Sunday, April 3, 2011
Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Sunday, June 13, 2010
Where to begin? Large stores such as Home Depot claim that, sure, you spend a few more dollars with us but you have a dependable, reputable firm to back up all of the work. You have a contractor who will be there when he/she is supposed to be there; you have a huge company standing behind you, ensuring the quality of the work. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But the Home Depots of the world still have to hire contractors and by their very nature, contractors are not the most reliable bunch. Okay, so ours comes over on a Saturday morning after we've done all the demolition. (Did I mention that demolition involved removing all of the old cabinets, sure, but also removing about 4 layers of flooring to expose the hardwood underneath. Good times . . .) He takes one look at the place and asks us if we have a permit. No, HD never told us we needed one. Well, you do, he says. What?! Here I stand with my kitchen completely ripped apart, I've been living without a functioning kitchen for six or seven weeks, and now he's telling me I need a permit? Does he have any idea how long it can take to get a permit, even in a small town?
Okay, he says. Here's what I'll do. Since I don't want any town officials to see my truck in your driveway when we don't have a permit, I'll do your job on the weekend but you'll have to wait until I'm free, a couple more weeks.
And we, of course, play the role he's assigned to us perfectly, and gratefully accept. Somehow he's managed to postpone our kitchen installation by two weeks and we're THANKING him.
So two weeks later he shows up on a Saturday and he's alone. No helper, no teenage boy, not even a German Sheperd, nothing. Just him. He gets to work and he works the entire day. I go get him large Starbucks drinks, I offer help, I do anything to facilitate the process. He comes back the next day and repeats his effort. By Sunday evening, he's finished the job. We give him a healthy tip, very healthy. We thank him heartily and he takes his leave.
The next day I walk into my almost finished kitchen and I notice something. The large cabinet above the appliance garage is installed upside down. Now the door opens the wrong way. So now we have to change the way the door of the garage opens or it will look ridiculous. But I want the cabinet to open the other way. 'cause I think that makes more sense. The problem, of course, is that in order to accomplish that, the door must be taken off, a new door ordered and new holes drilled into my gorgeous new cherry cabinet. I could insist, of course, that HD reorder both cabinets and take these down and install the new ones but . . . there would be wall damage and since that cabinet was the corner one, it might damage the contiguous cabinets. There was simply no acceptable fix. Then I started noticing other things, such as scratches made with box cutters, scratches made with saws, dents, defective cabinets, glue showing on the side of the long cabinet by the entrance, and the list goes on and on.
I can't give you a breakdown of the events that ensued. First, because it's boring. Second, because it's too painful for me to recount. I will say that we went through another three or four contractors and I finally kicked them all out and called it a day. Do I have perfect cabinets? Not a chance. Was the quartz countertop installed to my satisfaction? No, but I wasn't present the day the installer came so it was my fault. I left it to Dean who is non-confrontational to the max. It has an ugly seam in a very conspicuous place and shouldn't have a seam at all for such a small counter, in my opinion. Still, the quartz countertop had to be worth it since, as the company spokesperson promises, it is impervious to damage—unless of course you hit it with a pot or pan, at which time it chips. But how often do you handle pots and pans in a kitchen, after all? Does it have a lifetime guarantee? Yes, it does, but not for any damage it may suffer during normal usage. I'm serious. I asked the company salesman what exactly did the lifetime warranty cover and he didn't seem to know exactly. Not thermal shock, he said. And not chips or cracks caused by normal use. And not stains caused by hot surfaces. And . . . Are they kidding? How can they say that with a straight face, is what I want to know. And then there's that promise of the Microban . . .
Thursday, April 29, 2010
"'First Take My Hand, Now Let it Go"
-- Patti Smith, The Jackson Song
The first time I met Jackson was in the new birthing room of St. Joseph's Hospital in Chicago. I had very recently endured five days of grueling labor, a labor that caused me to hallucinate—I was trying to feed my cat Rainy in the hospital room—and continually retch and vomit, though there was nothing in my stomach save a few ice pops. I, who had long before trained myself not to upchuck for I dread it as I dread death, was unable to quell the violence overtaking me. Even when I had gotten some sort of food poisoning from my favorite neighborhood restaurant at twenty weeks gestation (Walker's, by the way), I exerted mind over matter, though getting rid of the offending food would have helped me heal sooner. At that time I was so desperately ill that I was sure I'd lose the pregnancy and the little boy I knew I carried—I felt his male energy right from the start.
I was in Chicago only temporarily. My brand-new husband Dean and I were in flux midway into my pregnancy, and a week after our wedding in January, we moved from Lower Manhattan to Chicago, on our way to Santa Fe. Dean's magazine outfit left the Windy City to relocate to New Mexico in May, but we had to sweat it out (literally, I'm afraid) in the sweltering city until our baby was born in early June. Dean worked from home during that time, and I worked temp assignments until my ninth month. One of my jobs involved opening Michael Jordan's fan mail. He was away at baseball camp at the time, so I never had the honor of meeting him, but his fan mail policies made me admire the man tremendously. His wife Juanita kindly helped me consider middle names for our expected babe.
After suffering most of that unspeakable labor, I finally got my epidural, after begging everyone who entered my room, even the porter, to give me one. Apparently an epidural cannot be introduced until there is 4 centimeters dilation and it took me an eternity to get to that seemingly unattainable condition. Blissfully, it did come on the fifth day. I wasn't even afraid of the epidural needle, for I didn't really care if I died or was paralyzed at that point, and I never felt the long instrument slide into my spine. All I know is that shortly thereafter, my world of mind-altering pain receded and I was lucid again. The experience was wonderful afterward. The back labor (really it was the sharpest of daggers an unknown enemy had plunged into my lower back, right?) vanished almost instantly. Now I wanted that Arizona iced tea in the cooler we had brought from home, but was no longer allowed to have it. The joke is continually on me.
The baby was born with a full shock of black hair, murky dark blue eyes, and a very swollen face from five days of contraction battering. Still, I thought him stunning and now I had answered my very own question: do the parents of ugly babies really think they are beautiful? Yes. I did acknowledge to both Dean and my sister Mariette—who flew in from Manhattan to help with the birth—that my new son was indeed funny looking. My sister promised me that his little monkey face was only temporary and helpfully pointed out that at least he didn't have a cone head as some newborns sport.
Exactly one week after the birth, we set off in a rental van with our infant, two giant dogs, four cats, and three plants, headed for Santa Fe. Thankfully, Dean never told me about the suspicious funnel clouds he'd spot every now and then as we traveled through tornado alley. Each night we'd set up camp in a roadside motel that allowed dogs. We'd sneak in the cats, set up their litterbox, and make up Jackson's bed with a motel room chair turned toward the wall and lined with pillows, placing his tiny body right in the center, on his back and positioned so he couldn't move. Then we'd turn on the television and watch OJ leading the police on a slow, insane televised chase. It was bizarre theatre if ever I witnessed any, but my life had become so surreal that nothing could faze me.
Once we got settled into our tiny but authentic adobe home with our now gorgeous baby, and all the out-of-town visitors had decamped, the postpartum depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder that had hit right after the birth took front and center. Luckily, it was manageable without chemical assistance, for I was nursing. Well, largely without it, for the occasional Margarita certainly assisted my outlook. Mostly, though, I used my writing—mainly poetry—as a means out of it. It was an exercise of personal catharsis so I published none of it.
A few years later I watched as a wave of Gen X mothers poured their inconvenienced maternal hearts out, whining in print about the unexpected downsides to motherhood. I'll admit I felt smug, maybe even a tad superior—I don't know why. Hadn't I felt the same longings, loneliness, and disappointments? Check. Hadn't I written them down in prose or poetry? Yes. For whatever reason, I chose not to attempt to publish those pieces. The only ones that made it into print were those that dealt with sweet maternal worries, anxieties, and inadequacies—none of the ugly stuff. The postpartum poetry, though, scored me some excellent grades in grad school—all good.
So, pleased with myself, I unwittingly entered the onslaught of Jackson's puberty and teenage years. Aye, I'd say it's major comeuppance time. All those self-satisfied years of successfully parenting not only Jackson, but also his younger brother Luca, and now I'm confronted with the loss of my lovely lad and the emergence of a stranger with bad skin, tin teeth, a horrid temper, and a miserable attitude. Who stole my darling little boy? How, why, when did this transformation happen? Could I have stopped it or somehow mitigated it if I were a better parent?
Of course, I fault myself and my own sinister temper. I made a monster out of my near-perfect son. This self-blame occurs in my finer moments. The rest of the time I throw it all on my husband's genes. He was a miserable teenager and now so is his son. Whether it's his bad or mine, the end result is the same. Where, though, is the real Jackson? The one who sang songs from The Hunchback of Notre Dame before his second birthday? The one who narrated Where the Wild Things Are at age two and a half, to a rapt audience of adults? I miss him so much it physically hurts. I go to the photo albums to assure myself that he did, in fact, exist at one time.
There he is, smiling, happily wearing clothes that I selected for him, entertaining everyone with his incredible intelligence and wit—he recited Hamlet's soliloquy at age three is what I'm talking about. His sunny disposition comes shining right through the pictures. God, but I want my little buddy back. Why does it feel like he died? The sad lines of Patti Smith's ballad "The Jackson Song," written for her own son of the same name, come hurtling back to me. Even when my Jackson was newly born and far from flying away, I cried when I heard Smith's beautiful song (it was on the tape Dean made for my laboring) about a child growing up and away from his mother and father. We used some of its lyrics on the birth announcement.
Don't get me wrong: I love the new Jackson. He has a wicked and sophisticated sense of humor, a hilarious knack for mimicry, and he is the kindest, purest, most sensitive human being I've ever met—not to mention a brilliant mind. He's long and lean, has a black belt in Ju Jutsu, and is learning Japanese—he's always been attracted to that culture. Caveat? He's also becoming egregiously judgmental, way too Goth, impatient, angry, and massively snotty—a true Jekyll and Hyde.
I should have been better prepared for this inevitability of aching change. In the weeks after Jackson was born, I was bitch-slapped with a sudden understanding that I was never again to feel the same peace I did before I became a mother. It occurred to me that having a child was like having my heart take residence outside of my body, fraught with the perils of taking the heart to babysitters and school, and hoping that everyone took good care of my heart so it wouldn't break. Then when I had another little boy, my heart was fragmented so the hazards were greater. The potent maternal hormones infused me with both a strong nurturing inclination and a visceral knowledge that a mother's path is filled with myriad joys, yes, but checkered with many slings and arrows. How many times can a heart be broken and yet go on, by the way?
Last month I had a dream. Jackson and Luca were on swings and I was pushing them and they were laughing babies again. I woke up and started crying. "I want them back," I sobbed to my husband, who, I'm fairly certain, thinks I'm a lunatic. Here's the funny part: when I told Jackson about my dream, he said, "Oh, Mom, that's so sad," and put his arm around me. How can this fifteen-year-old boy have such empathy for something he's never experienced?
When I was a bit younger than my son, my stepmother often used to play the soundtrack to "Fiddler on the Roof." I remember listening to the words of the song Sunrise, Sunset. The subject matter focuses on the passage of time, about children growing up so quickly. I did understand the poignancy on an intellectual level but it didn't make me sad. I wanted to grow up, though I did fear being separated from my father. My mother had died when I was four and the idea of losing my father was literally the stuff of nightmares for me. Still, I'm not sure I had the deep, innate empathy that Jackson naturally possesses, unless it involved a cat or dog, or some type of animal. One thing I know for certain is that those crazy-strong maternal hormones have definitely made an emotional loose cannon of me. That inclination may not serve me well as a parent who must confront letting go in the not too distant future.
Other parents who have made it through the teenage years smile and nod knowingly. This too shall pass, they say. Platitudes never help, do they? Yet I cling to them. I am trying to finish raising Jackson as best I can. The thing that I focus on lately is postponing the hated puberty in my younger son. He's still cuddly and sometimes sweet, and even climbs into our bed during nights after a bad dream. He hasn't yet lost the perfect creamy complexion of young childhood, and has mesmerizing brown eyes, fringed by long and lush dark lashes. That big growth spurt has yet to arrive, but he's now eleven years old and I know it's out there, waiting to greedily grab another of my dewy boys and spit out a teenager.
In moments of mature clarity, I accept that this growing separation is what parents actively nurture. They raise their children to become excellent adults, hopefully—not try to keep them as small children. That is the job we set out to accomplish when we decide to include children in our lives. Why, then, does it hurt so bad, Patti?
Saturday, February 27, 2010
Hooray indeed. Merely revisiting the kitchen renovation is a painful process. I don't recommend it. Be clever and find a house with a kitchen you could live with for the rest of your life, that's how traumatic a kitchen renovation is to a person's psyche. Why? I guess it's because, well, we all like to eat and when the making-food and eating-room is taken away, we get testy and revert to childish behavior.
But how arduous a process could it be to redo a 12 x 12 room, after all? And since Dean designed the entire layout beforehand (using a cabinet catalog for sizes and options) and we both agree on design elements, why would it be so horrid?
Oh, for a number of reasons, the primary one being that contractors are miserable scum of the earth slobs who don't deserve to draw their next breath. Well, except for Canada's Mike Holmes and that adorable other Canadian guy, Scott, who does people's income-producing basements on HGTV. But when you hire one through, oh, I don't know, let's just say Home Depot, you get royally screwed up and down. But I get ahead of myself here.
First, we went in to speak with a design consultant who told us repeatedly that we were breaking all the design rules. She, however, graciously deigned to work with us design radicals nonetheless. We selected our cabinets, the finish we wanted, and finally the countertops—that last was a hard one since Dean and I did not completely agree—imagine that.
While we waited for the order to process, we went home and began to purchase everything else. First we bought a plain white apron sink. But . . . they sent us a fluted one by mistake, which Dean hated. The company didn't have the one we wanted in the right size so we returned it and I convinced Dean that we really should spend $1200 on a soapstone sink—especially since I didn't get my soapstone countertop and he had won with his choice of an aggregate quartz counter called Silestone. At least I got to select the color and finish; we went with the white leather matte finish with a lifetime Microban. This Microban supposedly inhibits the growth of bacteria. Great, right? But how do we prove that it exists? Unless one has an advanced degree in chemistry, one could not check up on this promise. For all I know, the company just made it up so they could charge fools like us more for a man-made material than it costs for the most expensive granite. Consequently, we got the most marvelously gorgeous sink except that a.) it crumbles into sandy dust whenever anything bangs against it, and b.) it was not graded properly so nothing slides down toward the drain, making clean-up a miserable proposition but I will never admit that deficiency to Dean.
Choosing the faucet was hell on wheels. You just cannot find anything dramatically different from everything else, and the one or two companies that have really remarkably unusual faucets want you to finance their children's college education to have one. Since the faucet is the jewelry of the kitchen, you want to make the right choice. We eventually selected a single-fixture faucet in a pewter finish and it's stunning. Except that the pewter finish began to degrade from the moment we installed it. Now, I'm fully aware that my water is highly corrosive (see bathtub story) but I dry the fixtures after every use, read, obsessively. It must have begun to get damaged when my catsitter was there very shortly after we finished the renovation. She probably didn't dry it after every use and maybe had cat food juice on her hands when she turned it on and off. Damn.
Then there was the backsplash. I can still recall the throbbing headache I had from all the thinking and deciding I had to do. It was around this time I began to fully understand that Dean is a colossal pain in the ass. Okay, I always knew Dean was a pain but it didn't really bother me until now, when I needed to pick backsplash tiles and he was being an artiste about it. Here's an example of what I mean: I wanted to buy these gorgeous recycled glass subway tiles. They were 100 percent post-consumer—fantastic. They were a beautiful shade of green and they were the right size—even better. But when I received a sample, Dean took one look and decided he didn't like the profile. Uh-huh. The profile, of course, is crucially important. Life with an artist can be trying and lawyers on the whole make a lot more money.
So I moved on. I ordered sample after sample. We dismissed many of them because of the price. But get this: we significantly miscalculated how much we'd need because we're complete idiots when it comes to math, pure and simple. So it turns out that many of the original samples we tossed due to expense would have been fine. I think we figured we'd need, like, ten times the amount we actually needed. In the future, I'll ask Luca to do the math for us since, at eleven, he's far exceeded our collective math ability already.
I ultimately found an unusual Indonesian marble that was cut into long, thin strips. I loved it and though Dean initially disagreed with me on the color, he came around when the samples arrived. We ordered one box of similarly sized glass tiles to intersperse among the marble. I knew two things instinctively: one, the finished product would look amazing, and two, that marble was a very poor choice for a backsplash in the kitchen of a messy family. (Marble is porous and will stain. And we make an awful lot of tomato sauce in our house.) Both prophecies came true.
We ordered all of our appliances in fairly short order since we knew what we wanted: Jenn Air to match the range that we already had (Dean loved the elegant handle), and our space limitations required that we purchase the counter-depth refrigerator with the French doors. That was easy, right?
Yeah, except that once the kitchen was done and all the appliances had the same elegant handle, the range we had matched them to went belly up. The door hinge failed, the door dropped so violently that the bottom jammed into the side and cracked the frame. It couldn't be repaired. Jenn Air would do nothing for us—not even a measly percentage off despite the hit we took from their inferior product—so we got even by buying a different brand, a brand called Kitchen Aid that Jenn Air owns. We showed them. So now our appliances, though all stainless steel, didn't quite match anymore. Fuck it.
Selecting the cabinet hardware was another huge torture. One would think it would be fairly easy but there are so many decisions to make too quickly and it gets exhausting and you start to wonder if everything is going to go well together and then you remember you have to also select switchplates and they should go well with the hardware and the lighting and . . . Ultimately we went with Mission style nickel hardware. Problem is the corners are sharper than any knife this vegetarian family owns. I have destroyed my hands just wiping off greasy fingerprints off the stupid cabinets.
At least buying the recessed lighting was supremely easy. The lights we chose looked like little diamonds and they cost, I think, twelve dollars. They are still one of my favorite things in the new kitchen. We still had the beautiful pendant which would now be centered on the moveable island. The recessed lighting, which was originally over the sink, would now be over the table since I relocated the sink. Years before I had purchased a pewter gallery fixture from Pottery Barn for this function and it worked out fantastically and looked so perfect. The lighting was the easiest and most satisfying part of our renovation.
The reason I relocated the sink to an interior wall was so that we could install a bay window with a window seat where the two small contiguous windows were originally sited. The bay window was integral to our design and Dean and Lou (I love Lou!) did a superb job of installing it. Dean even ordered a can of the cabinet stain so the window would match the cabinets. Everything was coming together now. And then came the contractor.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Kitchen Renovation 101
Could I finally be getting my new kitchen? For three years I'd point out the window to the bar and say, there's my new kitchen. That's because we used the money earmarked for the kitchen renovation for a down payment on the building. Not that I ever for a moment regretted the decision. After all, how can you put a price tag on peace?
Still, my kitchen was rather revolting. The room we found when we bought the house (not the original 1927 kitchen, of course) was largely gone. Though we didn't do a full-scale renovation, we did do some things to make it better. We tore off the acoustic ceiling tile and replaced the hideous light fixture. That light fixture was so horrid, in fact, that guests would come over and offer to buy us a new one. I kid you not. We'd laugh and tell them thanks, but we really do plan to replace it. I had never even seen such a fixture. It was a square yellowish metal box with four globes sticking out, one from each corner. We replaced it with a beautiful period schoolhouse pendant fixture from Rejuvenation. First, though, we put an unpainted tin ceiling over the black gobs of hardened glue that remained after the acoustic tiles were gone. Then we took off the country apron thingy from over the sink and tore off the faux brick that covered the soffits. (Hilariously, one of the former owners of my house happened along one day and I invited him in since I recognized his name from the deed. He seemed disappointed that the faux brick hadn't held up and I had to tell him that my husband "accidentally" damaged it while checking on something. Which was sort of true since Dean was checking to see what was behind it in order to determine how difficult it would be to banish it from the house forever. So now I knew who the bad-taste culprit was or one of them anyway.) Dean replaced the cardboard brick with sheetrock and we painted the walls a pretty eggplant color to complement the existing brick-colored ceramic floor tile. I regrouted those floor tiles and put a fresh coat of white paint on the cabinets. We purchased new cabinet hardware—brushed nickel—from Restoration Hardware. Finally, we ripped out the country bookcase over the radiator; hell, we just ripped out the radiator too (I don't recommend that to renovators, by the way; there is a reason rooms have radiators and I froze my butt off for winters to come as punishment). It was during this time that I learned that the adjective "country" was merely a euphemism for ugly, outdated shit—just as "cozy" means ridiculously small, and "convenient" means a highway runs through the property.
What was still disgusting? Well, the cabinets were old if not original to the house and the wood used was crappy to say the least. Consequently, the wood was splintering, the doors didn't close, the paint was peeling from too many coats applied amateurishly over the decades, the bottom cabinets had no bottom as old cabinets don't—the bottom is the floor! I find that really icky. The drawer fronts were separating from the drawers and none of the drawers were on tracks, which is always fun when they fall out and all of your shit scatters everywhere. When they don't fall out, the friction from opening and closing the drawer salts everything below with a generous spray of sawdust a.k.a disintegrating cabinet drawers. And then there was the counter. When it was new it was ugly but now it was old and ugly AND falling apart. It was a faux butcher block laminate and the edges were peeling off and you could pull it and it would snap back into place more or less. Some parts of it were missing since I pulled them off outright. Eventually I removed all the hardware from the cabinets in a bid to "encourage" Dean to start the renovation. I told him that it didn't pay for me to put it back on since I had to continually repaint the cabinets since they were white and there were disgusting male persons living in my house. Dean held fast, though. He took the passive aggression for a good two years before finally caving. We started planning our new and wonderful kitchen. Hooray for me.