Winter Reality: Small Town vs. Big City Snowstorms

Winter Storm Linus Hits Chicago

Last weekend, when much of the Midwest was covered by Winter Storm Linus, The Mister was at the house and I was hunkered down in the apartment in the city. As the snow piled up in both locations, we were able to recognize the vastly different experiences between small town life and big city existence.

At our house we are responsible for shoveling our own driveway and sidewalk when it snows. We haven’t yet upgraded to a snowblower so we’re still shoveling by hand. Or, at least, we try to. It seems we never get the chance to do our own shoveling because a friendly neighbor with a snowblower will show up and do it before we can. That’s small town life for you. It’s a neighborly existence where folks pitch in to help one another.

Meanwhile, back in the city, it’s every man for himself. Since we live in an apartment building, we’re not responsible for snow removal on the sidewalks. There’s a landscaping service that shows up after the snow stops falling and clears the path. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we don’t have off-street parking at our apartment. That means that our cars, along with everyone else’s, are parallel parked on the street. And when a street full of cars is covered with 20+ inches of snow, it’s one big mess.

For one thing, when the plows make their way down the side streets, they create a great wall of snow that often completely blocks the cars where they’re parked. When that happens, you’re not only digging your car out of the snow, you also have to shovel the wall of snow out of the way.

No dibs for me.

Now, if you don’t know anything about Chicago, and if you’ve never been here during a big snowstorm, you may not know about the phenomenon known as dibs. Put simply, dibs is the practice of cleaning out a parking spot for your car and then marking your territory so that your spot will still be there when you return. To someone who lives in a small town, this probably seems absurd. I mean, if everyone worked together to clear all of the parking spots on the street, then dibs wouldn’t even be necessary, right?

Oh if only that was the case! Instead, on any given block you’ll see a few cleared spots where responsible car owners have done their work. And then there will be a bunch of cars that have never been cleaned of their snow. Those cars will probably remain in that condition until the snow melts. And as the piles of snow get pushed around and about, parking becomes a real issue. If you don’t get stuck on one of the snow humps, you’re lucky.

And so the concept of dibs comes into play. Last Monday I spent almost an hour clearing my car of snow. I used a snow shovel to clear the humps of frozen slush from around my car, being sure to push the snow to the curb rather than the middle of the street. While I appreciate the concept of dibs, I have yet to embrace the practice myself. As I drove away from my nice, clean parking spot Tuesday morning, I knew that I would never see it again. And I was right. When I got back home Tuesday night, the spot has already been taken. I was forced to drive around and around until I found a spot where my car almost fit.

That’s city life for you. It’s every man for himself here in the city. And that’s exactly why we’re working toward full time life at the house in the future.

Images: This American House

Real Life Lessons: Embracing the Imperfections of DIY

Embracing the Imperfections of DIY

At my day job last Friday we had a Super Bowl potluck party. My contribution was this plate of bacon cheddar biscuits.

“Gee, Jason,” I can hear you asking. “Why are your biscuits two different colors?”

Oh, you noticed that, did you? Well there’s a simple reason some of the biscuits are darker than the others: I burned them. In an attempt to multi-task Thursday night, I was ironing clothes, listening to music and telling The Mister some sort of riveting story. My first batch of perfectly golden biscuits was cooling on a wire rack on the counter and the next batch was baking in the oven. I guess I was so distracted that I didn’t hear the over timer beep. Five minutes later, I caught a whiff of my biscuits starting to burn.

As I pulled the dark brown biscuits out of the oven, I spat out a few curse words and considered dumping them in the garbage. Before I did, I picked one off the baking sheet and bit into it. While the biscuit was a little crunchier than I would have liked, it still tasted fine.

“Here,” I said as I thrust a biscuit in The Mister’s direction. “Do you think I can still take these to work tomorrow?”

“Sure,” said The Mister between bites. “They taste fine to me. And isn’t that what really matters – how they taste and not how they look?”

“That’s true. But I hate showing up with a burned biscuits. I have a reputation as a good cook to uphold!”

It wasn’t until I was placing the biscuits in a container for their journey to the office that I finally decided that the burned biscuits were just fine. In fact, I finally reasoned, that the biscuits are burned is proof that they’re homemade versus store bought. When things are homemade, sometimes they’re imperfect.

And that’s the nature of doing it yourself. Sometimes things go wrong and you just have to deal with it. Whether it’s burning the biscuits or discovering that the faucet you just installed is a little too heavy for your stainless steel sink, life as a DIYer is full of surprises. It’s how you deal with those surprises that defines you as a maker. You can either say, “I suck at this! I’m never doing this again!” Or, and this is the path I recommend, you can say, “Oops, that didn’t work out so well this time. I’ll remember this lesson and really kick some ass next time!”

For the record, the biscuits were a hit.

Image: This American House

See You Later, Water Waster: Replacing the Kitchen Faucet

Replacing a Leaky Faucet in the KitchenWhen I replaced the faucet in the city apartment a few months ago, I commented to The Mister, “At least we haven’t had to a leaky faucet at the house.”  I should have known better than to put voice to the thoughts because that totally jinxed us. The next time we were at the house, we noticed that the kitchen faucet had developed a major leak.

We actually considered leaving the leaking faucet in place until we’re ready to overhaul the entire kitchen. I mean, it seems silly to install a brand new faucet on an old sink that we’re going to rip out in a few months. But then we discovered that what we thought was a minor leak was more like a constant flow of water. I’m talking Niagara Falls. And the falls were emptying into the cabinet under the sink and, eventually, into the bathroom in the basement below. So, yeah, our hands were forced on the issue. Besides, when we do eventually renovate the kitchen, we’ll just re-install this replacement faucet on our new sink.

New Kitchen Faucet Installed

Knowing that we’ll use this new faucet in the current kitchen as well as in the future iteration of the room, I chose one that we’ll want for the long haul. I picked up a commercial style faucet that may not exactly be period friendly for our 1917 home, but it will still look quite lovely on a white farm house style sink.

Replacing the faucet was just as easy as it had been back at the city apartment. The only real challenge was contorting myself to fit under the sink and around the garbage disposal. We did, however, run into one problem. The stainless steel sink is a little weak and thus doesn’t quite support the weight of this tall and heavy faucet. For that reason, the faucet leans ever so slightly to the right (which is why I photographed it at an angle). It’s not really very noticeable and it’s something that will be remedied when we replace the sink during the kitchen renovation. And it just goes to show that absolute perfection is a fallacy.

At any rate, we’re free of leaks and the new faucet works like a charm.

Images: This American House

Adventures in Stripping: Refinishing Fireplace Brick

Adventures in Stripping: Refinishing Fireplace Brick

We’ve had an ongoing debate for the past year about what we should do with the fireplace. The bricks had been painted white some 30+ years ago and then the most recent owners painted the fireplace a glossy dark gray. We knew we didn’t want the gray but we weren’t sure whether we wanted to tackle the monumental task of stripping the fireplace either.

Finally one evening, in a stab at decisiveness, I grabbed a can of white paint and a brush. “I’m just going to paint the fireplace white,” I told The Mister. “And then we can decide what we want to do later.”

I painted two whole bricks before I reconsidered what I was doing. If we’re going to do this, we may as well do it right. I wiped off the wet paint, grabbed a bottle of Citri-Strip
and, well, now there’s no turning back.

Stripping Fireplace Brick

At first, the project was going really well. The small section where we first applied the stripper was looking incredible. The dark gray paint peeled away quickly and with some scrubbing and brushing and lots and lots of stripper, the white paint washed away to reveal beautiful bricks. The bricks are not the dark red that we were expected but where instead shades of gray and blue and brown.


Buoyed by the success of the first few bricks, we decided to forge on. And so on New Years Eve, while others were donning party hats and festive attire, we were dressed in grubby clothes and rubber gloves. We taped garbage bags to the walls and floor and proceeded to cover the entire front of the fireplace with stripper. And that, as it turns out, was not a very good idea.

You see, stripping a small section of a dozen or so bricks seems completely doable. Scrubbing the entire surface of a fireplace over a twelve hour period seems like some sort of torture.

Applying Citri-strip the fireplace brick

Still, it was great seeing the progress as we went along. Slowly (ever so slowly) the gray and white paint would chip away and we would expose more and more beautiful old bricks. But oh the mess that it created! Even with the plastic bags lining the floor, we still ended up tracking little bits of paint and stripper all around the house.

The mess of stripping the fireplace

At one point we had four wire brushes, a half dozen steel wool pads, two buckets of water, a pile of wet and dry rags and a few sponges at work. Here’s a little overview of our process.

Step 1: Use a steel wool pad to apply a layer of citri-strip to the brick. Let it stand for about an hour.

Step 2: Use another steel wood pad to apply another layer of citri-strip. This would essentially wipe away the gray paint, which would reveal the white paint. By applying another layer of stripper, we were hoping to make removal of the white paint a little easier.

Step 3: After letting the second layer of stripper sit for a few hours, we used wire brushes of various sizes to scrape away remaining paint. Talk about labor intensive! And oh the mess!

Step 4: Wash the brick with clean water.


Every hour or so we would stand back and admire our work. And by admire I mean we would question our sanity and try to give ourselves pep talks about the progress we were making. But, truly, we were making progress, even if it did feel like it was at a snail’s pace.

By 10PM on New Years Eve, we had worked on the front of the entire fireplace for more than twelve hours. Some parts of it looked amazing while others obviously required more work. Sometimes you have to know when to say when, however, so we cleaned up our mess and decided we’d come back to it another day.

011115-stripping-fireplace-brick13The funny thing about all of this is that when you stand back, it’s kind of hard to tell that we did anything at all! I doubt that the previous owners had any inkling about the brick color when they decided to paint the fireplace dark gray. And yet their choice of color has made it difficult to discern what has been painted and what has been stripped. When you get really close to the fireplace you can definitely see the difference.

Fireplace bricks after hours and hours of scrubbingWe still have a lot of work ahead of us. We’ll need to do another pass with stripper and wire brushes on the front of the fireplace. I actually quite like the white paint that clings to the crevices of the bricks. I think it gives the fireplace a weathered look. If we can get the entire surface to look like the bricks pictured above, we’ll feel like it’s been a success.


Of course, we haven’t even started on the bricks on both sides of the fireplace. For now, I think we’re happy to pretend that magic elves will come do that part for us.

Are we crazy for having started this job? Yes, I’m sure we are. Are we happy with the outcome? Yes, I think we are. So, really, it’s all worth it in the end.

Images: This American House

Peering Over the Fence: Dealing with House Envy

Delbert Meier House

When other Frank Lloyd Wright-designed properties pop up on the market, we can’t help but peer over the proverbial fence and compare notes. Mind you, this is more easily done with other Wright-designed Prairie houses, like our own. Recently, some Usonian houses have come up for sale. Each has been beautifully and thoroughly designed; one must feel as though one is actually living in a work of art, even more so than we do in our gorgeous house. A recent listing showed stunning interiors covered in wood – ceilings, walls, built-in shelves and furniture. We wonder, however, how much a completely designed house pushes out the homeowners’ ability to be co-creative with the space? If there are no walls to paint and little furniture needed to add, what more is there to do than fill up the built-in shelves and perhaps change out curtains and floor rugs?

Our house is somewhat of a blank canvas, held within a Wright-designed frame. The frame does dictate to some degree how we fill in the canvas, but for the most part it’s ours with which to play. We are certainly choosing to restore some interior elements to the house that were altered or removed years ago, like the original built-in cabinets, woodwork, and fireplace. We also hope to eventually “Wright” some alterations made to the exterior of the house, and frame it with more organic landscaping. But that said, we have little interest in making the house a museum. We would rather it be a space in which we can live in harmony with what it once was and was meant to be, but also with what it is now and can be. It’s a heady task, this balancing act between preserving the form of the house while updating its function, but we think we’re on the right (if not completely “Wright”) track.

— Michael

Image: This American House