a little flowering ground cover over it.

Everyone say it with me: AWW.

I decided to let the girls discover it for themselves, but then after eight hours, couldn’t wait anymore, and pointed it out to Eliza.

“Look! What’s that?”

“A fairy house! How did that get there?”

“Maybe the fairies built it.”

“I think you builded it.”

“Maybe. Do you like it?”

“No. It’s weird.”

“Why do you say it’s weird?”

“Because I don’t love you anymore.”

She followed up that last bit with a big grin to show me she was just teasing, and I found the whole conversation far too adult for an almost four-year-old. How is it that I plant a damned fairy house for a kid, and I’m so transparent that she guesses that 1) I built it, not fairies; and 2) my feelings could be hurt if she didn’t like it; and 3) she could tease me about my feelings being hurt?

Yes, folks: since I planted the fairy house, there’s a little less magic in my world. Well, to hell with her. I think it’s super-cute and kind of magical. I’m tempted to make a little blue worm to put out front. At least he’ll invite me in for some tea and not poke fun at my craving for gratitude.

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A filthy, filthy Mother’s Day weekend

A few weeks back, after the long slog of winter, spring burst upon us like she’d been waiting months to say hello. Which she had. This is the first spring in our new home, and surprises have abounded like bunnies hopping on our patio. Which they do.

You may remember how, last year, I spent some time cutting down ivy (both nontoxic and poison) from our fence and trees. I continued my search-and-destroy mission during the one nice day we had in February, cutting the vines from our few remaining ivy-ed trees, and after the requisite shower of leaves cleared, we’ve been rewarded with a much clearer river view than we had last year. As a bonus, the trees themselves seem to be gasping in gratitude: one has leaves growing up its trunk, something I’ve never seen before, and must be the result of its release.

There's a river down there, in the sun's glare.

 

As the days grow longer, I spend my evenings engaging in various lawn projects: clearing leaves from our “back nine” (the other side of the fence); killing poison ivy in its tracks; planting new flowers and stopping new ivy from growing up trees. Weekends, though: that’s where it’s at. Last weekend I spray-painted my index finger into numbness (I’m serious; it barely has feeling back now) and freshened our craigslist-purchased 9-piece patio set from rusted, tan dinginess into white, glossy glory.

Even the old cushions look happier.

 

But the real fun came yesterday, when I decided to clean up a mess leftover since we cut off some very leggy forsythia last year. Over the years, the shrubs had grown gangly, shading the soil beneath and keeping anything from growing, and over the time the dirt from the hillside made its way, inexorably, onto our patio. Plus, big bare dirt patch didn’t look very nice.

The forsythias lived under the juniper tree, and were very, very big.

 

During last year’s Chainsaw Day, my dad took out the shrubs, and cut them back to more manageable stumps. But the dirt was not growing any grass–it was too dry and dead, and the shade didn’t help–so I figured I’d get some mulch and ground cover and maybe dig out some of the dirt.

Following three days of rain, yesterday was the perfect digging day: 60 degrees, and damp. So I started digging. Inside of twenty minutes, I found eight stepping stones that once led a path out the side gate; the deepest one was buried about two inches. So I dug more into the hillside. And more. And found a sprinkler head–six inches underground. The hillside’s slip into our patio had apparently been happening a very long time; makes me wonder what else is in there. Bodies? A pirate ship?

Being my father’s daughter, I rummaged around behind our shed until I found a long, discarded 2×12 board, and several large slate-like stones. I’d bought river rock and mulch at Lowe’s already, so I set about building a mini-retaining wall.

I’d also bought topsoil, thinking I’d need it to fill in the dead spots, but it turns out I had all the topsoil I needed; it just happened to be five feet out of place. I laid down the river rock, propped the board and the stones, filled in the soil, and five hours after I started, I had this. Like our kitchen island, this is a prototype: some day, maybe we’ll have a real retaining wall, built with stuff that’s not from our junk pile.

Here’s another view.

The paving stones are still dirty, but what do you want after being buried for 15 years?

Turns out, on this Mother’s Day, I don’t need Calgon to take me away. Just a shovel and some dirt.

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Changing the Conversation

I’ve been busy blogging over at SlumberPartyMovies.com, and I’d kindly ask you to shoot on over there to read not one, but TWO posts about rape in our favorite movies. Sometimes wacky hijinks are just wack.

Post #1: Changing the Conversation: The Rape of Betty Childs , in which Revenge of the Nerds isn’t all fun and montages.

Post #2: Don’t Listen to the Devil On Your Shoulder, in which Animal House, of all movies, offers an excellent example of how NOT to take advantage of a girl.

 

Donate to Pittsburgh Action Against Rape.

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Product Review: BabyLegs Legwarmers!

Waaaaayyyyy back in the summertime, I got an email from BabyLegs inviting me to review their product. Ha, I thought! Fools! I already love BabyLegs, so this’ll be easy. No problem.

Except that it was summertime, and while summer in San Francisco is pretty much the ideal time for a kid to don some BabyLegs, summer in Pittsburgh is an ideal time for a kid to don their birthday suit. Fast forward through moving, distractions and general not-getting-to-around-to-itness on my part, and I’m looking out the window at the cruel joke that has become Winter, 2013: It’s March 25, and the snow is pouring in.

Given that it seems we’re still in the clutches of a Seven Kingdoms-worthy winter, I think it’s the perfect time to (finally!) make good on my promise and review BabyLegs. Springtime is great BabyLegs weather!

What are BabyLegs?

Legwarmers. For your baby. It’s so simple. And they’re so adorable you’ll want a pair for yourself.

Why BabyLegs?

Because they’re cute. And also, they’re brilliant. Ready for why? Hmm? Wait for it… you don’t have to take off the pants to change the diapers. This may not seem like a great concept, but trust me: when you’ve got the squirming two-year-old pinned to the pizza place’s bathroom floor, one elbow in the stomach and the other fighting against the weave-and-bob of the eternally kicking legs, you will be so glad you won’t have to pull down the pants that you’ll send me a thank-you note.

Baby legwarmers are my favorite gift for parents of newborns. After Eliza, we’ve got a good… oh…. 25 pairs? Maybe more? And Gillian’s so little that she’s still going strong. I’ve made them from knee socks, bought them from Etsy, and worn them all over and over, and I can say that there’s a reason BabyLegs are a bit pricier than other brands: they’re better-quality. They haven’t pilled, they haven’t stretched or begun unraveling; they’re strong and can stand up to many trips through the washing machine.

Plus, they’re really, really cute. They have a “neutral” collection that’s not gender-specific, but be sure to look at all three collections, because they pretty well cross gender lines in a lot of cases. Take the first two below–I love me some rockets! And they have a great assortment of varsity-style striped legwarmers… may I suggest red and gold, for the Gryffindors in your life? Or perhaps some silver-and-blue, for us Ravenclaws?

Exhibit A:

Rockets! Rocket City!

Exhibit B:

Say it with me: I am a robot.

And most important, Exhibit C:

Kitties on her dress and rainbows on her legs!

Rather than building outfits around a dress, I find myself building outfits around the BabyLegs. Which is probably why the rainbows are my favorite–they match it all! As Gillian grows (slow as she goes) we’re using them less often, as she’s inclined to pull them, and in fact, all of her clothes, off. But I can’t recommend these enough for newborns and infants. They protect the knees during crawling, keep the little chubs warm without overheating, and like I said: no pants to fight.

Like BabyLegs on Facebook here!

 

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A Spring Vacation, Only Not

Firstly, thanks to HeartlandCustomHomes.com, who somehow discovered RocketCityDigs and featured us as one of the best DIY/Home Improvement Blogs in Pittsburgh. Pretty sweet, eh?

I joked for years that Pittsburgh’s not safe until after St. Patrick’s Day. That is: it is not springtime until the big St. Patrick’s Day Parade, after which, the snows will stay at bay and spring will finally arrive. No one listens to local boy Punxsutawney Phil. It’s St. Patrick you trust.

Until this year, of course. It’s been a long, long winter. Cold and gray, and when I woke up this past Monday morning to see more snow on the ground, I nearly cried. Granted, part of the reason I moved back here was because I missed the seasons. But even the long-timers have admitted this has been an unusually long, gray winter, and a few weeks ago, we decided to celebrate the dawn of spring by skipping town.

We could’ve hit the Laurel Highlands, our ski region; only 45 minutes away and in the heart of the Laurel Mountains, the Appalachians’ kid sister. But it’s still ski season, so we figured we’d save some dough by heading up to North East, an aptly named little town on Lake Erie. After all, water is water and a beach is a beach. Even in late March, if the weather’s 45 degrees, it’s still marginally sunny, and you still have a view, right? Plus: Pennsylvania grape country. Which means Welch’s, and also wine!

So we booked our house, packed up the kids, and headed north. That’s right: north. From Pittsburgh. In March. We’re our own worst enemies.

Here was the view somewhere past Edinboro:

Balmy, no?

The snow kept falling for twelve or so hours. Sometime around 6 PM, as the snow continued accumulating outside our beach house window, I decided to pour some bourbon in my tea and pretend it was December. Snow’s glorious in December, after all. Happy New Year!

Two days later, and I’m accepting, again, that with small people in tow, a vacation won’t be a vacation for a long time. Eliza couldn’t sleep the first night; Gillian ended up in bed with us last night. They haven’t yet hidden in the hallway, waiting to ask me to come play with them, but it’s in the mail.

Gillian's the one on the right.

I know, I know: we can afford to take two days off work and go on a mini-vacation, so who am I to complain? But the thing is that paying money to go away from home raises one’s expectation of fun and relaxation… but being out of your comfort zone is just a little more challenging in every way. So you while you’re relishing the change of scenery, you’re eyeballing the definitely-not-child-safe glass media center and wondering if your toddler will split open her forehead or poke her eye out on it. In one moment, you’re drinking mimosas on a Friday morning; in the next, running to the wide-open front door because the locks are well-oiled, and reachable. Which brings me to our original logic in choosing an off-season location: we didn’t want to shell out big dollars and still have to deal with the toddler factor.

Now is the winter of her discontent.

On the upside, the town of North East is lovely, if deserted this time of year. We visited a storefront wine seller, had an excellent sandwich at Rizzo’s (which, in Pennsylvania, is like saying “I had especially good french fries” in Belgium), and we’ll be hitting the Erie Children’s Museum a bit later. It’s the kind of town that peppers the California coast: small, tourist-driven economy, with coffee shops and toy stores and a well-appointed grocery store. And even the locals were caught unawares by the early spring storm, so we’re not complete idiots.

We had pancakes and bacon for breakfast, and watched “Clifford” on premium cable. Things are looking up.

So we’ve decided we’re coming back this summer. Preferably to the house we’re renting now, actually, which is well-appointed and only five homes from the beach. I’m looking forward to seeing it green.

So close. So cold.

Actually, I’m looking forward to seeing anything green, as long as it’s not a shamrock. Damn you, St. Patrick. Damn you.

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