better homes than yours · DIY · Renovation

Day 915: Layers

“Know what else has layers? Parfaits! You ever meet someone, you say, “Let’s go get some parfaits,” they say, ‘No, I don’t like no parfaits’?” -Donkey (Eddie Murphy), Shrek

Donkey wasn’t wrong about parfaits, but you know what else had layers that nobody even knew were there?

Our driveway.

The paving contractors came today to dig up our driveway and lay down the gravel base for the new pavement. It took eight men (at least), two dump trucks, and three pieces of heavy equipment (diggers and a roller) six hours to get the job done. Why so long?

Well, there were two different layers of asphalt and an entire concrete driveway under there (“Guess that’s why the driveway wasn’t in really awful shape,” Mr. December mused.) Also hidden among the layers of pavement were two municipal water shut-off valves—both of which are obsolete (the current shutoff valve is in the middle of the front lawn.)

“We didn’t wanna pave over these without asking you first,” the foreman said. “I dunno, maybe this one is for your neighbours’ house or something?”

“Well, obviously nobody has needed it for the last thirty years, since it was under the asphalt. I’d say it’s safe to pave over again,” I reasoned.

I regret to tell you that I didn’t take any photos of how deep they had to dig to get down to bare earth. I should have—it was pretty impressive. The kids were impressed when they saw the giant hole, though.

Now we’ve got three weeks of parking on gravel before they come back and lay the asphalt. And then it’s time for a family DIY project… stay tuned!

better homes than yours · el cheapo · Just the two of us · Renovation

Day 911: The Driveway

When we renovated our house, we decided not to include any landscaping or paving in the project; I think we didn’t want to make the build any more expensive than it already was.

That was a mistake.

It’s better to cry once, as Mr. December says. If the house had cost an extra $10K but with the exterior taken care of as well, it’d be done now. Instead I get to go back and forth with him over whether it’s worth spending money to fix our driveway.

His argument: The driveway is fine. It still works.

My argument: The driveway is all cracked and crumbling. It’s uneven enough to cause twisted ankles (ask how I know) and meltwater doesn’t drain properly anymore, so we get sheets of ice in winter.

His rebuttal: I’d still rather not.

I mean, what do you think? Bear in mind, the worst parts are right where the car’s shadow is, to the left of the car.

Photo of our driveway and the front yard. Driveway is cracked with weeds growing up through the cracks.

Here’s a different angle, a screenshot from Google’s street view. All those dark areas? They used to be patches; now they’re mostly holes with a drop-off at the edge.

Our driveway and minivan. The driveway has multiple patched areas.

The issue came to a head when I injured my knee and the ambulance came to take me to the hospital. The stretcher wheels got stuck in the cracks and potholes at least three times. It was embarrassing—I wanted to pretend that we were just renting and it was the landlord who was a cheapskate. Sadly, the cheapskate is…

…look, we all know. I’m not naming names again.

Point is, the driveway needs to be done. At this point it’s a safety issue—especially with R’s and my unstable ankles and knees.

I got a couple of quotes—not a lot. In the end, I decided to get asphalt again. I’m just not sure that I want to spend an extra $15K on interlocking brick. Does it look nicer? Of course. But are there like five other things I’d rather do with the money? Um, YEAH. In the end, I need a driveway that’s even, and properly sloped.

So I chose a company: excellent reviews, in business for decades, no deposit (payment upon completion)… how bad can it be?

better homes than yours · crafty · IKEA · Kids

Day 746: Moving Day

There comes a day in every parent’s life when you see so much familiar stuff—furniture, clothes, musical instruments—leaving your child’s room in boxes. It’s yet another Sunrise, Sunset moment in the child’s journey to adulthood. It’s moving day… for the dolls.

Today R moved her dolls out of their house in her room. “I need more space for my stuff,” she said, “and E is the one who plays with them now anyway.” At the tender age of ten, R feels ready to give up the dollhouse that we (read: I) painstakingly created in her wall unit.

She wanted to get rid of the wall unit too, but I stood firm. The whole thing is screwed into the studs and takes up half of a wall in her bedroom. It is not moving. The whole point of putting the dollhouse into the wall unit was that one day we’d be able to take out the doll stuff and just have storage. R has gradually come around to the idea that the wall unit stays.

E’s room, however, has no such wall unit… yet. We do have a whole stack of IKEA boxes that contain her future furniture, and we’ve been sitting on those for almost a year. Today E insisted that it was time to assemble at least a couple of them so that the dolls could have a house.

Sadly, as with probably every moving day, there was some damage to furniture. The doll bunk bed I made two years ago fell apart when I removed it from R’s cupboard; it’s spending the night in the makery, where eight clamps are holding it all together while the glue dries.

The dolls’ new house is still a bit unsettled, but their neighbours (E’s stuffies) are excited to be sharing a condo building with them. And I’m excited to be getting rid of the stack of IKEA boxes under E’s desk.

Left: kitchen and bathroom are mostly set up. Right: these dolls have a lot of stuff to unpack.

better homes than yours · Homeschool · Keepin' it real · waxing philosophical · whine and cheese

Day 670: I Give Up

Once upon a time, my living room looked like a living room: couches, shelves for board games, hammocks, an ottoman. The only adornments on the wall were a few framed paintings done by the kids. The wall unit had open shelves where we displayed some beautiful Judaica pieces, vases, and other items that were both pretty and practical.

Then we started homeschooling, and Mr. December wanted to clear some of the open shelving to make room for the kids’ binders. I resisted, relenting only because the kids’ binders are all colour coded and their colours are all part of the colour scheme in our house.

The binders slowly encroached on more shelves. Mr. December asked for his own space to store his books and papers. Still, it was just one wall unit. The rest of my living room was still school-free (when we cleaned up.)

One day I decided it would be great to have a timeline on the wall that we could add to when learning about historical events and people. It had to go somewhere; I mounted it just below the window that separates the living room from the kitchen, rationalizing that at least I wouldn’t have to look at school stuff when relaxing on the couch, which faces the opposite direction.

A wipeable map of the world joined the timeline. Then a map of Canada. By this point that wall was full, so when I made the kids’ magnetic schedule boards, I had to hang them between the dining room table and the stairs. At least they weren’t in the dining room, I told myself.

I used to harbour dreams of moving all our homeschool stuff down to the basement, so that we could have our classroom next to the Makery and not have to look at all the school stuff all the time. But somehow we always end up at the dining room table or on the living room couches, and so our stuff has migrated there too.

I’ve given up. I’m letting go of how I thought my house should look. I’m trying to, anyway, because I think it’s healthier to accept and work with what is rather than “should-ing” all over myself and my family.

Last week I wanted wall space to hang some of my Hebrew materials: the days-of-the-week chart, the months of the year, and the weather poster. Heaving a sigh of surrender, I pinned them up on the wall at the head of the dining room table.

“It looks like a Grade One classroom in here,” K said.

“Maybe because it is a Grade One classroom?” I shot back defensively.

“No, no, it’s okay,” she soothed, “at least you chose nice colours.”

I put the final nail in the coffin today: remember that wall I said was completely full? Yeah, it was only full below the timeline. There was plenty of space above. It took less than ten minutes to put up some 3M hooks for the kids’ clipboards that hold their “to-do” lists and music practice charts. I also hung up the giant Post-It chart paper, because I couldn’t think of any other way to store it without it getting folded or bunched up.

“I love that you have school stuff all over your walls,” K’s bestie told me earlier this week. “My mom won’t even let us put up a wall calendar. She says it ruins the aesthetic.”

“She’s right, it does.” I responded. “But I’ve decided to stop fighting it and embrace that my house is a school.”

When my kids were babies, I only bought wooden toys and toys in solid colours—no plastic, no characters, no flashing lights. It wasn’t for health or environmental reasons, I just didn’t want my living room to look like Toys R Us had just thrown up in there. Nowadays it looks like Staples threw up in my house… and I’m trying to figure out whether that’s any better than Toys R Us.

ADHD · better homes than yours · DIY

Day 667: Small Improvements

I’m in a weird place today, mentally speaking. I can think of about six things I want to do to improve the house, but I can’t do any of them to completion. I started decluttering the extra table in our living room and then stopped because too much of it depended on other people’s participation. I decided my workbench could use some tidying, but that was too daunting so I left it for another day.

You know that ADHD song I posted a link to a while ago? The whole thing was pretty descriptive of me, but the best part was this:
Imagine the human brain as a gigantic mixing board
Most people can use these sliders to move in and out of chores
A little of this and that and like that all the chores are gone
My brain doesn’t work like that, man—my brain just goes OFF and ON.

And oh, man, is it ever true. People who say things like, “Your kid doesn’t have ADHD, he can pay attention just fine when it’s something he wants to do” are missing this crucial piece of information: for some of us, attention is all-or-nothing. So is motivation.

I consider it a victory if I can manage to finish a project within a week or two of having started it. Today’s victory is that I finally hung the wall-mounted self-watering plant pots with all the baby spider plants in them.

I can already see that maybe I should have picked a different kind of plant for at least some of the containers—something trailing would be nice here—but the spider plants were here and handy, and one plant separated into so many little ones, and I felt bad throwing out the extras. So I planted them all.

“I love it!” I enthused to Mr. December. “It’s so colourful! Should I buy more of those pots and put them all over the wall?”

(Because right now, as far as this project is concerned, my brain is ON.)

“Why don’t we wait and see how these hold up,” he suggested, “and then we can buy more.”

“Right.” I say (and try to convince my brain to turn OFF for this project.)

Hey, it’s small improvements. Maybe by next week I’ll have decluttered the table.

better homes than yours · Costa Rica · Keepin' it real · Travelogue · whine and cheese

Day 614: A Concrete Problem

As I’ve said before, the wifi here is awful. Unreliable, inconsistent, and generally slow. Today Mr. December was in a meeting and ended up having to tether his laptop to his iPhone for internet; even then, it took some moving around the house and patio until he found a spot with good reception.

It seems that this house is the problem. It’s built out of concrete (with steel beams and reinforcement, of course.) The walls seem to be at least 8 inches thick. This is great for climate control inside the house, since the concrete walls absorb heat from the sun all day and then slowly release it at night when it gets a little cool. The construction is terrible for wifi signals, though—we’re essentially living inside a Faraday cage.

Mr. December is, at this very moment, walking around the house checking the strength of the cellular signals (the wifi here is on cellular data, not fibre-optic or cable.) His hope is that by moving the wifi base station we’ll get more consistent signals.

Does the poor wifi quality mean that this house was the wrong choice for us? I’m honestly not sure—it would have to be pretty dire to outweigh the five bedrooms, the pool, the gorgeous outdoor space, and the zipline.

Wait, what? Zipline?

Yeah, there’s a zipline on the property. I’ll tell you about it another time when the internet is less slow.

better homes than yours · Costa Rica · Kids · Travelogue

Day 612: The Good, the Bad, and the Wacky.

The Good:

Our new place has five bedrooms, a pool, a hammock, and a clothesline. The kids picked their rooms and then discovered that E’s room has elephant-print bedsheets and N’s has cheetah-print. It’s like the sheets were chosen specifically for each kid. 

The kitchen is well-equipped—how many Air Bnb’s have a rice cooker?—and spacious, and as E pointed out, the microwave and toaster oven are below the countertop so that even she can reach them. 

The Bad:

The wifi here sucks. 

There. I said it. 

I couldn’t load a website when Mr. December and K were both on the internet at the same time. I don’t even remember dialup being that slow back in the 1990’s. I’m not trying to watch videos or scroll FaceBook; I just want to recharge my cellphone balance. Looks like I’ll have to wait for Mr. December to log off and then get this post up and recharge my phone while everyone else is distracted with bedtime. 

Oh, and I’m a bit frustrated because we asked our driver to take us to a supermarket, and it turned out to be one with a pretty awful produce section, and now we’re here in the middle of the jungle with no car and only five tomatoes. 

(And a whole bunch of other groceries, but we eat a lot of tomatoes.)

The Wacky:

When we first walked in, I took in the beautiful live-edge table, the curving concrete staircase, and the shiny dancing pole in the middle of the room. 

Wait, what? 

Yes, there is a pole dancing pole right in the middle of the room.

R and E have been enjoying it immensely. R has perfected a few graceful spins, while E mostly thinks it’s fun. Mr. December made sure to tell them that pole dancing is one of the highest-paying jobs you can get as a university student. I made sure to hit him upside the head for that piece of advice. 

Image description: my daughter (face obscured by her hair) spinning on a dancing pole in the middle of a living room.

And please note: From now until we return home on December 20 our internet will be slow or spotty, so expect posts to be heavy on text and very light on pictures. 

better homes than yours · DIY · el cheapo · hackin' it · whine and cheese

Day 495: Cheap Imitations?

“I have big plans,” I informed Mr. December. “I’m going to rope K into my crazy, harebrained scheme and we’re going to do it when you’re out of the house.”

You might be wondering why I told him at all; I was wondering the same thing two seconds after I finished speaking. That’s me, though: when I’m excited about something, I can’t keep my mouth shut. Except for that time we threw my parents a big surprise party for their anniversary… but that was really, really hard.

Back to Mr. December. “Does it involve wrecking a perfectly good table?” he asked.

How did he know? “Maybe a little…” I admitted.

I don’t know if I ever told you that we have a new-to-us dining room table. It’s not the fancy epoxy table, and it’s not the custom wood table with the tree-shaped legs either. I’ve known this table for most of my life, as it’s been sitting in the boardroom of my Dad’s office for the last twenty-five (or so) years. It’s the exact size and shape that I wanted, and it was free, which means I can throw my table fund into twelve beautiful (and matching) dining chairs.

Besides, you know I’m happier when I’m hacking furniture, right? This table is—like most office furniture—really nice wood-look formica over particle board. But I have big plans here: remove some of the laminate (probably a meandering river down the middle, but who knows) and pour a very thin layer of blue epoxy into the resultant gap. I think it would look extremely cool.

Speaking of cool, my mum brought these beautiful chairs to my attention:

Image description: a chair with chrome legs and a transparent blue plastic molded seat. There are ripples emanating from the centre of the seat. It looks like water.

When I saw them—and when Mum told me how comfy they are—I started looking for them online. I found what I thought was the right chair on Overstock and Wayfair; but when I read the reviews, many of them said the chairs weren’t very durable. I found this strange since my Aunty (in whose kitchen the above photo was taken) told me that the chairs still look untouched even with all the abuse her dogs and birds dish out.

So I ran a Google search on the photo of the chair. Sure enough, there appeared to be two different companies making a nearly-identical product. Of course, I couldn’t tell which was which except by the dimensions; in typical Wayfair manner, they’ve given the chairs a name that is completely different from the model name on the manufacturers’ website. Sure enough, though, one of them is slightly bigger and presumably more durable. It definitely gets better reviews than its doppelganger.

This kind of thing makes me crazy. It’s obviously designed to make it impossible for customers to comparison-shop, and in that it succeeds; but if I ordered a set of chairs and they turned out to be the cheap imitations, I’d be pissed.

So how am I supposed to know? According to the online retailers, I’m not. I guess this means I have to email actual bricks-and-mortar furniture stores around here and ask if they still carry these. And if not… do I take my chances and order 12 online? Or do I order just two online and risk them selling out before I can buy more?

better homes than yours · crafty · DIY

Day 475: Playing Librarian

When a book is being read in our house, it travels a lot. It will turn up at the breakfast table and then get moved to the sideboard before we begin school; it gets left in one of the hammocks after lunch break; it is taken out to the back porch and forgotten out there when its reader goes inside; it goes up to a bedroom and loiters next to the kleenex on the bedside table all night. At some point during its travels, the reader will finish the book… and leave it wherever they were reading it last. Books accumulate on every flat surface—chairs, stairs, floors, and ledges—until someone does a purge or a sweep and dumps them all back in the library.

I am, it seems, the only member of this household able to shelve the books. If I don’t do it it doesn’t get done, which is how we’ve ended up with a veritable mountain of books on the library floor.

The library is my major focus this month. There are numerous little details we (read: I) never finished; now is the time. Not only will I be reshelving all the wayward books, I’ll also be labeling the shelves, putting up pictures, upholstering the window seat, fixing the glass door on the musical instrument cabinet, fixing the drawers that never worked quite right, and adding cabinet doors below the desk. Oh, and possibly getting new furniture.

I started today by clearing all the paper and books off the (very wide, very long) windowsill, top of the piano, and desk. Then I left my house (oh, the novelty!) and went to look for fabric samples so I could get started on the window seat. I brought home seven samples and laid them on the window seat. The one Mr. December likes is the one E hates. It’s looking like I’ll have to go with a monochromatic sort of look for the window seat, because for the life of me I can’t find a bright, complementary or contrasting fabric that I like enough to look at for the next ten years.

Here, I’ll just post a photo and ask your opinion:

Image description: 7 large squares of different fabrics arranged on what looks like a couch, with a dark purple-blue ledge in the background.

So we’re speaking the same language, I’ll give each sample a name. Clockwise from top left: monochrome velvet, colourful space invaders, monochrome marbled, crazy bright leaves, purple geometric, colourful ikat, and stripes. So… which one? Or none of the above?

better homes than yours

Day 408: Rugs, rugs, rugs… which is good, which is bad?

I bought a rug before Pesach, the kind that separates from the pad and can go in the washing machine. I didn’t love it, but everyone else thought it was fine. Fast forward a month or so: I needed to buy a rug for the basement rec room (now that there’s a TV in there.) While I was looking for a basement rug, I came across another one I thought would look better in the living room; since it was from Home Depot and fully returnable I decided I’d order it and try it out.

The kids and I love the new rug; Mr. December hates it. I’m giving you some side-by-side photos but not telling you which rug is which. What I want you to tell me is… which one is better in the room? And why?

(Oh, and I’m feeling much better—thanks for asking!)