Anniversaries

Today is the two-year anniversary of the day the house burned. (As it happened, it’s also the anniversary of wedding my ex). So, I’m going to take some time for looking back on what I did right and what I did wrong. And, take time to make time to get back to writing. But I’m only looking back two years to the fire. I’m just writing a post, not a book.

The most important thing I did right was when I decided to settle with the insurance company. I didn’t want a false incentive to rebuild my life “cookie cutter” style, nor to work hard at digging deep for proof of all that I owned. “Cookie cutter” was the adjuster’s phrase. If you choose the “build your house back” option, cost overruns are only covered if you build back exactly as it was. Meaning that if you upgrade to stone counter tops or move a wall, any completely unrelated cost over runs in the basement or drive way are not covered. When you live in a house 23 years, you can’t help but see some things you’d change. I had one of the more modern floor plans for my neighborhood, but the house was more than 30 years old and trends change. It was still not what you would build from scratch for the next 50 years. I moved on and sold the lot. A builder put a spec home there. He did a nice job of building a current home that fit well in an older neighborhood and it sold for a top price. I thought the clean slate was a good result for the neighborhood that I called home longer than any other and I felt good about that.

There are drawbacks to a clean slate though. When you are building back cookie cutter, there are few decisions to make because you already made them. “Same” is the answer to everything and you just watch the contractor to be sure it’s done right. When you do that, moving on in ways unrelated to dwelling and contents moves up in the queue. When everything is a new choice, the layers of choices past aren’t there building the foundation of quick new decisions. A conscious choice to start from scratch is not for the weak at heart. Those decades of layered choices are how you ended up with the life you had, and even though stuff is just stuff, it’s the stuff you use for your life and insurance isn’t designed to improve your life, only to keep you from suffering if the worst happens. The mistakes you make while remaking your home are at your own cost, just like the original ones were. The more unknowns, the more likely it is that there will be mistakes.

The biggest surprise was how long things took. I thought there would be more Amazon.com involved in my rebuild, but things didn’t fall neatly together. There was the unexpected news that we had a seller’s market going on big time. I knew that neighbors weren’t having any trouble selling in my great school district, but I didn’t know just how hard it was to buy. We even went to a neighboring area where the school scores were a couple of percent lower, but finding a home was really tough, a big time sink. I was in that price range that has the most people in it, so well-priced houses were snapped up quickly. Now, I’m driving past houses we looked at nearly daily. I’m glad we didn’t end up in any of them and Russ says the same thing. But, there were complications and delays. We were still looking at back up houses the week before closing in case the deal fell through. I hated to ask to see a house when I had one under contract, closing in a few days, but I really didn’t have confidence in closing and I really didn’t have time to fail. If it hadn’t been for my allergies and that little hint of dog smell left in the carpet I might have jumped ship and be living in the last other house we looked at instead. Of course the irony there is that the house we bought had knock your socks off pet odors, but for that house the cure was to rip out everything and seal it with Zinsser.

The biggest mistake I made might have been having the urge to get on with things and buying before I had a permanent place to be. We had the goal to replace as much as possible through thrift stores and estate sales. It was the only way to get some semblance of the quantity and quality of what we had back. When you appreciate the quality, weight and feel of an antique tool, flimsy short term pressed sheet metal doesn’t cut mustard. We had to buy things when we could find them. They might not be available again. So, in some respects, it wasn’t a mistake to do it that way. And that may just be how it is when replacing a household, but it was definitely the hot spot. The place where it hurt was in the mix. Getting the right house meant getting a fixer because of the market, ours came with delays. We piled stuff on top of stuff inside of stuff and then rearranged stuff so that we could fit in more stuff. The irony being that 5 years from now we might have bought an Airstream (or a Spartan) and chosen not to even have a stationary home. It wasn’t 5 years from now though, it was two years ago. I replaced a lot of hobbies and do it yourself tools, household items and just plain stuff. The pile of stuff FOR the house gets in the way OF the house while we’re working on it, and it gets covered in saw dust too. My son downsized and wanted to fill my basement the day we closed. Life doesn’t stop going on just because we are still really, really disorganized and stressed. Moving stuff to do stuff. Moving stuff to clean it or clean behind it, or to keep from having to clean it. etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iSd6-EvBgN4 We thought after things settled, we might take a long overdue vacation. One where we don’t carry our food and bed on our backs. One where we walk on the beach and sleep in a bed. Russ had an injury in the spring that lasted through the summer. There’s no telling how over due that’s gonna get!

The uncomfortable irony happened when we learned from neighbors that lightening had struck several times in the new neighborhood. So far, it’s been mostly tree damage. The old neighborhood was in a dip and I never worried about tornados. The new neighborhood had several new roofs due to storm damage. I noticed before we bought that several homes had new roofs, but I had guessed it was just the age of the neighborhood. Later a nearby house burned. I was coming home and saw the dreadful black plume. Every turn brought me closer to a home I’d been in for only a short time, and every turn I was unable to tell that the plume was coming from somewhere other than my home. I don’t wish loss on anyone else, but another fire before recovering from the first? I really hoped it wasn’t me. At the same time, I started going through emergency choices in my mind. I listed settling as the best choice I made, but that double edged sword also makes me wonder if it was the worst. The whole thrift replacement idea got me some cool finds, but all that time and gas… there is no reimbursement for that, and I was only able to do it because of my employment gap. I believe that if it ever happened again (please, NO!), I’d go the other route. Rent close by and rebuild. At least if you know where you’re gong to live, it is possible to know if you’re renting nearby when you sign the lease. This time no corporate apartment in an inconvenient area. Get a nearby rental house this time, and rebuild this time. Make it as fast, painless and finished as possible. I’m not sure I regret how I made my lemonade over the past two years, but the litmus test for any choice is “Would you do it again?” Right there in that moment, drawing closer and closer to a plume that could turn out to be my own? The road was long. The answer was “no.” For that house at that time, maybe my decision was right, but I hope I never find out what it would be if it happened again, and I hope you, dear reader, never have more than a passing interest in what your decision might be either.

Goodwill and the Economy Co-Evolve

by Karen

Thomasville, GA Television Display

Thomasville, GA Television Display

As a long-time supporter of Goodwill, both as a donor and as a customer, I was glad to see some of the savvy marketing and new technology that they are using. I was shopping Goodwill and other thrift stores long before Shabby Chic was chic. Back when the economy was growing and conspicuous consumption was the nation’s modus operandi, I was still shopping for a good cause while also recycling unwanted household items for that same good cause. The deals were better for a shopper when I was not in the majority and the demand was lower, but they are still good now, and given the same deal at Goodwill and an overstock store, I will give the business to Goodwill or another non-profit when I can.

Russ and I have been on a big Goodwill kick lately. We have opened an account with Etsy for some of our current crafts and plan to expand with time. We have seen a few crafts that are “green” using recycled items from thrift stores to become something else. We are looking for that unique breakthrough idea that sings, and when it sings, it needs to sing “art” and nothing less.

Media shelves, Thomasville, GA

Media shelves, Thomasville, GA

It has been a blast so far. We sought out the Goodwill in Oak Ridge, Tennessee on our recent trip through the area. Would this Goodwill be different? What might we find there in the Secret City? It was a nice store and there was a much larger Science Fiction book section than I have ever seen at any other Goodwill Otherwise there was not too terribly much to distinguish it from other locations.

We did find interesting differences in other Tennessee towns. We found some with new stock as well as the regular recycled donations. I asked if new stock was becoming typical and the storekeeper told me that all Goodwill stores in her district carried new stock, that employees went on buying trips and that some merchandise had come from “the shopping network.” This was news to me, though I did not find anything at this location that moved me to the point of purchase. There are a lot of shifts taking place in charity and overstock outlets as the current economic conditions have a larger segment of the population looking for discounts, bargains and other forms of frugal spending options. These shifts have some charity organizations scrambling to replace good that were once donated as seconds, but now have a market in discount stores. At the same time, the price gap in second hand and second quality stores closes in to reflect the greater demand. New marketing techniques in Goodwill are well timed to fit in this shifting marketplace.

Custom Shelves with End Cap Racks

Custom Shelves with End Cap Racks

The best store set up that I have seen since this renewed purpose to my old passion has taken hold was in Thomasville, Georgia, a part of the Big Bend (Florida) district. Shelves were custom made here to fit above the clothing racks so that while shopping for clothing, household items and nick knacks were right there calling for attention. In electronics, the televisions sets were running just as they would be in a retail outlet allowing comparison. The aisles all had end-caps with merchandise, just like a regular retail outlet. The video, music and other media had shelves custom fit to their size so that the display was easier to process visually and took less space than it would otherwise. I bought a white ceramic owl container because it reminded me a little bit of Woodsy Owl. When I went to the checkout and complimented the college student clerk on the set up as the best lay out I had ever seen at a Goodwill (or any other thrift store) he was really psyched. He spoke enthusiastically about the manager responsible for the set up. Apparently he puts these features in all of his Big Bend locations. The part I couldn’t tell just by looking is that this manager keeps track of what is selling and makes sure that there is a proportionate amount of display space dedicated to those items. I was already impressed before the clerk talking!

After returning home, I found some other interesting Goodwill news. I saw an internet link to some items that had been donated by the newest owner of a cabin that had once belonged to June and Johnny Cash. The claim to fame caught my attention, but it was also clear that there was no claim that the items had been owned by the Cash family. I followed the link until I saw a site with a set up that looked very much like ebay. There were categorized items with photographs. I did not know that I could shop at Goodwill on the internet! Fantastic!

Effective display and effecient use of space.

Effective display and effecient use of space.

Their 100th anniversary was in 2002 and long before that date, Goodwill became to thrift stores what Kleenex is to facial tissues and Coke is to soft drinks. That is, people often use those brand names as generic, even when they mean to refer to other brands. At seven years into their second century, they seem to be looking forward very well, maximizing their market niche and continuing to do good works. In an ever changing marketplace this is no small task. As fads come and go some things are worth keeping. I hope that after Shabby Chic and “Green” have peaked there will be some follow on that will keep people using common sense to shop at economical places where they can recycle while at the same time support a worthy cause. It just makes good sense to support institutions that meet multiple goals and needs the way that Goodwill and other thrift stores do… and when we figure out that amazing new art form, you’ll be sure to find out about it right here!

How Cute are These Boots?

by Karen
Last Saturday morning our regular ritual was disturbed. Normally we go to the Marietta Square Farmer’s Market and run errands while listening to four favorite radio programs, “Martinis Con Queso”, “Wait,Wait Don’t Tell Me” , “Car Talk” and “Splendid Table”. Last week the farmer’s market was not scheduled to run and we got most of our errands done Friday, so, we were trying to decide what to do with the morning. I suggested that we might go to a local mall to watch the yuppie larvae do the Christmas thing at the doll store. I say that with fondness, humor, appreciation, cultural self-awareness and just a little bit of bite because I have such mixed feelings and recognize all of them when I make the suggestion.

I first became aware of American Girls character dolls from Pleasant Company when looking for gifts for my daughter. I was thrilled. Here was a set of old fashioned dolls complete with historical setting, old fashioned accessories, a book and an amazing wardrobe. It was a wonderful group of toys that allowed my child to be a child, to have a play experience that was wholesome, fun and age appropriate. One of the original dolls, Molly, had a story and accessories that were set during the time when my mother was a child. Molly looked like my mother looked, with braided pigtails and glasses and she carried a WWII nurse doll just like the one my mother played with as a child. After giving Molly to my daughter, I showed her my own mother’s nurse doll and she could see that her doll’s doll was a miniature that looked very much like her grandmother’s doll. There was a powerful thread of tradition in play when I bought this toy for my child and I felt really good about it.

The dolls and their accessories are expensive, but I was clearly not the only one willing to pay the price. Over time the line of toys has grown in every possible way. There are more characters from different times with different stories as well as non-character baby bolls. Mattel Inc. has bought Pleasant Company, and in select upscale markets there are retail stores with a party area where girls who are dressed like their dolls can have a tea party to celebrate a special occasion. Thankfully, Mattel Inc. left many of the features that make the dolls worthwhile intact, but the sheer magnitude of the current line is a bit over the top. There is a salon in the store where girls can take the dolls to have their hair done, part restoration, part theater.

Last year I was in the mall where the American Girls Store is located at Christmas when I moved into people watching mode. It was amazing. There were finely dressed little girls in their Christmas best with their matching character dolls headed to see Santa for the annual Christmas photo. Suddenly this grounded product line seemed to have carried the perfect childhood into the realm of the unreal, to a place where we might be in danger of meeting Veruca Salt. The scary part is that I don’t know where, exactly, the line lies between creating the perfect childhood in truth and creating the “perfect childhood” that isn’t, the one that has lifelong fallout.

Parenting is a mine field and the task grows more complex over time. The constant, independent of income, is that we want to protect our children from harm and to give them the best possible life; but with expanding economic expectations it is harder to define what the best possible childhood includes. Since the nineteen fifties parents have expected that life would be economically better for their children than it was for them. As a whole it has been. But, six decades later, the certainty of that expectation is beginning to weaken, the economic landscape is diverging and the reality is disquieting. Many people want it all and want it now, and they have lead a life that makes that desire a short-term reality. Some of these people have been on the top of heavily leveraged economic waves that left others paying for their choices and they are disconnected from the consequences. Pick any recent disaster of the financial systems and at the root there will be a group of people who tried to “outsmart” the system, to find a way to get spectacular returns over a short time span, or to live beyond their means. Frequently they move on to the next bubble just in time to let others pay the real cost of the last one. These expectations are fostered in childhood and grow up to send worldwide ripples in places like Dubai as well as at home. Over the decades, our ideal of the economic standard it takes to provide a perfect childhood have changed. Television programs about families depict those changing ideals and show the progression of expectation from the depression era setting of “The Waltons” through the post war boom setting of “Ozzie and Harriet” and on to today. Expectations increase steadily and as time goes by and become increasingly unrealistic. Like Lake Wobegone, “all the children are above average.

With all of this in mind, I watch the GAP commercial. Those are some beautiful kids. They are dancing and happy and wearing the cutest clothes. They are cool. What a perfect piece of marketing. Who wouldn’t want that perfection for their child? “How cute are these boots?” that song is in my head when I walk through the mall past the American Girls store. There I am in the mall again wondering where the line is. What constitutes the perfect childhood, what expectations are you planting for your children and what will they have to do in order to meet those expectations as they grow. How cute ARE these boots? I want them and I don’t even have a child to put them on anymore! At the same time, I can not imagine a childhood any better that the one in “The Waltons”. They did not have the material wealth that we think we need to provide for our children, but they did have everything that truly matters. When my family gathered for Christmas in Alabama, we filled all the bedrooms of my grandmother’s large antebellum home. The house was cold. Each room had a fireplace where a ceramic gas heater had been installed. We only heated the rooms that were being occupied and the heat would be turned down at bedtime. As we snuggled into the covers for warmth, invariably someone would call out “goodnight Johnboy'”.

Quixotic

Quixotic: I ran across that word three times my reading last week and once on the radio. Unusual. The fist time I saw the word was in a general reference to cycling any distance further than a mile or two around the neighbourhood and I didn’t think too much about it. By the third time I saw the word it was describing women in their 40’s and said that it was “often in detriment to their health”. Well, I am a woman in her 40’s, and the health comment in particular puzzled me, so I looked it up just to make sure I actually remembered the definition of the odd stereotype with which this author was labelling me. According to Merriam Webster’s online dictionary it means “foolishly impractical especially in the pursuit of ideals ; especially : marked by rash lofty romantic ideas or extravagantly chivalrous action”…or like Don Quixote.

I suppose I can think of some ways that a pursuit of ideals might be detrimental to one’s health, but all of the ways I can imagine involve excess or enemies. I also remember that my Dad was in his 40’s when Mom nick-named him Don Quixote and teased him about jousting windmills. At the same time, I wonder if the pursuit of lofty ideals is indicative of an age based desire. True, when one is in their 40’s they usually have children who are old enough and parents who are young enough that they can turn interests toward something outside the home if they like. I agree that a quest is more possible for someone in their forties, but the desire for a quest? Well, I have had that since I was old enough to understand the concept and no one needs freedom of the sort that is afforded to men and women in their forties in order to dream the impossible dream.

I have seen many assessments and generalizations of what I, as a woman in her forties, want from life. I find some of them appallingly off the mark, even offensive. On the whole, I guess I’m fairly comfortable with this one. There is a little part of me that hums in synchronicity when I hear Man of La Mancha or Dulcinea. I heard the music in my 20s and 30s though and my plan is to still be humming when I am 50, 70 or 90.

Apollo 11: Looking Back, and Forward

Today I find myself remembering a particular visit home to grandma’s house. My grandmother, Mimi, we called her lived in Evergreen, Alabama and we lived in Nederland,Texas, so it had been a long drive for my small attention span. Are we there yet? My mother (in the wisdom that is ingrained in a mother’s DNA) told me to look for the big red clay hill and then I would know we were there. Magic, no more questions, but then jumping excitement when the big clay hill beside Baggett’s service station was spotted.

This was not my earliest memory, but it was the earliest memory that I can date specifically because it was the summer of Apollo 11. We had traveled all that distance in a white mustang to visit with my grandparents in their antebellum home with the high ceilings and the crystal chandeliers. These were the summers of homemade ice cream, watermelon seed fights and Papa’s dog Peanut howling at the horn when the freight train came through town.

Shortly after we arrived the lunar landing was aired on television. I remember the image of my grandfather and his reaction better than I remember the actual landing and my own reaction. It was many years before I understood the significance of the history that was taking place or to appreciate its place for him.

Papa sat on a round piano stool next to the upright piano. It was the kind of stool that had claw feet over glass casters and a wide wooden screw in the center underneath the seat allowing you to turn the seat to adjust the height. I rarely saw Papa without the business shirt he wore every day, but on this day he wore a sleeveless undershirt. When they landed, he scratched his head and said “Golee”, not nearly as exaggerated, but somewhat reminiscent of Gomer Pyle from the Andy Griffith show. I don’t remember that being a word he used often.

As I grew older I began to hear my grandfather speak about his life and the things that he had seen. One of the things Papa remembered was when the first person brought the first car to town. I was struck by how much technology had changed from the time he was a small boy until the time I was a small girl. I watched the lunar landing with a man who knew a life before automobiles came into his.

Changing technology is constant and I have seen my share. I remember large cell phones with larger batteries, life before the Internet and I also remember my daughter questioning me as though I had misspoken “What do you mean you didn’t have VCRs when you were a kid?” Still, I’ve never seen change like he saw change. Trying to put myself in my grandfather’s shoes is difficult. This person who often drove me to Sleepy’s Drive-In for a soft serve ice cream cone after dinner remembered when it was the cost of hay that fueled transportation rather than the cost of gas and I was with him while we watched men walking on the moon. He saw many more changes before he left us.

Today as we look back and marvel that many Americans carry more sophisticated technology in their pockets than the computing systems that took men to the moon, I can only wonder what changes I may see when I have seen as many years as my grandfather did. When my son was young, I subscribed to MIT Technology Review because I knew that he would read it if it was sitting around the house. Every once in a while I’d be half listening as he, who was also a Star Trek fan, would talk about something he had read and I would have to stop him to check and see if he was off in the imaginary world, or if it came out of MIT. I am reminded of Arthur C. Clark’s quotation “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” I look forward to seeing the magic that will be our future and I hope that we use it well.