I Want to Live With Chip and Joanna

I’ve always been a fan of home improvement television shows.  Back in Boston, watching Bob Vila’s This Old House was an obsession, considering that there were few homes in the Boston area that WEREN’T “this old house.”  In 1980, we bought our first home—an 1860’s post and beam Victorian, complete with porch and pillars.   It was a wreck.   Bob taught me to sand the old hardwood floors to a polished sheen, to install an insulated window to protect against the frigid winds of winter, to update a kitchen from the days when no one had cabinets, and to make the most of a stone and earth cellar.  He was my idol, a man who could actually fix things (quite unlike my new husband) and take the tired bones of a once handsome Victorian and make a warm inviting space for a young family.

These days, there is a whole cable television network dedicated to the proposition that behind every dilapidated homestead there is a diamond in the rough, only waiting to be polished to highly marketable perfection.  I happened upon the Property Brothers one day while I was having my teeth cleaned at the dentist.  Nearly horizontal in the chair with a headset kindly provided to distract me, and trying to ignore the scraping and picking, I fell madly in love with Jonathan and Drew Scott. These twin Canadian brothers first disavow prospective homeowners of any delusions they might have about affording the house of their dreams, and then proceed to transform a cheap wreck with the right square footage into that very house.  Nothing less than miraculous, in my humble opinion.

From the Property Brothers, I graduated to Flip or Flop.  Tarek and Christina El Moussa are real estate agents who fell upon hard times during the 2008 recession.  So they decided that instead of selling real estate, they would buy foreclosed and other distressed properties, fix them up and resell them.  I’m no television critic, but a few seasons of Christina shrieking when the bargain house turns out to have (gasp!) cockroaches, and the renovated house has (gasp!) a subway tile backsplash and dark wood cabinets—well, I guess I’m easily bored.  Although I have to admit, when a viewer who happened to be a nurse diagnosed Tarek’s thyroid cancer from her home screen—yes, I was impressed.  I watch reruns just to see if I could have picked it up myself.

But when I happened upon “Fixer Upper”, I knew I had hit pay dirt.  Chip and Joanna Gaines, a lovely couple from Waco, Texas are the real deal.  Together they find houses that are sorely in need of TLC. Their typical clients are young, on limited budgets and are full of dreams.  These two make dreams come true and they do it with compassion, empathy, minimal fanfare and great taste and impeccable style. And they do this, of all places, in Waco, Texas.

But all this is not why I want to live with Chip and Joanna.  The real reason is that these two are the parents I never had.  Their home, Magnolia Farm, is where I would have given my eye teeth to grow up.  They have lots of kids.  And horses and cows.  And goats and chickens and kittens too.  Joanna knows how to jump rope and she can do cartwheels.  Chip knows how to make every construction project a playground and he is the consummate clown, juggling eggs to the delight of their children, even when one smashes on the floor.  Their farmhouse has just the right amount of shabby chic appeal, light and bright and cluttered with the best things—crayons, coloring books, and a stray hair barrette.  They are indeed the real deal.  They are Chip and Joanna.

Since I am doing locum tenens work, and since I have always kept my Texas license, I am going to request an assignment in Waco.  And I am going to go see Chip and Joanna. I want to see firsthand the magic that puts the heart where the home is.  Isn’t that what we all want—a place where deep and true love becomes manifest in the visible tangible everyday life?  Come with me.   It’s never too late.

The Irony of It All, Part Two

The dogs are quiet today, sprawled out across their various rugs and beds in the family room.  After the panic and anxiety caused by the fires here in San Diego last week and the heat that generated them, it is pleasant to feel the cool breeze created by opposing windows in my kitchen.  I am waiting for delivery of a piece of furniture—an old Chinese grain storage bin which had been “repurposed” as a decorative cabinet long ago, and which is about to be “repurposed” anew to hold the television controller and cable box for my new flat screen wall mounted tv—the evolutionary equivalent of man’s preoccupation with necessity progressing towards his preoccupation with luxury.  I treasure the symbolism in my treasures, as it were.

The cabinet will put the finishing touches on the home improvement projects we started nearly a year ago.  My friends with giant dogs and horses will feel a pang of recognition when I say that by moving in here over sixteen years ago, we traded a beautiful home graced with a gourmet kitchen (with two dishwashers, no less!) for acreage with a tumble down ranch house that was a few years beyond “fixer upper” into true “tear down” geriatrics.  It all started with the cat, that self-same Bitty Kitty who visited a year ago while my daughter traveled for internship interviews.  He took a dust bath in the living room fireplace and carried the blackened ashes to the already worn couches and carpet stained by a myriad of prior pets.  When we replaced the couches and carpet, the owner of the furniture store oversaw delivery and remarked, “You’re too old to be living with three-day-blinds!  This is not an apartment!  Why don’t you get some real curtains?!” The new curtains gave the old paint job a dingy tint and the new paint job made the bathroom tiles look ever so dated, and well…you know how it goes.  Last week we actually epoxy’d the garage floor.  It is now perfect.

Severe drought in the West over the last few years and overly aggressive tree roots furtively seeking water had taken their toll on our landscaping, and the bulk of our meager water supply was emptying underground from broken pipes, so that too needed attention and correction and above all, money.  Six months after completing the irrigation work, our water bills are lower than they’ve ever been, and the rose bushes are blooming again.  San Diego may be a desert, but how green are my pastures!

So I am enjoying this brief period of “this old house” being “as good as it gets.” I am no Martha Stewart, nor was ever meant to be, and my husband is definitely not “handy”—he would rather hire someone than change a light bulb.  The kids are grown, the horses are ancient, and even the dogs have slowed down a bit.  The house is for sale, and rightly so.  But every so often, I sit in the kitchen and listen to the wind chimes and watch the mother bird nesting and chirping in the ceramic birdhouse outside the open window. And I wonder why it took me sixteen years to realize that my “tear down” is instead, a little piece of paradise.

An Exercise in Futility

I am working at home today.  And no, that’s not the exercise in futility, although it could be.  I have paperwork to complete, treatment summaries to write– odds and ends that don’t involve patient care. I am working at home because today, the carpet layers are putting in my brand new wall to wall carpet.  A month ago, when the painters were putting in my brand new wall to wall paint, I found myself relieved of a camera, an iPad, a Nook reader, my grandmother’s diamond necklace and $200 cash hidden, obviously, in an underwear drawer.  “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice—you can’t get fooled again” as George Bush famously said.  My new plastic bathroom is being installed today too.

The exercise in futility, as my fellow pet lovers will readily attest to, is the new carpet.  When we moved into this house fifteen years ago, the carpet was already worn and stained by the treasured and precious (aren’t they all?) beasts of the former owners.  No amount of cleaning or convincing could persuade the current inhabitants that my living room was not to be used as a toilet.  Especially the little dog, Jack.  There is most definitely an inverse correlation between dog size and ego, with ego proportionate to the compulsion to mark territory.  I was in luck, however.  The prior owners had considered the possibility that accidents do happen, and their choice of color was the sadly dated, but tremendously camouflaging “Harvest Gold”.  Circa 1970.  Yes, you read that right.

When I went to choose new carpet, I had only two absolute criteria:  That the color have not a HINT of yellow or gold, and that it be treated with Stainmaster to the max.  Actually I chose a wonderful distressed walnut hardwood, just the right amount of roughing up to disguise the toenail marks of the deerhounds as they chase each other around the house.  But my pocketbook chose otherwise.  So today I watch, as the carpet guys install a beautiful pale taupe ultra Stainmaster synthetic, with a subtle criss cross pattern, ever so tasteful and elegant.  And as I watch, I wonder, who will be the first to despoil my unbesmirched and freshly non-fragrant footing.

I leave for Colorado on Friday morning to transport my father’s art work to San Diego.  My husband is in charge of the animals. If I come home to a urine stain on my new carpet, or the contents of the unfortunate cat’s stomach, I swear, there will be a bloodbath.  And I’m not sure who—the guardian or the ward—will go first.  I’ll let you know what happens.

I Am Gullible

When we bought it fifteen years ago, the realtor kindly referred to our home as having a lot of “deferred maintenance.”  In Southern California speak, this meant, “Honey, it’s a tear down.”  We didn’t care.  The house is on three acres of land, ten minutes from the beach—absolutely perfect for three rambunctious children, the four Scottish deerhounds we had at the time, a couple of cats and other assorted critters.  Most importantly, it was a place where we could keep our horses at home, and from our own driveway access the miles and miles of horse trails in our little town.  The boys, sometimes in play and sometimes in anger punched holes in the cheap hollow construction doors; the new puppy chewed right through the drywall in the garage; the roof leaked constantly during our brief winter rainy season and any hint of dampness caused the eau de long gone cat and dog to rise aromatically from the worn carpet.  It was our little piece of paradise.

But even in paradise, you can only put off repairs for so long and eighteen months ago, when traces of mold began ominously to appear between the rafters of the vaulted ceiling in the living room, we knew it was time.  We hired professionals to get rid of the offending black stuff, then we hired roofers, then a painter and then one thing led to another.  After listening year after year to contractors who insisted that there was NO money worth putting into the old place, and that we should tear it down and rebuild on our lot—never mind the fact that we were putting three children through college by then—I took matters into my own hands and hired a handyman, recommended by a disappointed contractor who insisted that the $65,000 that he was asking to redo the kitchen was a bargain we should be grateful for.

Buoyed up by what a fresh coat of paint and some decent hardware did for my old kitchen cabinets, I decided to attack the hallway bathroom next.  For those of you who have been here, this is the 1960’s bathroom covered in orange and yellow flowered tiles on a brown background. Despite the overwhelming urge that I felt to sing the chorus of “Let the Sunshine In” from the musical “Hair” every time I sat on the toilet, I literally took the plunge and hired Bath Planet.  The salesman was good, very good. He convinced me that all I had to do was pick out a fake marble pattern from his handy notebook computer, and he would take measurements, and my new bathtub and surround and new countertop would be fabricated custom, just for me, in a factory somewhere outside of Chicago and when it arrived, all in one piece, the installers would drop by and just pop it in right over the old tub and ugly tiles.  He said it would take about three weeks to receive my new bathroom, and just a few hours to install it.

That was nearly six weeks ago.  The installers came Wednesday, two hours late, with what looked like large sheets of plastic.  It took them the first three hours just to “prep the bathtub.”  The prefab liner fit, but when they went to install the side and back wall of the shower, they discovered that the back piece was cut two inches too narrow.  Apparently the salesman was not good with a tape measure.  The orange flower tiles peeked out hopefully from behind the fake marble.  We stared incredulously and it was not a pretty sight.  The plastic pieces were shipped back to the factory today and there are gaping holes in the walls where the tub faucet and shower head are due to be installed.  No one can tell me when they will arrive and whether they will fit when they do.  And, oh and don’t you know, the shower doors have to be fabricated separately, by a shower door guy, but that can’t happen until the surround is in.  It looks like we’re in for a long haul.

My mother used to say, “You get what you pay for.”  My husband says, “The nicest thing about our house is our beautiful pre-fab barn.”  They both always told me, “You are SO gullible.”  Right on all counts!