Friday, December 26, 2014


When I think back over the past year, I truly think my husband and I were sort of nuts this year. During the past 9-12 months, we have added a vegetable branch to our blueberry farm business and completely renovated a century-old house. Besides that, I also personally took on extra responsibility at my university by serving as interim division chair for one year, and I (only two weeks ago) published my second novel, A Permanent Home. Wow. The only thing on that list that was even remotely in our plans at this time last year was the novel - just goes to show what surprises life can throw in a person's path!

I thought those of you who have followed this year's sporadic posts might like to see a couple of shots of the finished house project. Well, it's not completely "finished"; we decided, after doing all the work to make it so nice inside, that we wanted to replace the mismatched, old, inefficient windows as well. However, our loan wouldn't cover that, so we'll replace one or two a month as we have the funds. So just ignore that ugliness. Also, our son moved in before I had a chance to go around and document all the finished rooms, but maybe it's nicer to see the house with some furniture, anyway.

So...let me take you on a virtual tour.

What is now the front door originally was one of TWO front doors, the one that opened into the master bedroom with two closets. The brick chimney was encased in wooden planks and drywall, and the hardwood floors were covered with nasty tan carpet. We also removed the wall that separated the two rooms that are now the living room and kitchen/dining room to create a very open "living" space. It's one of our favorite features of the house now.

Looking from the kitchen into the living room.
The kitchen still has quite a bit of work to finish. A friend from church is a cabinet maker, and he and my husband built the cabinet boxes. The doors aren't finished yet, which is ok with us, since the friend is being incredibly generous and giving us a great price on the cabinets. Another feature we like is the ebony stain on the cabinets. The wood to build the cabinets came from an ash tree that had fallen on our farm; the ebony stain is enough to make the cabinets dark, but the wood grain still shows through. The dark cabinets look great with the white appliances and the light countertop. I can't wait to see them with the doors.

And the dining area on the other side of the kitchen will be nice and bright once the new windows are in place.

I'm very pleased with the way the bathroom turned out. Almost all the tile for the shower was recycled, either from the remodel of our shower at home or from mistakenly buying too much tile for the floor. We originally had a pedestal sink, but the door wouldn't open all the way, and finally my husband got tired of listening to me complain about that, and we put in a new sink with a cabinet to hide the fact that the plumbing is off-center now. But I'm actually glad we got the cabinet; the bathroom needed a little more storage space.

The glass block window is another favorite feature. The previous owners had simply painted over and hidden a window behind a closet; we decided to try to save the window to get some natural light in the bathroom, even though the plumber advised us to cover it up with a wall. I'm so glad we didn't listen. My tile job around the window is not the greatest in the world, but having that window really transformed the bathroom. (And that is the original tub from the house - it cleaned up nicely.)

You can't really tell much about the master bedroom, but then bedrooms aren't usually much to look at, anyway. This is the room that had the terrible pet urine odor. So far, it hasn't returned (knock on every piece of wood we can find!). This is probably where we will start with replacing the windows. And don't you love the duct tape curtain rod!

There are two other bedrooms, but they are just empty rooms at this point. Well, not completely empty - one has wood scraps and one has the tools. They have two different laminate floors, since one was originally the kitchen and one was a back porch converted into a bedroom. The laminate, while different from the hardwood in the rest of the house, looks nice and gives each room a character of its own.

Finally, here's a shot of the revamped laundry room. The quarters are a little tight - there's only enough room to stand and open the dryer door - but it should be fine. It's a clean little room now compared to what it was before. We decided to keep some of the original look of the house in this room - if you look closely, you can see the bead board on the ceiling.

When we first bought the house, I made a video tour of the whole thing, but I can't find that video now, and we don't seem to have taken any "before" pictures before we started knocking down the drywall with sledge hammers. I think about all the work we've done over the past months - demolition, reframing, all new electrical and plumbing, drywall and the eternal job of finishing the seams in the drywall, painting walls and ceilings, painting and installing trim, sanding and refinishing the wood floors, putting tile on the bathroom floor and shower, gluing down the laundry floor (one of the worst jobs, actually), installing the laminate (harder than it sounded), putting up the cabinets and countertops. I'm kind of impressed with us, actually. The work is not perfect (thank goodness the pictures don't show in-depth detail, ha ha), but we did it. Jeff occasionally says he wants to do another house sometime; I haven't yet reached that point!

I also want to give a little plug for my new novel, which was published on 12-13-14 (intentionally). At the end of the first novel, I had included a promo page for the second one, with the line, "Coming in 2014." You don't know how many times this year I was afraid the circumstances of my life were going to make a liar of me! Fortunately, 16 of the 22 chapters were already written when the year began. I finished the last six chapters early in the year, and then slipped in some editing on and off as I had a little time. Thanks to some gentle prodding by another church friend who wanted to give the book as a Christmas gift, I decided at the beginning of December to put off grading papers one weekend in order to do the layout and get the book to Createspace. It took the entire weekend to do the layout (longer than I had anticipated). Then I had to resubmit the "final" draft several times because the cover image just wouldn't seem to be the right size. Finally, it was all ready to go, and I approved the copy to publish - only to find out later that night that I had ONE spelling mistake. ARGGGHHH! I made the correction and republished the files. I sincerely hope that is the only spelling mistake.....There was also a little issue with the Kindle version in that the decorative glyphs I had included in the print version didn't convert for Kindle, leaving me with a "ba" in every single section break. (I hope I've fixed that error, as well.) I'm a little disappointed and embarrassed to have let those mistakes slip through. Maybe I will have learned something so I can avoid them next time.

And here's my last image - the cover of the new book:

So, two big projects are at an end, and as with any ending, there's a sense of being at loose ends. I'm sure that won't last, though. I can't help but wonder....what's ahead for the new year???


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

I'm Excited

Tomorrow at 3 p.m., my fall break begins. One of the things I intend to do over the four-day weekend (in addition to cleaning my sadly-neglected home and working on my second novel) is read. As is my habit, I've been reading a little every night before I go to sleep, but this time I'm going to be indulgent and just sit in a CHAIR and READ.

One of the books I've been meaning to read is John Green's The Fault in Our Stars (I'll explain why some other time). I found it today in our university library, and when I got it back to my office, I flipped to the first page and began reading, just to see if it had an interesting beginning. Within the first two pages, I had a feeling I'm going to like this book. I'm not exactly sure why; I found myself wondering (as I was reading) what the author did that hooked me so fast. I'll have to go back and examine it closely.

I hope it really IS a good read, and that I'm not just desperate for something fictional since I'm coming off reading a rather dry, research-based book that my new boss suggested (and gave me a copy). If you'll excuse me, I'm off to find out.

By the way, the renovation is coming along nicely....I finished painting the last room on Saturday. Now we just have all the trim work and the kitchen to finish, and I need to grout the tile in the shower (but I'm waiting to do it at the same time I do a backsplash on the kitchen). It's looking good.....

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Moment of Truth

The first time we walked in to the little house in town, one of the features we noticed that made us interested in buying it was that it had hardwood floors in its main rooms. Of course, that floor was covered in yucky carpet and spattered with white drywall compound.

Last week, we finally reached the point of being able to sand the floors and remove all that junk. The wood underneath was perfect (see the last post). Only one problem remained: the horrible smell of pet urine in what will become the master bedroom. The people who owned the house just before us apparently had six dogs living inside. Most of the "mistakes" were soaked up by the carpet, I guess, because the only room that stinks is the one room that didn't have carpet.

We consulted the Google about what can be done to remove urine odor, and we elected to try the remedy of using hydrogen peroxide. We bought probably every bottle of peroxide in Clarksville (you think I'm joking....), soaked paper towels, and laid them on the floor. It was truly gross (and yet fascinating in a way) to see the urine pulled up from the floor into the paper towels. We did this treatment three times, and it's definitely helped--the odor doesn't punch you in the face as you walk in the door, at least. Last night, I had moments of discouragement because I thought I could still smell it faintly. When the weather turns humid again, I'm afraid the odor will be back full-force. If so, that room CAN'T be a bedroom; any clothing or bedding stored in that room would absorb the smell. I figured we needed to just give up on hardwood floor in the bedroom, rip it up, and put down (cheap) laminate. But my husband said we should put the finish on the floor and see if it seals in the smell. If so, we have beautiful floors; if not, we rip it out and replace it.

So we began last night to apply the polyurethane sealer, and that was the payoff for the gamble we made when we bought the house. With only a single coat of the sealer on, the floors are such a beautiful, rich color. Simply gorgeous....

We'll need to add a second coat tonight, and then the last major job for the house should be finished. Unless, of course, we have to rip out the floor in that bedroom - our moment of truth will come this evening....will the bedroom smell like pet pee? Stay tuned.....

Thursday, September 25, 2014

NOW We're Getting Somewhere!

(This has to be fast because I found out I need to do something before work that I hadn't expected.)

For the longest time, it seemed like the house renovation project was going to extend for the rest of our natural lives. But in just the last week, I can suddenly see the end of the project, and I even have hopes we may have our son moved in by the end of October.

The difference? Paint! We finally finished some of the drywall finishing and were able to prime and paint several rooms. It's amazing what that does for a place. The bathroom is also close to finished; I laid a tile floor (that I think is the best job I've ever done on one, just to brag on myself a little), and then we could install the toilet and sink. The tub surround is on its way to tile (one more coat of waterproofing membrane). And last night, my husband began what will probably be the last of the really big jobs - sanding and refinishing the wood floors.

And what a transformation that process brought about! When we bought the house, two floors were covered with NASTY carpet, and one was scuffed back to bare wood. When we removed the carpet, we found no one had covered the floors before texturing the ceiling, so the floors were coated with joint compound (or whatever they used). The floors are 1-inch red oak; my husband bought some boards to patch a few places where we moved some walls, and it was about $5 per square foot at a bargain flooring store. Last night, as the layers of abuse began to strip away, we were simply amazed that anyone would think carpet would be a better alternative than these beautiful wood floors. I can't wait to see how they look finished. Imagine the value those floors will add to the little house!

So we are rolling along better now. There are still two rooms in which I need to finish the drywall, but they are both small. Of course, there's the tile for the shower, and flooring to install for the three small rooms in the house, and all the trim (ceiling and floor) to paint and install, and kitchen cabinets, but somehow, the job feels do-able now.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

So Near, and Yet So Far.....

By this time, I had hoped I would be reporting on the completion of the house project and on move-in day for our son. School is back in session, and my husband and I really, really wanted to be finished with the house project before school started. Well, of course it didn't happen. Crazy people that we are, we also tried to get a produce farm business started this summer, in preparation for the day when my husband retires from teaching (which is only three more years). We made a valiant (in my opinion) effort to keep up with everything, but there are only so many hours in the day, and taking a house down to studs and back to finished requires a LOT of those hours.

We're not finished, but we are beginning to see the end of the project. The major slow-down was installing the drywall and finishing it. My husband installed all of the drywall except some pieces on the ceiling by himself, and I've done all the finish work, which requires three coats and then finish sanding. At first, we were taking the "step at a time" approach, in which we started with a back room and started moving room by room around the house. But as we realized school was looming closer, we shifted to a "most important rooms first" strategy, meaning we've concentrated our recent efforts on the bathroom, kitchen, living room, and master bedroom.

At this point, the bathroom and kitchen have painted ceilings and primed walls, and I primed the ceiling of the master bedroom last night after school. When I put it on paper, it doesn't sound like we've accomplished much. But once the ceilings are painted, we can install light fixtures, which gives us the ability to work longer hours. I guess that's a good thing.....maybe it means we will finish sooner, but it also means longer hours.....

Here's the short list of our most immediate tasks:

  • Paint bedroom ceiling and closet (both white)
  • Put up lights in kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom
  • Prime walls in bedroom
  • Paint walls in kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom
  • Lay tile on the bathroom floor
  • Do finish sanding on the drywall in living room and ha.......

Oh, man. The list could keep growing! All those jobs are not all that big - we could probably knock out ALL of them in a good weekend. The problem is, there is no good weekend; we are doing these jobs in 30-minute to 1-hour blocks, whenever we can steal a little time.

It will get I told myself at one point while working on the kitchen ceiling, every scrape I make with the trowel gets us one tiny step closer to finished. I just have to keep my eyes on each tiny step and not become discouraged by how many steps are left to take. Isn't that how runners survive those 100-mile races?

A couple of shots of our progress:

1) Patching the part of the hardwood floor we added when we changed the floor plan......

2) A half-painted ceiling.......

Now the next big holdup: trying to decide on colors for the walls! 

Monday, June 30, 2014

A Fun Discovery

Ever since we started demolition on the renovation house and saw the style of construction (1x6 boards nailed to both sides of rough-cut 2x4s), we've wondered how old this house is. Well, today I found out!

I was putting up insulation today (a wonderful job on a 90+ degree day, may I say) when I noticed some pencil scribblings on one of the boards. I think I've seen them before, but just thought they were scribbles. But today, up close with the insulation, I noticed the scribbles formed words - "Clarksville, Ark, March 20, 1914."

I knew right away that HAD to be the date the house was built, because we've done that sort of thing, too. With any new cement poured at our farm, our kids put their handprints and scratched their name and the date with a nail. My son wrote his name and a date in the garage with sidewalk chalk when we removed a piece of the drywall to fix up a way to attach a generator to the breaker box. Marking one's name and date is not a new idea, either; there is a well in our yard from the old house that was here when we bought the property. It has a rock wall topped with a concrete slab, and sure enough, scratched into that concrete is the name of one of the children who lived here and the date (in the 1940s).

Since the date and the location were there on the stud, I looked more carefully at the scribbles above and finally decided the last name was Kraus. Unfortunately, the new drywall ceiling cut off the first name, but I'm guessing it was Orville, because the letters I could see were "ville." What other names end in "ville"?

Anyway, now we have a last name and a time frame, so we can look back in county records and find out something about the history of the house. That's cool. And believe me, we will be picking up the Sharpie and writing "Renovated by Marlows, 2014" along the stud below the original notation.

(And it's pretty darn cool that the house is exactly 100 years old!)

Friday, June 27, 2014

We Passed!

Because our renovation house is within the city limits, we challenges we've never had on a construction project before, namely the fact that we have to get approval from the city government for certain aspects. Fortunately, since we are not altering the exterior of the house or adding any new structures to the property, the only inspections we had to have were for the plumbing and electrical work.

Although my husband has some experience working with both plumbing and electrical (he and my father did all the plumbing and wiring for the previous two houses we've built, plus other projects), the city requires the work to be done by licensed professionals. I'm not complaining; I completely understand why. However, that requirement did add a layer of complexity to the whole process of trying to get this project done during our summer "vacation."

The plumbing was much easier than we had expected. We got a recommendation from a friend who has some rental properties, and we were very pleased with the plumber and his crew. They were able to get in quickly to do the work, and within three days, they had completely replaced all the old plumbing, capped off gas lines (which we won't be using), and installed new plumbing for the reconfigured floor plan. The bill was about 1/10th the price we paid for the entire house (!), but it looks very clean and well-installed.

Here's the reconfigured bathroom:

And here's the new kitchen (in what used to be the living room):

The more challenging aspect of the project was the electrical, mainly because the electrician we chose to work with is also a heating/air specialist, and it's early summer in Arkansas, when H/A specialist are working overtime. We set up numerous times to meet with him, and got stood up a few times. Finally, he and my husband worked out a deal; the electrician would tell Jeff what to do, and Jeff would do a lot of the actual grunt work of pulling the wire. The electrician would then come in and tie everything together. I don't have a finished picture of the breaker box yet; I didn't have the camera with me yesterday when I stopped by the house.
The good news is, yesterday morning all the final work with the electrical was finished. The electrician called the backup city inspector (the main inspector was on vacation - so glad the electrician knew the backup guy), the guy came in and walked through the house, and he gave us a pass on the inspection! Yay! That means we can now start putting the house back together. In fact, that process is going to start today. My husband had 100 sheets of drywall installed yesterday afternoon. He and my son are renting a drywall lift this morning and hope to be able to finish all the ceilings in the house today so they can return the lift before closing time (and not have to pay rental fees over a weekend). I have to pick up our daughter from a camp this morning, then I'm going to go in to put up insulation on the exterior walls while the guys start hanging drywall on the interior walls. The plan (don't laugh) is to finish drywall in the entire house this weekend, since my husband will be going to church camp with our youth group next week. If he finishes the drywall, I can do the finishing work while he's at camp. Anyway, that's the plan....

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Indoor Plumbing is a Home's Worst Enemy

Don't get me wrong. I greatly appreciate indoor plumbing. When I was growing up, we used to visit a set of older relatives who lived up in the mountains, and the only bathroom was a wooden outhouse set a good distance from the house. I hated going to the bathroom there - it was dark, there were spiders everywhere, and since we usually were visiting in the summer, it was smelly. Actually, I don't remember the smell so much, because the spiders were enough to motivate me to "hold it" until we got back home to our clean porcelain toilet.

While indoor plumbing is a boon to the inhabitants of a house, however, that luxury can definitely take a toll on the house itself, as I've discovered twice this spring. We rebuilt our shower at home thanks to water damage and mold; also, while doing demolition at our renovation project in town we discovered it was a wonder the toilet hadn't simply fallen through the rotted floor. Here, in brief, is the story of each of those problems.

Case #1 - The Shower

Since I told much of this story in an earlier post, I'll only summarize here. A few years ago (maybe three, maybe four - they all run together now....) I replaced the silicone sealant between our bathtub and the tile wall. However, I apparently didn't do a very good job of it, because water had been leaking through that seal, probably since shortly after I resealed the joint. Multiply two showers per day by four years' worth of days - that was a lot of water available to leak. We had to replace part of the floor under the tub, as well as parts of several studs in the wall around the tub. The damage even extended to the floors of three closets (a project for this summer is to tear up and replace those closet floors). I know I posted this picture earlier, but since we're talking about the damage water can do to a house, here is another reminder:

This story has a happy ending (at least I hope it does). We decided to rebuild as a walk-in shower and to waterproof the heck out of the whole thing. Our biggest hold-up was when my husband reworked the plumbing to eliminate the bathtub spout. There was a tiny leak at one joint in one pipe, with just a thread of water running down the pipe.
It took several tries to get the solder to seal the joint completely. That meant what we intended to be a couple of hours of plumbing turned into a four-hour job, but at least it is right and tight. There shouldn't be any future problems from the plumbing (fingers crossed!).

We also put up Hardibacker as a base for the porcelain tiles we planned to use for the shower, and then I painted a waterproofing membrane over that. Painting on the membrane was another job that took an entire day; I had to let it dry completely between coats, and I put on four coats.

From there, I put on the porcelain tile with very small grout lines (1/8th inch) and filled those lines with a grout that is supposed to be waterproof. I stuffed the joints where two walls come together with the grout, and I hope that is enough to keep water from getting behind the walls and into the drywall on the other side. I ran a line of high-quality silicone between the tiles and the shower base. It's a wide line, and it's kind of ugly (I'm no professional when it comes to applying silicone), but I wanted to be sure it won't leak this time! I've also been very diligent about wiping down the shower walls every time I take a shower, especially in wiping away any water that collects on the lip of the shower base. Keep it as dry as possible, that's my motto. (Unfortunately, that's not my husband's motto, so if he takes a shower after I do, the water just sits there until it evaporates or I wipe it up....)

Here's the finished product. I like it a lot, and I feel reasonably certain we won't have a repeat appearance of the mold.

Case 2 - The Town House Bathroom

The little house in town had more serious problems with water damage, many of them the result (I believe) of putting a temporary patch on a problem rather than doing the work necessary to really deal with the problem and the source of the problem.

We had decided we were going to redo most of the plumbing in the house because we're reworking the floor plan. When we took up the bathtub, this is what we found beneath it:

Obviously, someone had discovered water damage under an original tub and had cut out the old subfloor and put in a new one. What my husband and I can't figure out is WHY they would replace that rotten subfloor with some kind of chipboard. The board that was under the tub has absorbed so much moisture over the years that it simply flaked away rather than coming up as a solid piece. Terrible. It was also obvious that the source of the problem hadn't been solved; water was still coming from somewhere, enough water to pretty much rot away the subfloor AGAIN. Once we had all the old junk out of the way, my husband has gone in and put new 8x10 joists to support the tub and a water heater, and he's put pieces of treated plywood as the subfloor. We have a plumber coming in early next week to redo all the existing plumbing in the house, so maybe the leak, if it was in the water lines, will go away.

The tub wasn't the only source of water damage, though. This is the drain for the toilet. Notice the little hole on the right? That's where I stuck the end of the crowbar through the subfloor. I didn't have to beat my way through; no, the floor was so rotten I just gently poked the crowbar all the way through. Clearly, there had been another leak that someone ignored for a really long time. Again, we are reinforcing the joists and rebuilding the subfloor and will make sure everything is sealed properly as we continue with the renovations.

The moral of these stories: Don't ignore problems! I know it's a pain to have to deal with them. They don't solve themselves, though, and the pain of dealing with them is only going to get worse.

Indoor plumbing for bathrooms, blessing though it is, is a big source of many of these problems, but it's certainly not the only source. Think about all the ways we bring water into our homes - kitchen sinks and dishwashers, washing machines, icemakers. And there's also the issue of rain getting around windows and doors. Problems can even develop from the condensation that forms on windows from the contrast between warm and cool air (on either side of the building). It's a battle that calls for constant vigilance, as Professor Moody in the Harry Potter series would say.

Speaking of that, I have two more battles to fight with water. Our toilet at home has taken to running when no one has flushed; clearly, there's a leak somewhere in its system. And the house at town has a fairly wet spot that has appeared on the floor in what is going to be the master bedroom. It's been raining a lot here this week, so we suspect a leak in the roof somewhere (OK, that's what I suspect - Jeff says it's not the roof). But none of our investigations so far have produced any culprits. Frustrating. But we have to keep on until we find it. Wish us luck.....

Monday, May 26, 2014

Here's What's Been Going On

It's been an incredibly busy few months. Of course it's always busy at the end of the semester, with finals and grades to be turned in. This spring, I also served on the search committee for an important administrative position at my university, and that took up quite a bit of time, especially during April. But now, school is over, I'm not teaching summer school, and it's time for some updates on the projects from the previous posts.

First, some unhappy news. Broody Judy's attempt at hatching chicks failed. I believe the first blow was my own fault. After one nice spring day, I left the hen house door open so the hens could enjoy the lovely evening air (silly, I know). The next day, six of the nine eggs were gone, and one of them was moved to a different nest. It was the fact that the egg was moved that made us believe a raccoon must have crawled up the wire to the spot at the top of the coop where the wire is drooping a bit. I guess he had a big feast that night. I stuck the remaining eggs under Judy and she kept sitting on them, but the eggs eventually disappeared one at a time. I found one of them broken in the nest, and I believe one of the other hens was eating them. So Judy gave up. That's sad enough, but I think that same hen is still picking on Judy, who doesn't look very good (she's lost a lot of feathers). I guess I need to institute a "no bullying" policy in the hen house.

The other projects went better. We completed the shower project in our home (I'll write about that later in the week), and the town house is coming along nicely. We finished all the demolition early in April, and we are the same as finished with reframing (I'll also write about that later). Last Friday, we put up electrical boxes; the next stage is electrical and plumbing. That may take a while, however, because the city requires that kind of work to be done by licensed professionals, and the licensed professionals tend to be pretty busy.

We have to completely rewire the house because we found the knob and tube wiring made famous by HGTV. Plumbing is also going to be a major undertaking because we are relocating everything in the house that uses water except the toilet. This is because we are reworking the floor plan so the front door doesn't open into a bedroom. It's going to be really much better, but getting there may take a while AND a significant part of the budget...

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Little Diversion

I know, I know...the last post was about the renovation projects, and now here I am with a picture of a chicken.

I will return to the renovation projects with future posts (when I have more time to write), but for now I'll provide this update: 1) the shower project is finally finished and is VERY nice and VERY much appreciated; and 2) the demolition stage of the house in town is complete, and we are beginning the rebuild. I have pictures of each project, and I do intend to tell those stories. It's just that those projects consumed my life for about two weeks solid, giving me no time or energy to blog. I'm completely serious.

But on to the hen.

A year ago, I bought some chicks at a local farm supply store and raised them to be laying hens. It's been really nice for the past several months to have farm-fresh eggs. And I'll admit, those hens are great stress relievers. They come running to the fence every time I go by their pen, for I've often brought them some kind of treat, usually dry bread or bread with a moldy spot. They do love bread. And I do love to watch them scramble for the crumbs, greedy girls.

Recently, though, one of the hens has gone broody, meaning she sits on the nest box all the time to hatch the eggs the other hens lay. Unfortunately for her, we have no rooster, so she could sit on those eggs for the rest of her life and she would get no chicks. For a while, we would lift her off the nest and take the eggs (or, my approach - gently hold the feed can over her head and reach under her soft, warm feathers to steal the eggs). She doesn't like that; if anything comes within four inches of her, she pecks, and believe me, she is quick (hence, the can over her head).

She persisted, though we stole her clutch of eggs every day. Finally, we decided it might be fun to see if she really can hatch some chicks. A friend at school is a more serious farmer than I am, and she brought me some fertile eggs yesterday, including a couple of green ones (which thrilled me! I wanted a hen that lays green eggs.). I marked them so we could tell the fertile eggs from the sterile ones when gathering eggs in the evening.

Cute, aren't they?

Of course, Broody Judy (as we've started calling her) was on the nest, so I fed the hens and went to get some fresh hay for the nest box. While I was gone, she came off the nest to eat, meaning it was easy to switch out the fertile eggs for the sterile ones.

When I checked back later, she was on the nest, and she was still there tonight when I went to feed the hens and gather eggs. Maybe she will get to raise the babies she is so determined to have. I'll post a picture if she does.

Being the word nerd that I am, I couldn't help thinking how very appropriate the term "brooding" is for a gloomy, depressed individual. Broody Judy sits on the nest with a sort of glower on her face (ha ha), and doesn't move unless someone tries to take her eggs. Then she will strike out at the offender. She is quite irritable, and last night I noticed that if any of the other hens tried to come in the hen house to eat while she was eating, she would run them out. I can just imagine the first time some farmer used the word "broody" to describe a human (probably the wife). I'm sure that went over well.... 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What "Ph.D" Means - At Least This Week!

Sorry about the delay in any updates about the renovation project. Last week was the week midterm grades were due at the university, meaning I was so tied up with grading (and search committee duties) there wasn't a spare minute to blog. But this is SPRING BREAK!!!!! So maybe I can put together several posts this week about the fascinating fun that is renovating an old house.

We are at the halfway point (more or less) in tearing out the inside walls of the "town house," as I call it. My husband is very methodical about the process - we started in the southwest corner of the house and have moved from that room to the next room just north of it, then to the one just north of that one. Well, that's what he's done. I have much more of a hop-around style. (In my defense, I hop around from room to room because I don't want to be in the room where something might fall on my head as he pulls it down.) The daughter and I have taken down drywall in various sections in the room that will become the living room, as well as tearing out part of two closets (since that room was a bedroom). Here are a couple of shots of that room:

Ah, the sledgehammer! My daughter's favorite tool!
She has a pretty mean swing for a 5' 2" girl.....

That room has 10-foot ceilings, so the daughter and I have only tackled the part we can reach. We'll leave the heavy-duty, overhead stuff for my husband. He's the one who's really done the bulk of the work, including tearing out the built-in cabinets in the old kitchen (which will become a bedroom). He said that job was pretty hard, since everything was made of solid boards and nailed to the wall. He finished tearing them all out about a week ago, just making a huge pile in the floor since the dumpster was full. We then had to leave it all there for several days, since neither of us could get away to work on the project. But a new dumpster was delivered and all the trash was cleared out in about a half-hour, giving us a clean slate for tearing out the old vinyl flooring.

We are taking the walls down to studs, to make it easier to do new wiring (a necessity!). I always like the "stud" stage of a house, when it's possible to see how the rooms are laid out but there is a sense of freedom from being able to see and walk through the walls.

My husband estimates we should be able to finish the demolition with a couple of good, long days this week. He would even like to have the new walls he plans to add (for closets in the new bedrooms and for an extension to the hallway leading from the laundry room) by the end of the week. But....there may be a mighty big kink in his plan.

We are also involved in a renovation project in the house we live in. A couple of months ago, my husband had to go under the house for something, and he noticed some mold on the joists under our bathroom. I had been suspicious for a while that there was a leak around the edge of the tub, so we decided this would be an opportune time to take out the tub/shower and convert the bathroom to a walk-in shower. Today we started that project (since it's spring break and we don't have to take showers every day, ha ha!). (Actually, we can use the shower in the kids' bathroom.) I started scraping off the popcorn ceiling, we carefully removed the tile (which we may use in the "town house" - I couldn't stand putting perfectly good tile in a landfill), and my husband and son carried the fiberglass tub outside.

It was at that point we discovered the extent of the damage. It's not terrible, I suppose, but it's a good thing we decided to redo the shower now, because there was significant water damage behind the tub. Apparently there were two leaks, one where the silicone sealant between the wall and the tub wasn't thick enough, and another where a gasket of some kind on the tub drain had simply rotted out from age (our house is about 17 years old). There are a couple of wall studs that are a bit spongy, and the plywood subfloor has a couple of soft spots. To fix it right (which I insist on) will mean cutting the wall of the closet on the other side of the shower, replacing the lower half of some studs, replacing at least one section of subfloor - in other words, a LOT more work than my husband had intended to do for this project. He's not happy. I can understand why; it probably will mean we won't get as much done at the town house as he wanted to this week. But as I keep reminding him, this is the house where we live; we want it to be in the best shape possible.

So that's where things stand as of 10:00 p.m. Sunday night. Let's hope by 10 p.m. next Sunday that at least the shower project is complete!

Oh, and the Ph.D. reference? I've been joking that for this week, that "Ph.D." after my name stands for "Professional House Demolisher."

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Renovation Realities

You might recognize that title as the name of a program on the DIY television network, a show in which people with varying levels of experience take on a remodel of their home. My husband loves that show. I have a suspicion it's because he likes to feel superior to the poor, poor souls who are over their heads with their renovations.

Well, we're about to enter our own real-life version of "Renovation Realities." When our son announced at Thanksgiving break that he planned to transfer from the college he was attending to the one where I teach, my husband and I started weighing options for housing. Although my position at the college gives a significant tuition break, housing costs are not covered. And while we don't mind having the son back in the household for a semester, I think we all are agreed it's a good thing for a young adult to live on his/her own rather than staying in the homey old nest.

The end result of our deliberations is that we decided to shop for a small house in town where our children could live while going to college (since the daughter says she wants to attend the school where I teach, as well). Our reasoning was, if we're going to be taking out a loan to pay for housing, we might as well be putting that money into something that will give us tangible property at the end rather than simply paying rent on the dorm or an apartment. So we scouted the local real estate market and found this lovely little old house not too far from campus.

It was something of a bargain, since it was a foreclosure with some damage from an indoor dog (the carpet reeks, believe me!). We closed on the house in mid-February, and recently, we began the process of bringing the house up to our standards of "liveable." While it will be a departure from the normal content for this blog, I plan to do a series of updates on our progress over the next few months.

Although the weather has been seriously cold to work in a house with no heat, we've started. The first step was to get an idea of what was inside the walls. I took a hammer over one day after work and chipped in to a couple of walls enough to discover previous owners had put drywall over wall boards - without bothering to put in any insulation. It was at that point we knew the project was going to be, as my husband is fond of saying, a "total gut job." Since that time, we've been able to take most of the interior wall boards off one of the front rooms, so it looks like this:

We were pleased to discover the opening on the right was originally a door that had been boarded up; we were planning to put an opening between those two rooms anyway. One of the things we will have to do is reconfigure the floor plan of the house. As it stands right now, one of the two bedrooms was at the front of the house and actually had one of the two front doors opening in to it. That room is now going to become the living room, and the room with the other front door (pictured here) will become an eat-in kitchen.

My husband and I are excited about the project. I know it's going to be a lot of work, but we both like this kind of work (we've built two houses in our 25 years together, and we're still together, ha ha). We've never renovated an old house, though, so I know there will be challenges, just like the people on the TV show face. There will be discoveries, too; we've actually already had some that I will talk about in another post. One discovery, though, is worth mentioning here. Last Saturday, the husband and I spent the morning at the house tearing down drywall and boards. We noticed that someone had done work across the street to level out the ground, making it obvious that something is going to be built across the street. Some friends stopped by to look over our project, and since they live in town, they knew what our new neighbor will be - the new police station and a new park for town. We were quite pleased to hear that, especially since our kids will be living in what is now sure to be the safest house in town! : )

Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Skill I Really Admire

One of the side effects of my infatuation with the Avett Brothers is a growing appreciation for good songwriting. The other day on my way to work, I heard the song "Vincent" by Don Mclean (yes, I DO listen to something other than the Avetts, ha ha!), and I was struck by how beautiful the lyrics for the song are.
Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer's day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul

Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colors on the snowy linen land

Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand
These lines with their visual imagery evoke Van Gogh's paintings so vividly. I especially like that last pair of lines ("Weathered faces....soothed beneath the artist's loving hand"). I know faces like that.

What I really appreciate about the lyrics is how efficient they are. In less than 70 words, Mclean not only provides a quick trip through a gallery of Van Gogh's work, but also captures a sense of the loneliness and intensity that characterized the artist and eventually led him to suicide. Not a word is wasted. As a person who can't seem to write anything except long-form stories, I'm simply in awe of this kind of writing.

There's another song I greatly admire that I've been meaning to talk about in a blog post, and that is Tom T. Hall's "Little Lady Preacher." While Mclean's song is poetic and impressionistic, I've always thought Hall's song is a wonderful story in miniature.

Oh, the little lady preacher from the limestone church
I'll never forget her, I guess
She preached each Sunday mornin’ on the local radio
With a big black Bible and a snow-white dress

She was 19 years of age and was developed to a fault
But I will admit she knew the Bible well
A little white lace hanky marked the text that she would use
She’d breathe into that microphone and send us all to hell

I love the way Hall chooses the details that not only allow us to picture the little lady preacher physically but that also create her as a living character in this morality tale. Hall actually creates three distinct characters: the little lady preacher, the narrator of the song, and Luther Short, a "hairy-legged soul lost out in sin" who gets the privilege of taking the lady preacher home after each radio session. Besides having three well-developed characters, the song also has a plot with rising action and a climax. 

I can see me standing in the studio that day
I had to face the heartbreak, unemployment and all

In 32 lines (that rhyme!), Hall brings to life a story that is funny, yet sympathetic and says something about human nature and life.

That's just looking at the lyrics. Add in the element of melody, and I'm really impressed by the skill it takes to produce something that seems so effortless.

It seems only right to close this post with a chance to appreciate the whole package, for both songs.

 Don Mclean - "Vincent" 

"Little Lady Preacher" - Tom T. Hall

Saturday, February 8, 2014

It's Complicated

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about the position of Native Americans in US history. One reason is because I'm reading On the Rez by Ian Frazier, which is mostly about Frazier's experiences with a friend, Le War Lance, an Oglala Sioux. Another is because I'm involved in a serious editing read-through of my second novel, which has the struggle between whites and the Cherokees over land as a major plot point. I'm also outlining a third novel that includes the famous Trail of Tears. As I'm reading both books and pondering the third, I find myself struggling with exactly how I should portray the Indians as I write.

On the one hand, there is the tendency to make the Indians the noble victims of history, overrun by greedy white settlers who snatched up the best land and pushed the Indians onto pockets of the least desirable land. Certainly, there's plenty of evidence to support that view. All the history around which I've built my second book supplies examples of treaties made and then renegotiated and then renegotiated again, always to the benefit of the white settlers. I haven't finished Frazier's book yet, but I read a section the other night filled with depressing statistics. For example,

  • Forty percent of Indian homes are overcrowded or have inadequate space, compared to six percent among the general population.
  • Indians are twice as likely to be murdered, and the suicide rate among Indians is high.
  • Indians are four times more likely than the national average to die from alcoholism, and fetal alcohol syndrome is 33 times higher among Indians than among whites.
How much of that misfortune comes from being people whose culture was uprooted and transformed by hostile action by American soldiers on behalf of my ancestors and people like them? While doing the research for my novels, I'm ashamed of how Cherokee leaders were held in Washington, DC as virtual hostages until they agreed to give up their land in Arkansas. I just recently read shocking accounts of how the Choctaw suffered cold and starvation in Arkansas Post during the first wave of removal from Mississippi. Just as with slavery, the US treatment of Native Americans is a giant, guilt-producing scar on our national countenance.

Yet, as I'm reading Frazier's book, I am annoyed at the self-destructive and irresponsible behavior of Le War Lance, behavior that is apparently not uncommon on the reservation where he lives. The Indians routinely drive while drunk. I'm not even halfway through the book, and I've already read about two or three people who were killed while walking along the highway because they were hit by drunk drivers. This is a silly thing, but it really bothered me that Le planned to use a propane-fueled oven both as a cookstove and as a heater for his house. Everyone knows you don't do that! As for the statistic above about fetal alcohol syndrome, the link between drinking while pregnant and FAS is undisputed, yet pregnant Indian women are still drinking at a rate that makes their babies 33 percent more likely to have FAS. (Sorry if I'm misusing that statistic, but you get my point.) These are behaviors that are not noble, based on personal choices made now, not in the nineteenth century. Le War Lance seems to almost relish the danger he puts himself in, and to treat that attitude as a commonplace among Indians.

That's where things become complicated, especially for a writer. I want to be fair to my Cherokee characters (and to the Choctaw ones of the future). How do I navigate that line between showing the truth of the ways the Indians were mistreated and yet avoid the temptation to turn the Indians into "noble victims"? I get the sense from reading Frazier's book that Indians want recognition that they were treated badly, very badly, yet they don't want to be seen as "victims" to be pitied. One thing the book is bringing home to me is what variety there is among the individuals Frazier encounters. For every Le War Lance in the story, there is a Charlotte Black Elk (who engaged in some pretty technical scientific research to try to prove the Sioux have an ancient link to South Dakota's Black Hills). Each of the Sioux Frazier has encountered so far is unique. The big insult, I'm thinking, is not in showing the weaknesses of these individuals, but in lumping all of them together into a stereotype, even if that stereotype makes someone else out to be the bad guy. Does it honor the humanity of a person more to portray him/her as he/she really is, even if some of that reality is not too pretty?

I may think that, but I'm not so sure I'm carrying my philosophy through in my writing. Honestly, I'm intimidated by taking on the subject of Native Americans and their history. I surely don't want to bring down the wrath of the Cherokee Nation on myself for my speculation about what happened nearly 200 years ago. And I hope in my effort to avoid offending and to appease the guilt my forefathers laid on me that I'm not giving my protagonists attitudes that are far too 21st-century to be realistic for 19th-century folk. Sigh...As my title says, it's complicated.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Striking Out on Unfamiliar Paths

We have a tendency to stick with things we know and like, don't we? If I put a new recipe on the table, my kids eye it suspiciously. I suspect most of us watch the same shows on the same television channels every night. When we're reading, we gravitate toward books that are about subjects we know we have an interest in. I do, anyway.

One of my friends was clearing her bookshelves a couple of years ago and gave me a copy of Alexander McCall Smith's novel The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. I took it, of course, though she said it was a mystery and I'm not too interested in mystery stories (too much murder and stuff). So the book sat on my bookshelf since then, until I decided to thin my collection. To be fair, however, I felt I should at least read the book before I shipped it off. As you can probably guess, I'm glad, mainly because the book made me curious about Africa and sent me off on a search that has taught me some interesting facts.

The book is set in Botswana. Could you point to Botswana on a map? I couldn't. To save you the trouble of looking it up, the country is in the southern tip of Africa, just above South Africa and bordered on one side by Namibia and on the other by Zimbabwe. Most of the countryside consists of the Kalahari Desert, and the main source of income for citizens is cattle, which is good for the people but hard on the land. My research also indicates that Botswana is a relatively stable democracy in Africa and that the economy is relatively successful. Everything is not rosy, however; Botswana has the second-highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection in the world. One in four people in Botswana has HIV/AIDS, and life expectancy in the country has dropped from 65 to 35 years. At least the government takes the problem seriously and the country has achieved universal access to treatment.

Sadly, I doubt I would ever have known that information had I not read this book. You might say, so what? Africa is half the world away. It's highly unlikely knowing this stuff about Botswana is going to have any impact on your day-to-day life. I would grant that might be true in a physical sense, but in a psychological sense, that argument is wrong. One of the things I teach in my Introduction to Rhetoric class is very basic intercultural communication, with "culture" interpreted in a broad sense, not just as national or ethnic differences. In that class, we try to learn the skill of being able to look past the stereotypes built up around a culture to find the human connection that allows us to have curiosity with respect, compassion without condescension. If we can develop those skills, we can communicate across cultures, whether we are talking about American to Batswana (just FYI, that's not a typo - the language in Botswana has an interesting use of prefixes I won't go into here) or Democrat to Republican. And that does, indeed, have an impact on our daily lives.

What does that have to do with reading The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency? The best way to understand a culture, I believe, is to get to know someone from that culture, realizing, of course, that an individual is only a piece of the overall picture. That's the great gift that reading a novel gives us. Non-fiction gives us facts about a culture; a novel gives us a person to get to know, a face to put on the culture. We can see inside the person's head to observe how they respond to events, and we can compare their response to our own. We can understand their motivations and how where they come from influences the decisions they make. In short, if the character is well-developed and sympathetic, we care. And caring is the first step toward the attitudes that make successful intercultural communication possible.

So while I thought The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency had some problems as a novel (it was more like a collection of short mystery stories, kind of like the Encyclopedia Brown series with an African woman as the detective), I'm glad I took it off the shelf to read it, finally. And while I'm not going to make this my "year of reading interculturally," I do have some other books I'd like to get to this year that will extend my knowledge of other cultures.  One of those is the book I'm working on now, On the Rez, a non-fiction book about life on the Pine Ridge reservation for the Sioux. I'm off to a slow start - I find it harder to read non-fiction at the end of a long day - but I've already found some interesting insights that I really needed as I write Native American characters for my novels. So I'll plow on, a page at a time if I have to. It will be worth the effort.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


Somewhere (probably Facebook) I came across this image:

It is part of a reading challenge for 2014 sponsored by Random House. Normally, I don't do things like this because I like to be more spontaneous with my choices of reading material (in other words, I'm really disorganized!). But I think I will see how many of these squares I can fill in this year. I've already completed one; my "Book with a Mystery" is The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith (review to come later this week). And last night I started my non-fiction book - On the Rez by Ian Frazier.

I do see two squares that will provide a big challenge for me. First is the book with more than 500 pages. Yikes. I can see myself spending most of the year on that one alone. The other--which I truly doubt I even TRY to do--is a book that scares me. I don't do scary. I don't.

Want to join me in this reading challenge? Random also has a Young Adult version of the Bingo card, if that's more your preference.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Keeping a Resolution is Hard!

One of the things I wanted to do better this year was post to this blog more regularly, but here it is 11 days into the new year and I haven't put up anything yet! I'm not at the stage in my reading to have anything to say, really, about the book I'm reading right now, The #1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.

At least I've been writing quite a bit, though not all of it is anything very exciting. The exciting news is that I finished the first draft of my second novel this week and so far my two earliest readers seem to think it doesn't need a lot of editing. Hooray! After spending five or so years editing the first one, I was nervous about that "Coming in 2014" deadline I put on myself for this one. But maybe I'll make that deadline just fine. The not-so-exciting news is that I've been working on a program review document for our Communication program at the school where I teach, something that has been needed for several years but is now on a semi-critical deadline. However, it is such a HUGE job, pulling together all these bits of information and trying to fit them in some kind of order....I have to reward myself once in a while. So, given my post a couple of weeks ago, you might be able to guess I've been listening to a lot of the Avett Brothers, ha ha.

My son gave me two Avett albums for Christmas, and I downloaded another, plus a few other favorite songs. I'll admit, the songs these guys write are not good "background" for any task requiring mental effort--their lyrics demand to be listened to rather than to just slip, unprocessed, in and out of my mind. No "Baby, baby, baby, oooh" here! And as I've listened, the rhetorical critic in me thinks she's noticed a theme to each of the three albums I have. So, with your indulgence, I'll engage in a simple textual analysis of some of their work.