30 June, 2008

Is It...Purslane? Weed Identification Needed

After having the yew shrubs in front dug up by others through Craigslist, and having worked to regrade the slope alongside the foundation where they were, I shifted my attention to a few indoor projects. It was only for a minute, I swear, but when I looked again the entire area was knee deep in weeds. Much of it is mint that has gone wild, so that's okay (for now). I've been enjoying mint juleps all week. But it's a little crazy out there, so I've started to weed and cover the area with lawn fabric to prep it for flower beds next year.

There is one plant that seems as invasive as the mint; there is TONS of it growing all over the place. I suspect, like the mint, it was once planted on purpose. But now it's EVERYWHERE. I tried to ID it myself, and am guessing that it might be purslane, a.k.a. pigweed. It kind of looks like a jade plant and grows flat along the ground. What do you real gardeners think? Am I right?

Forearm Forklift Wins Again

I know I've sung the praises of this product before, but seriously, the Forearm Forklift rocks.

The previous owners of The Box House left us with two washing machines and two dryers in the basement--appliances that are almost as old as I am, I kid you not (we have the original manuals). And while we do allow the tenants use of the laundry room, we still don't need four big, clunky appliances in the basement. There are no kids in the building, no dirty diapers to wash, just five adults with an average amount of laundry.

We'd like to use some of the space in the laundry room to add other big, clunky appliances, like a second refrigerator. So, this weekend Ted and I removed one set. All right, I admit the old Kenmore washer was more than I could handle, even with the Forearm Forklift. I'm a mere 5'1", and while pretty strong, if I do say so myself—after all, Ted and I moved ourselves because we were too cheap to hire movers—I met my match with the washing machine. We had to remove part of the motor and the concrete ballast (I had absolutely no clue there even was a big ol' chunk of concrete in the machine) before I was able to help Ted lift it. But the dryer we were able to lift and carry out with ease. No neck strain, no back pain. Just some tension on the forearms--which are far tougher than you'd imagine--and both the machines were up the stairs, out the door, and beside the driveway in (almost) no time. We would never have been able to budge them without the use of the moving straps. We just tilted each machine enough to slip the straps under them, then slipped our arms through the loops, squatted down to take the weight with our legs, and up we went. It wasn't fun, mind you. The machines are still heavy. But we didn't kill ourselves moving them.

Image from the package showing two models carrying a dryer. We did not look this good moving ours.

We left the machines in the alley, and they were gone by the next morning, taken by the tinkers. God bless those tinkers, who are always there to take our scrap metal and other interesting garbage.

Really, if you're about to move, or move something heavy, get this product. It just might keep you from getting a hernia.

29 June, 2008

For Sale By Owner, or, Firing Our Real Estate Agent

We fired Mom's real estate agent two weeks ago.

P., the agent, was little more than a glorified secretary, scheduling appointments for people to look at the house but not going over himself, not following up with the buyer's agent until weeks after an appointment, and certainly not giving us any advice on what to do to make the home more marketable in a down market. In ten months, we've had numerous people walk through, but no offers. In fact, we had some people come in two and three times, but we didn't know until way after the fact, when P. would offhandedly mention it. What do you mean this was the third showing to the same people? What do you mean you weren't over there to talk up the place and answer questions?

Seriously, in this market, you want your agent to put some effort into the sale. After all, when you're forking over 5-6% in commissions, you want to see something for the money.

We had been talking about how best to break the contract with P., but I think the last straw was when he called to talk to Mom and I said, "She's out; you can call her on her cell."

P: I don't think I have her mobile number.

Me: What? I've given it to you before. (Me thinking: Idiot--why don't you have that programmed into the phone?)

P: Well, I don't think I have it. Can you just tell her I called?

Me: (Thinking that he should at least have asked for it again) Um, okay. (Idiot)

That night, Mom read him the riot act on the phone. It's a tough market, and not everything is his fault, but the agent has done little to guide us in this process, and I think that's what he's there for. Getting feedback from potential buyers and passing on that info to us is critical, I would think, but he never did anything like that.

Anyway, before she could actually fire him for non performance, he offered to dissolve the contract. Yay! Now we can find a better agent and list it again with a new MLS number.

Only we can't. If we list again within 90 days, the previous information will pull up in the MLS and it will show as having been on the market since last August. Did P. bother to tell us that? No. We found that out from a realtor acquaintance of ours.

We first met Shawn Daly six years ago, when he was the seller's agent for the condo Ted bought around the time we started dating. Every year we get a Christmas gift from Shawn, as does every other owner in the condo building. I guess the thought is that when those units are ready to sell again, he'll be the go-to agent.

We met him again last summer. Shawn was actually the seller's agent for a house we looked at, and for a while strongly considered. He not only remembered Ted from before, but the condo's address as well. (He, and not a secretary, sends out those Christmas gifts, apparently.) We didn't hire Shawn for our two-flat search with my mom because we wanted a buyers-only broker who would give back a percentage of the commission, although we'll strongly consider him when it is time to put Ted's condo on the market. (For those new to the blog, we rented out the condo in Chicago rather than try to sell it at this time.)

Anyway, from last summer until last weekend, we hadn't encountered Shawn again, but ran into him at Custer's Last Stand, an arts festival here in Evanston. He not only recognized all of us, but even remembered which house—of the many properties he represented--that we looked at. We'd hire him in a second to sell Mom's place if his territory stretched out that far.

Although he couldn't be our agent, he was gracious enough to give us some free advice. He's the one who said we'd have to wait 90 days to get the property back into the MLS with a new number, and that it's probably better to wait and have it show up as brand new for a whole new crowd of buyers. But he advocated For Sale By Owner (FSBO) in the meantime, saying that most agents (although they should be) are not working properties very hard right now. He boasts that he's still selling pretty well in a down market, and I believe it, because I've seen a number of his properties sell in the past year. He offered several ideas that we might try if we're feeling aggressive, so in the next few months I'll be chronicling what's going on at the other house as well as work we're doing here at The Box House.

So, for the moment, Mom's house is off the market. We're going over next week to work on a few more projects to spruce things up before doing the FSBO route. But, if anyone out there has sold their home "by owner," I'd love to get some feedback on the process--particularly how you marketed it and how you followed up with people who came to take a look at the place. I just picked up Robert Irwin's new book For Sale By Owner, which was written for a down market and has tons of great advice. But I'd love some firsthand accounts as well.

26 June, 2008

Tuesdays Are for Agents Only

When we first saw The Box House last summer, our agent, Joel, was able to personally recommend the neighborhood. After all, his grandmother had lived across the street for decades.

At first glance, you wouldn't know her circa 1931 Georgian is actually a two flat. "Too bad that one's not on the market," I said. "It's adorable." Shopping for a two flat had been tough, because they're not as common in Evanston as they are in Chicago and they just don't come on the market as often. I would have liked to have seen this one.
I love this front garden! Unfortunately, we can't duplicate this kind of look ourselves, even though we have the same number of stairs leading to the front door, because of the basement windows--we certainly don't want to block them.

Well, the current owner of that house stopped by to chat and introduce himself while I was working in the yard last week. He pointed out the house and said it was going up for sale.

"No way," I thought. "What are the odds?" I was dying to go inside and take a peek, because, like I said, there aren't many two flats in the neighborhood and I was curious about the place because it had been in my agent's family. But I didn't want to just say to the guy, "Hey, I know we met like five minutes ago, and I'm covered up to my eyebrows in garden dirt and sweat, but can I poke around your house?"

But on Tuesday, as Ted and I were getting ready for a round of errands, we noticed that there was an open house sign and a steady flow of people coming in and out.

"What an odd day for an open house," I said.

"You're right," Ted agreed. "But let's go check it out."

So we walked right on in and said hello to the selling agent. "We live across the street in the other two flat, and just wanted to see this one for comparison," I said. Usually, when we go to open houses, we sign in as Dirk and Mimi. Really, we do. It's hilarious hearing someone say, "Well, nice to meet you, Dirk." But for some reason or other, I fessed up that we were just curious neighbors. What is the etiquette, anyway, for open houses at the homes of neighbors that you don't really know but whose house you can see from your window? How invasive is it to go and have a look around? How nosy is that?

Speaking of noses, the agent looked down hers at me (she was pretty darn tall, so maybe it wasn't intentional) and said this open house was "for agents only." Sunday open houses are for the public, but, apparently, ones for agents fall on Tuesdays. I'm not sure how I ever missed this critical bit of real estate culture before. But it's not like the open house sign out front said "agents only," how were we to know?

She tried to be gracious. "Well, you're here," she sighed. "You might as well look around." But it was obvious that she wasn't thrilled with the idea.

So we took a quick peek around. The layout is quite different from The Box House, but the size of the rooms is roughly the same. Whereas our bedrooms are all on the north side of the building, with the dining room, kitchen, and living room on the south side, this house had the rooms scattered:
It's a good layout, and keeps the public areas separate from the sleeping areas. Although I'm not sure how it was determined the kitchen was 19 feet long, unless it's from doorway to doorway and counting all that dead space.

The living room and dining room of the Georgian are at the front, so each of those rooms has windows on two sides. And the LR has a real fireplace. I was jealous of that; although I do love our 1920s electric fireplace (which gives off light but not heat), I miss a real fire.

The living room at the Georgian. Like all real estate listing photos, it makes the room look deceptively large. It is really about as big as our living rooms at The Box House (below).

While the rooms are the same size, our living room has a lot more light. Our floor plan is also more open; there is a large opening between the dining room and the living room. This does give us fewer options for arranging furniture. Other differences include our stained glass piano windows, the relative placement of the radiators (theirs is below the window), and our unpainted wood trim.

Our living room with some of our furniture in place and Maggie watching out the window.

The downstairs kitchen of the Georgian still had a 1930s style sink (way cool) and they had installed a dishwasher in the pantry. We've been trying out a few configurations for a dishwasher in our head, but hadn't thought of the pantry before. It's a novel idea, but wouldn't work for us because we still have the original ice boxes. Also, while they have the original cupboard for the ironing board, it had been removed and converted to a spice rack. Ours were recently restored by Ted.

Again, this photo makes the room look deceptively long. I think our kitchen actually has a little more space. But oy! We have a long way to go to updating it (below).

This is actually the upstairs kitchen; I just realized I haven't taken a photo of the downstairs unit yet with our stuff set up. The configuration is slightly different, with the sink and stove on the same side and the radiator below the window. Oh wait, I do have the one from the original listing:

Yes, we still have that fug wallpaper and tile. We've done nothing to this room yet, and won't until my mom's other house sells.
This is one of the bedrooms of the Georgian. I think it is the same size and layout as my mom's sewing room. I like the windows of the Georgian better in this room, but again the sewing room has more light. I think it's the difference of having a corner lot.

This is another bedroom of the Georgian, which is a mirror image--right down to the size of the closet--as the one my mom is using (below).

This is an image from the original listing for The Box House. I haven't taken one with her furniture in it yet.

Here's Mom's room right after we refinished the floors. Although you can't really see them well in these photos, there are two original cast iron sconces between the windows, which I'll strip of the white paint and restore one of these days.

The agent was following us around while we made our mental comparisons, making me generally nervous, so we (read "I") decided it wasn't necessary to see the other unit, which was identical in layout. But it never crossed my mind to check out the basement, and I'm kicking myself. We're going to work on our basement soon, and I really want to compare theirs to ours to see what they did with it.

The most interesting bit during the whole impromptu tour was a conversation I overheard between two of the visiting realtors. They were discussing a "dark brick" two-flat across the street that had been for sale last year and how it hadn't been updated with modern appliances, either, and didn't necessarily show well, but had a "lot of good potential" because of all the vintage details. Well, there isn't another brick two-flat on the block, so it had to be The Box House they were discussing. I would have loved to have heard more of that conversation, but they had moved to another room and the agent for this house asked me a question. But oh, the things you can learn when you least expect it! I'm glad other agents thought The Box House had good potential, because our floors sure looked crappy when we moved in.

The Georgian is currently listed for much more than what we paid for The Box House, and I honestly think it needs a lot of work as well. The rooms look freshly painted, and show very well in the photos, but the floors would need to be refinished eventually, and all their woodwork is painted white (and repainted with a few coats) and needs to be stripped and redone. The appliances are outdated and the windows might need replacing, whereas our floors have already been done and the windows were replaced about three years ago.

All in all, I think the Georgian is a pretty good comp for ours. The bathrooms, for example, are nearly identical, and I like how the subway tile looks in theirs, so it's easy to visualize what our end result will be when we have the time/funds to work on it.

Theirs. I really like the subway tile. If there ever were sconces beside the mirror, they've been removed.

This is the bathroom in the upstair's unit of The Box House. It's the same size as the Georgian bathroom and has the original hex tile, but has been finished off with a gawd-awful pieced together tub insert and oversized vanity. It was nice to see the other bathroom with a pedestal sink in place, and how much roomier the room feels with it instead.

If the trees weren't leafing out in this photo, you could see the Georgian from our porch windows. But what you can see in this photo is the roof of our garage and our PT Cruiser sitting on the driveway. Most of the homes on our street are bungalows; I'll have to take some neighborhood photos some time.

Joel's grandmother's house certainly is a charmer, and could work as a single family or be kept as a two-flat. (Square foot for square foot, buying a two flat is often cheaper than buying a single family home. And you have the added bonus of a second kitchen!) I look forward to seeing what it finally sells for and who moves in. It's a great neighborhood.

23 June, 2008

Werner 22-Foot Type 1A 300-Pound Duty Rating Telescoping Multiladder

As part of signing up with Comcast for our cable/internet/phone needs, we ended up with a $300 gift certificate for Amazon. We're using it to buy a Werner 22-Foot Telescoping Multiladder. It's supposed to be like the Little Giant (As-Seen-On-TV) ladder, but it's cheaper and the reviews are pretty good. It can be used as an extension ladder, broken into two separate stepladders, and even used on stairs. Who knew I'd get so excited about a ladder? The ones we have now are either a)as old as the house, made of wood, and completely unsafe or b)short stepladders we brought with when we moved in.

And, since I have an Amazon.com affiliate account, Ted ordered the ladder through the link above and I'll get a small commission for the sale. Not bad, eh?

18 June, 2008

Glass Rock Landscape Mulch

When I started to regrade along the alley side of our garage, I kept coming across these shiny, brown obsidian-like rocks. They were everywhere. Each shovelful of dirt yielded a few more and it was like finding buried treasure. I asked the neighbor across the alley, who has lived here for ten years, if she knew what they were, but she had never seen them before. We figured it was some kind of landscaping rocks. She took one over to the previous owners' granddaughter's house (she had lived here for fourteen years prior), but K. had never seen them before, either.

Eventually--um, when I dropped one on the concrete driveway and chipped it--I figured out they were made of glass. Very thick, dense glass. I had never even heard of glass being used as landscaping rocks! But I did find a few vendors online, calling glass the "new" landscaping medium. The following pics are from The Garden of Glass.

They come in several sizes--from itty-bitty to egg-sized rocks like the ones I found--and in just about every color imaginable. So now I'm intrigued. I want to create two flower beds on either side of the walkway up to the front door and these might add that unique, eye-catching appeal I'm looking for. I like the more natural-looking grass green or amber, but the glass also comes in such colors as cobalt blue, hot pink, and neon orange.

So what do y'all think--way cool or incredibly tacky? Go on, give me your honest opinion!

Or is this something best left to a Southwest or more temperate garden than our Chicago-area one?

17 June, 2008

Stok Black Coffee Shot; Warning: High Caffeine

I've been burning the midnight oil a bit, trying to catch up on projects--both the home improvement and money-in-the-bank kind--and I've been imbibing a little more caffeine than usual: coffee during the day and a Big Ass Diet Coke each evening. But even as a hard-core caffeine enthusiast, I find this a little scary:

The Stok Black Coffee Shot, a chemically enhanced non-dairy coffee product. I'm not sure how long it's been around, but I noticed it for the first time at the 7-11 last night. With 40 mg of caffeine per serving, the package boasts it's equivalent to a shot of espresso (although I looked this up; ounce per ounce it actually has twice as much caffeine as espresso). I found the Stok Web site, where they sing the praises of their product: "It’s a sweet coffee shot that puts more caffeine and a packet of sugar in your coffee...limit 2 servings per day. Not for use by children under age 18, pregnant women, or the caffeine-sensitive." The package itself says: "Warning: High Caffeine."

I don't know. Does a product like this seem a wee bit irresponsible? You know people are not going to limit themselves to two. When I used to use creamers, back in college, I'd probably dump four or five in a large coffee.

So what keeps you guys going when you need to? I love my lattes and my Diet Coke, but weaning myself off of them again after this round of work is going to be a bitch.

Behind every successful woman is a substantial amount of coffee.
—Stephanie Piro

15 June, 2008

Father's Day 2008

Happy Father's Day, Daddy.
I love you.

And Happy Father's Day, Papa.

We miss you both so much.

And a Very Happy Father's Day to my Future Father-in-Law, Bob. We hope to see you and Rachel soon!

Flag Day and My First Flag

When I was in college, I played the bagpipes with the University of Iowa Scottish Highlanders--and I was terrible. Just ask any of my roommates from that time period. And my parents, would you believe they actually showed up to one of my performances wearing ear plugs? (Although I really can't blame them too much; a dozen pipers in an enclosed auditorium are rather loud.)

Still, I had a blast. I loved playing them. And when I was a junior (the year John Goodman was the Grand Marshall), the entire band--pipers, dancers, and drummers--went down to New Orleans to march in the Endymion Parade, the largest of the 80 or so parades that take place during Mardi Gras week. (And no, I didn't flash myself to get beads--rude Endymion krewe members told me I didn't have much to flash, anyway. Phooey.)

I can't remember the reason why, but when it came time to step off, we were short a flag carrier. Usually, two of the dancers held a banner proclaiming who we were, and two others would hold the American and Scottish flags while the others danced. Well, we could only carry one flag in that parade, and I advocated for it to be the St. Andrew's Cross, a white cross on a blue field which represented the patron saint of Scotland. A few of the older band members--we did not limit membership to just students, anyone in the community could join and I think the oldest people were in their 40s--were horrified that I would select the Scottish flag over the American flag. But we were a Scottish bagpipe band, and I was a young and perhaps naive 21-year-old whose heart had never truly been stirred by the Flag and all it represented.

We ended up carrying the American Flag.

A lot has happened to me since then. I've traveled the world and been to over two dozen countries where I've seen the U.S. flag both celebrated and ridiculed, and sometimes even burned. I've found myself an unwitting spokesperson for what it is to be an American, and to try to explain, defend, and often apologize for my government's actions. Since college, I've witnessed a direct attack on our country, and the unbridled patriotism that swept us all in the aftermath of 9-11, and I've seen what has been an absolutely amazing Democratic primary this year where both an African-American man and a woman were the top contenders to be the party's candidate. What an amazing place we are privileged to live in.

I don't know what it is, but the older I get, the more I find that I love my country--warts and all. There are many things I'd like to change and see changed, of course; we're far, far from perfect. But in recent years, I find myself overly sentimental when I hear such things as James Cagney sing "It's a Grand Old Flag" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy." I end up a teary-eyed mess on the Fourth of July when The 1812 Overture is played (while this piece by Tchaikovsky has no historical connection with American history, it is often played along with Independence Day fireworks.)

So it should come as no surprise that last week, while shopping at Jewel, our local grocery store, I picked up a full-size American flag. We have a pole holder on the front of the house (placed by the previous owners) just begging for a flag, and I found just the one for it. Would you believe that it's my very first American flag ever? Crazy, eh?

So, as Mom reminded me this morning, today is Flag Day, and I took the opportunity to clamber up on the front porch and lean way the heck out there in order to put the flag in place. (Really, was this the best spot for the previous owners to put the holder? I might have to find a better, easier-to-access location.)

I knew Flag Day was celebrated each year, but I couldn't remember why, exactly. Why June 14th? The all-knowing Internet provided the answer. From the National Flag Day Foundation:

The Stars and Stripes, the official National symbol of the United States of America, was authorized by Congress on that Saturday of June 14, 1777 in the fifth item of the day's agenda. The entry in the journal of the Continental Congress 1774-1789 Vol. Vlll 1777 reads “Resolved that the flag of the thirteen United States be Thirteen stripes alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

In Waubeka, Wisconsin, in 1885, Bernard John Cigrand, a nineteen-year-old school teacher in a one room school, placed a 10-inch, 38-star flag in an inkwell and had his students write essays on what the flag meant to them. He called June 14th the flag’s birthday. Stony Hill School is now a historical site. From that day on Bernard John Cigrand dedicated himself to inspire not only his students, but also all Americans in the real meaning and majesty of our flag.

Wikipedia adds

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation that officially established June 14 as Flag Day; in August 1949, National Flag Day was established by an Act of Congress.

Flag Day is not an official federal holiday, though on June 14, 1937, Pennsylvania became the first (and only) U.S. state to celebrate Flag Day as a state holiday.

So, goofy, sentimental me was thrilled to be able to fly the flag today, Flag Day 2008. It was cool to see a few other older homes and bungalows in the neighborhood flying them, too.

14 June, 2008

Clark-Devon Hardware / Standard Low-Tank Toilet

Image from Yelp

After many months of looking at the pieces of our disassembled 1920s Standard Low Tank Toilet, we're finally getting around to making it functional. The decision to rent the top unit of The Box House had left us with only one toilet for the three adults in our household. There are certain days, post chili night, for example, when a second toilet would come in mighty handy. Mighty. Handy.

The Standard toilet in the basement is as old as the house, and replacement parts are not easy to come by. Ted searched online, and found several sites that are obviously out to get naive customers because they charge beaucoup bucks for simple parts. We figured there had to be a better solution.

We tried Home Depot first for the heck of it, because it's around the corner from our house and we figured we might find something that would work. No dice, but the plumbing guy did send us to Clark-Devon Hardware down in Rogers Park, a place I've been meaning to make it to for a while now.

Clark-Devon Hardware has been in operation since 1924, and owned and operated by three generations of the same family. This place is AMAZING, with hard-to-find house renovation supplies that you can't get anywhere else--and at pretty reasonable prices. They had everything we (think) we need to get the toilet working and we spent--ta dah--all of five bucks. The staff was very helpful and knowledgeable and we were so surprised to actually get what we needed, that I want to give them a special shout out. If you live in or near north Chicago, definitely check out this old time hardware store.

Ted's going to work on the toilet late tonight or tomorrow, so I'll post the accompanying pics later. Because our offices are also in the basement, having a second toilet here is going to be great. I know the room looks a little--ahem--crappy at the moment, but a lot of bleach to disinfect and clean it up and a new toilet seat will elevate it above most public washrooms.

11 June, 2008

McDowell & Craig Desk, Anglo Saxon Spindle Whorls

I don't generally like mid-century modern style. Art deco waterfall front furniture, inlaid woods, stepped forms, and starburst patterns are what get my heart racing. But when my cousin asked if I wanted his desk before he put it on Craigs List, I said yes, yes! The desk I've been using for years is this tiny little thing that I bought in Chicago at a convent estate sale. The Sisters were selling off the bulk of their possessions, and I scored a few cool items that day. I love my little wooden 1930s desk, but it is only big enough for my monitor, my keyboard, and a cup of coffee. There isn't even enough room for a lamp, and it's not the least bit ergonomic; no wonder my wrist bothers me when I'm working for too long.

So Ted and I drove across town to pick up the desk from John and a book shelf, too. I have to admit, I wasn't really wowed with the desk at first. It was sort of big and industrial looking and very heavy. I've always had antique wood furniture. But when I set the desk up in my office and sat down for the first time, oh boy! I was dazzled by the shiny polished surface, how comfortable it was to work at. And the room! I can now keep all of my critical books close at hand, as well as a few of my favorite knickknacks. I think I'm in love--thanks, John!

The desk is made by McDowell & Craig, a company that's been around since the 1940s. My home office is too tiny to photograph the desk properly, but here's an image I sniped from Retro Office; it more or less looks like this:

Close up of some of the crap valuable treasures I've set out:

A jar of marbles that my dad bought for me at an estate sale; a smoky quartz crystal ball (to dispell negativity and promote healing); a Viking era brooch; one dozen worry dolls that I picked up in Guatemala; a half dozen Anglo-Saxon lead spindle whorls; a Roman winged penis amulet; a 4000 year old (supposedly) goddess figure I bought from an antiquities dealer in London; a lump of amethyst, my birthstone, given to me by my grandfather; an egg-shaped piece of chrysocolla, considered a healing stone; and a gigantic lingam stone I got in India (boy, that was one heavy souvenir to carry in my backpack for three months). The wooden box is one Ted made when he was a kid, and holds a secret treasure.

I like collecting antiquities, and try to deal only with reputable merchants who can guarantee the provenance with money-back offers (i.e., I stay away from eBay for the most part). Of the few dozen pieces I have, some are probably even genuine. :-) I like feminine and domestic items, nothing flashy. Bronze rings. A bead bracelet. The spindle whorls, for example, were dug up in an English pasture by an amateur metal detecting enthusiast who sold them to me for beer money. Stuff like this, he wrote, is quite common. But to me, they're pretty special, a warm, solid connection to some woman who lived a thousand years ago. I like to hold them in my hand and contemplate what this unknown woman must have been thinking about as she tended to her weaving. Her tasks of feeding and clothing her family are not all that different from mine, where I try to make a comfortable home for those I love.

Close up of three of the spindle whorls, uncleaned--I like having my own little bit o' England sitting on the desk.

Hunterian Psalster, woman spinning.

Anyway, having a desk with enough space to set up my toys is a blast. I don't know why I didn't get a bigger desk ages ago. My old nun's desk has been moved to the other room, where we're (finally) setting up the Playstation and the Dance Dance Revolution metal pads.

Newest Family Member

Ted's brother Vince and his wife June have a new family member. Anaiah was born earlier this week, and big brother Jachin is obviously thrilled to pieces with his baby sister.

08 June, 2008

Have You Seen This Weed?

We've had a ton of rain this week in Chicagoland, which means that the few flower beds I'm tending this year are quite overgrown with weeds. I'll tackle them shortly, when it stops pouring down on us, but these guys give me pause:

They showed up just these last few days, I think. They're big, lush, hardy looking, and I have about a dozen of them growing beside the garage.

I once let a sticker bush grow to its full six feet, and was rewarded with a cool purple thistle. But I have no idea what this plant is. Is it a weed or a leftover from a previous garden? Does it produce a flower? Is it worth letting a couple of them grow? Or is this as showy as it gets? Any of you gardening types out there recognize it?

Update: Cool—the consensus seems to be milkweed. I just checked online, and there are over 140 different varieties of milkweed. "The name of the milkweed, asclepias, derives from the Greek God Aeskulap, the god of healing. Asklepios, bearer of a serpent-entwined staff and son of Apollo, was such a skilled healer that he was said to be able to raise the dead." (Thanks to the Flower Society for this info.)

The flowers come in a number of colors and are, indeed, the sole food source for monarch butterfly larvae. The sap of the milkweed contains cardiac glycosides, similar to Foxglove, which make the monarch unpalatable if not downright poisonous to predators. Birds will vomit if they ingest monarchs full of milk.

Hummingbirds are also attracted to milkweed, so they're often planted in hummingbird and butterfly gardens. I've weeded most of that flower bed that has them, but have left half a dozen of these plants scattered through so it looks almost as if I planned for them to be there.

The Woodrow Wilson Foundation had this factoid: "In World War II, children in the United States were encouraged to collect milkweed pods and turn them in to the government, where the fluffy silk was used to stuff lifevests and flying suits. The silk was especially good because of its exceptional buoyancy and lightweight. Also in World War II, because of the shortage of natural rubber, scientists in the United States tried to turn common milkweed’s latex into a rubber like substitute."

Alchemy Works has this to say about milkweed magic: "There's plenty of folklore associated with this wonderful moon plant, probably because of the sheer magicalness of its fluff. It is said that adding milkweed fluff to dream pillows will make one dream of the Fae. Folklore also says that for each floating seed one catches and lets go of, a wish is granted. The flowers are associated with Summer Solstice magick and the fluff with fall equinox. Some sources of magickal lore recommend using the juice of this magick herb to anoint a baby's third eye to enhance its imagination and creativity, but milkweed latex can cause itchy dermatitis even on adult skin. Stroking the area with a leaf tip might be a better idea skin-wise. Iroquois Indians used this plant to prepare themselves to fight witches, so it obviously has protective properties as well as being useful in divination. Its easily spun fibers offer unique opportunities for knot magic."

And finally, in the language of flowers, milkweed means "hope in misery."

05 June, 2008

Edging Sidewalks and Walkways

I don't think the lawn has been edged in years.

I'm not kidding here—in some spots, the lawn has encroached six to eight inches onto the walkways, with turf up to two inches thick. It's been a looooong time since anyone tried to tame this mess.
But with my trusty manual edger—only $19 at Lowe's—and an old, stumpy broom, I've been working to make it less jungle-y looking.

Love those clean lines!

But the downside of a corner lot is the endless, what must be miles of sidewalk surrounding the house. Oy! This might take a while.

04 June, 2008


A few weeks ago I mentioned that our lawn was a carpet of dandelions, and I was going to do little to eradicate them because I think dandelions are pretty, even if most other people don't. Well, the dandelions have been surpassed by the clover.

Field of clover. Really, who wants an all-grass lawn? The clover feels so cool and lush on my bare feet.
In the middle of the picture is a star magnolia I planted. In the distance, a river birch. Both are from Home Depot; so far, they're doing pretty well.

Because I do love folklore, I had to look up the lore surrounding clover. Everyone knows that a four-leaf clover is lucky, but there's more. One site had this to say: "In the middle ages the clover was considered a charm warn to ward off evil spirits and witches. The four-leaf clover was said to have even more power against evil, a five-leaf clover was said to be warn by witches to give them evil powers, and a two-leaf clover would give a maiden the power to see her future lover."

So, the broad band of clover surrounding The Box House should be a good deterrent against evil witches. I'll be searching for a four-leaf clover while I'm out there working; if I find one, wearing it in my left shoe will allow me to see the fairies.

I was reading in one of my gardening books, or maybe it was in a magazine somewhere, that grass seed mixtures once contained a high percentage of clover seeds because they were a lovely green and were very drought tolerant. Around the 1950s, when broad leaf herbicides became popular, seed companies dropped clover from the mix, as clover was killed off along with dandelions anyway.

So I find it funny that now, more than half a century later, we are supposed to think that single-species lawns, with nary a stray clover or dandelion, are the ideal, even if it's not natural and even if the resources necessary to maintain such a lawn are expensive and toxic.

Anyway, the clover, like the dandelions, get to stay.

Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them
—Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh by
A. A. Milne

What a diversity of creative wanderers: Weeds. I enjoy their beauty and variety, and do nothing to reap their rewards. I neither hoe, nor plant, nor water, nor fertilize, nor prune ... and they come and go in lovely profusion as the seasons move. Often a pleasure, sometimes a pain in the wrong place; and always an example of the wondrous assertion of Being.
—Mike Garofalo

Mother Goose

Mom drove out to the other house today to do some cleaning and stop at a few of her favorite stores in the old neighborhood. While shopping, she spotted these:

What is it about baby animals that makes the toughest of us go "awwww"? Canada geese are pretty common 'round here, but people were getting out of their cars, cell phones and cameras in hand, to snap pictures.

When I was little, I so wanted a pet goose. They had live babies for sale at the Seven Mile Fair in Wisconsin, near my uncle's house. But he wouldn't let me buy one, even though I had brought my own allowance with me and was told by my parents I could buy whatever I wanted at the fair. Phooey.

I have no idea what I was going to do with a goose in the suburbs, anyway.

Don't refuse to go on an occasional wild goose chase—that's what wild geese are for.
—Author Unknown

01 June, 2008

Regrading the Front Yard

Mean people suck. This afternoon, as Mom sat in the living room window, reading, she could hear some neighbors walking by, making snarky comments about the yard. "What's with the shape of that flower bed?" "It's a diamond, you just have to look at it from this angle." "And that one? Why a triangle?"

As they walked by again, Mom could hear their voices loud and clear through the window. "This looks just awful. They should have left it alone. It looked much better before."

Oh boy. Hearing that was enough to send me into an hours-long funk that nobody could shake me out of; not Mom, not Ted, not even Maggie, who brought me numerous toys to play with. I am overly sensitive when it comes to criticism.

I have put hours into the yard so far. I know it doesn't look great. It's obvious (or so I thought) that it's a work in progress.

We had removed all the old bushes because they were overgrown and blocking egress from the basement, a real safety issue. I haven't really replanted because I'm slowly regrading the soil around the foundation. It had been allowed to build up and over the limestone edging in some spots, and onto the actual windowsills of the basement windows. Almost everywhere this has occurred has allowed moisture to seep in, with lots of brick effloresence and some mortar loss. So I'm digging up a lot of dirt, transferring it to other low spots in the yard, and leveling it so it will no longer be a problem. That takes a lot of effort, and it's not pretty in the process, but where I've already regraded, moisture no longer seems to be an issue.

I have put a few foundation bushes in this year because they are slow growers, and I want to give them this season to grow. But I won't be adding much else to the foundation planting this summer except to prep the beds for next year. Fixing issues with the house takes priority in the budget.

The overgrown yew bushes were blocking all of these windows. Completely. Removing them revealed that the grade had been allowed up and over the limestone and onto the windowsills. Weeds were actually growing on the windowsills. I weeded the windows and swept out the dirt, but along this section of the foundation most of the ground is level with the top of the limestone and will have to be corrected.

In this photo, you can see how I've managed to get the ground mostly even with the base of the limestone. There was lots and lots o' manual digging involved.

This is where the grade was the worst. I've leveled most of it and am working to slope it slightly away from the foundation. It's all very soft along here; you actually sink somewhat while walking across the surface, so I still have to compact the dirt. We're thinking of putting a flagstone patio here, just big enough for a bistro set. If we do that, then my grumbling neighbors will have to look at this bare patch of dirt a while longer.