Monday, September 14, 2015

“But what do you do all day?”


Today is the first day I am home while all of my kids are at school. Last week, during the first two mornings my little guy was at pre-school, I ran errands. It may have been to accomplish the mile-long list of tasks that had been waiting for some “free time”, or it may have been to avoid this moment. I’m. Home. Alone. It seems fitting that today is also my oldest child’s 11th birthday… on the anniversary of another life-changing day, I am once again experiencing a major life transition.

“But what do you do all day?”

This weekend I was talking with another mom of an 11 year old. Her daughter is an only child, so she’s been dealing with the concrete reality of this question a lot longer than I have. No one has yet had the chance to ask me… impertinently… accusatorily… what they think is rhetorically… about my lifestyle. She says she hears it all the time. That feels so wrong to me, but… now I’m fair game too, right? And haven’t I asked myself this same question? What the heck am I going to with these hours now that the baby is in pre-school? What can I possibly do with this time, other than find employment outside the home, that won’t leave me feeling ashamed of myself when someone asks me that question?

Isn’t that sad? (Now that is a rhetorical question.)

Mothering doesn’t stop just because no one is home. And neither does being a human being, for that matter. There will always be parental involvement spanning the “off hours”, no matter how many or few of those hours there may be. And perhaps, after 11 years of necessarily trading self-care for childcare, it’s okay to take a few extra minutes in the shower, or eat a meal while it’s still warm, or smell the flippin’  roses. I happen to have 4 kids, but if I had more or fewer that would not be material to this question. Mothering is mothering… it is many things but it is NOT a part-time job.

I don’t think that I should feel compelled to frantically use this time to clean my refrigerator, or better myself through further education or guilt-induced exercise, or get a paying job, simply so I can answer to the satisfaction of strangers about what I choose to do with my time.

So, do you know what I’m going to do all the blessed day?

I’m going to use my time to take care of my family first, myself second, other people third, and - if I have any minutes leftover - I’m going to do whatever the hell I want and not care a bit what anyone else thinks.

I know this a is a good plan because anyone could ascribe to it and the world would still be better off. If you sum up the heart of what the most admirable people do, you’d find this to be true as well. It’s universalizable… a hallmark of moral decision-making. Just ask Kant. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to ice some dinosaur cupcakes…


Sunday, September 13, 2015

Maxi Skirt to Midi Dress Refashion

If this post had hashtags, they would be #desperatetimes #desperatemeasures.

I find myself in need of warm weather clothing even as the brisk weather of Fall approacheth. The fam is taking a trip to what is self-acclaimed to be the Happiest Place on Earth, and it’s going to be HOT and also humid.

The solution here is twofold:

a) Quick, find some shorts I don’t hate. ((I’ll work on my pants sewing skills another time))

b) Buy or whip up some skirt and/or dresses appropriate to the situation.

I have managed to solve a), but b) has not been as forthcoming. I just have not liked anything I am seeing in actual stores for actual money. Granted, it’s the end of the season, but still. I guess I am old since I can’t accept current fashion trends. Sigh. However, while hunting for some school necessities for my kids, I found a clearance maxi skirt at Kohls that I like. The problem? It was a size 3X.


I am a medium sized person generally, so this was going to be a problem. But the $8 skirt had a lot of fabric, with pre-matched chevron stripes that I couldn’t resist. So… time for a quick refashion!

While holding it up to my own body to figure out if it would be long enough for a dress, I folded the waistband down and was inspired to flip the bodice upside down for a quilty, stripey diamond pattern. Here is what I did:


My bodice pieces were made from a rub-off of a tank top I had. No darts… embrace the knit!


The construction was basic… I sewed together the top (preserving the wide elastic waistband), then the skirt, then attached them and finished the neck and armhole edges.


I preserved the original hem which caused the sides to be a tad longer than the front and back. That might have bothered me were I not quite so desperate, or if the skirt had been long enough to accommodate a new hem that would have still been long enough for my thirty-something sensibilities. As it is, I will call it “character” and leave it at that :)


And, for posterity, a super awkward dress-in-action selfie. Yep… Hi. My name is Karen and I’m a dork :)


I really do like the end result. This is a dress that is not completely pretty on the inside, but I don’t care. I like the stripes, I like the gray, and it is super comfy. It is far from perfect but who cares? It’s at least as well constructed as what is available ready-to-wear. I harbor secret desires to make another dress before we go, but I don’t know if that’ll happen because REALITY. But we’ll see :)

New dress? check.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Where did summer go?

School starts tomorrow! This summer has blown by, with a bazillion home improvement and d├ęcor projects (some lingering in various states of completion), some lovely trips (exhausting but memorable!), lots of good food and spending time with the many and varied people who enrich our lives. It has been truly truly a wonderful summer! But today is the very last little itty bitty bit and we’re trying to pull it together for a new school year adventure. The kids are ready. I still need the handful of short hours I have left…


Summer in SE Michigan seems to be hanging on for dear life too… it’s beyond hot and muggy. Even my insulated cups are sweating in our no central AC lifestyle. But it’s good to feel like we really got all the summer out of summer this year… last year I felt a  little robbed with a back injury and recovering from the move.


My baby (not really a baby anymore!) starts preschool this year. In addition to all the obvious good that he will get out of this deal (our school has an amazing preschool), I am really looking forward to having some solo time on a regular basis. I don’t have huge aspirations of getting my habitation objectively clean for the first time in over a decade – maybe next year when school is an everyday affair for all the kids - but I do hope to be able to get to a lot of tasks which, in my home and with my people, could easily have been exchanged for the eternal torment of Sisyphus. Tasks like organizing a bookshelf. Or laundry.


Whatever the Fall will bring, I pray that you and I both have the confidence to meet all challenges with optimism, the willpower to let go of inevitable frustrations, and the ability to find a source of joy every day. Let’s get to it…


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Ann Arbor Art Fair 2015

Growing up in Ann Arbor, the Art Fair is an annual fixture in the hippie artsy culture of the area. I used to go more often as a younger person. I haven’t gone much in the past 12 years… As an adult with 4 kids in tow, it generally seems more like an opportunity to lose a child than gain a greater appreciation of art. But with an adventure seeking mate, he convinced me it would be a good thing to take our underage entourage for a brief foray into the big wide world of the art fair. And so we went.

It was hotter than hot and we only stayed an hour or so and only saw less than a quarter of the entire fair. But it was edifying to see some pretty works, some funny pieces, vast arrays of metal garden art, as well as some truly disturbing and bizarre “artwork”. I snagged a few business cards of a few vendors that I liked. Picture taking of the artwork was not permitted so I can only share links… 

First up was Of Nature by Sandy James. Metal plated leaves… hardly a description worthy of such gorgeous pieces. If I had a million dollars I would have bought something… anything… a patina-ed gingko leaf in some wearable form. I love gingkos (as much for their graceful shape as well as their story of evolutionary survival… bio nerds are gonna nerd). Loverly work, no?


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One booth the whole family liked was Tiny People Big Laughs by JJ Johansen. Un-photoshopped images of tiny model railroad figures doing funny things… a delight for all ages :) I don’t want to reproduce his images here, but check out the gallery website for some good times. One of my favorites is here.

Another family favorite was Carl Zachmann, Machine Artist. He welded little robots out of metal silverware, tea strainers, bolts, and other salvaged materials. His little bots were so clever and detailed, but unfortunately he doesn’t currently have any of them on his website. But I’ll link anyway in case he ever does.

One last personal favorite was the cultural portrait photography of Jim Spillane. Just gorgeous colors and captivating faces.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Big Scary Repair: Taking Apart my KitchenAid Mixer

I mentioned last Monday that my mixer stopped working. It was a sad day but, even sadder, it was not unexpected.


I was mixing some bread dough a couple months ago when my dear mixer made a really loud clunk (but kept mixing).  I turned it off immediately. I knew it wasn’t good, so I decided to take a peek inside and see what was going on. Long story short, when I opened the gear case it became clear that  one large gear (the worm gear, it turns out) had lost a tooth from extreme forces generated by the gear at the end of the drive shaft. I removed the newly-freed metal bit that I could see to prevent further immediate damage, then closed it back up and kept using it cautiously. It was louder than it had been, and I knew it wasn’t going to last.

And it didn’t. Cause of death: pizza dough.

I opened it up again…


…and discovered a stripped part of the worm gear. The silver area on top of the large gear, center of the photo, is the stripped bit.


It is always sad when things we love fail us. I have had this mixer for less than 10 years, so it seems sort of shocking to think of a professional KitchenAid failing in so short a time, when other people can bequeath their still humming mixers to their grown children. It’s easy to feel like a victim and cry, “Why me?”. However, like other well-made machines, this one was designed to fail. When the load from years of mixing heavy dough gets to be too much the worm gear is designed to fail to protect the motor. So even though it felt like a devastating disaster… I mean, it stopped spinning!… in reality it was really a small disaster designed to prevent the devastating disaster.

After accepting the horror of not having a working stand mixer, my options at this point included trying to get it serviced locally or sending it somewhere that would involve paying crazy shipping for this heavy duty beast, not to mention the actual cost of the repair. Or fixing it my own self.

Having nothing to lose, I bought a new worm gear on Amazon for about $17.50. I also bought some 3M brake cleaner and a can of food-grade grease to replace the contaminated grease in the gear case. And I followed the directions in this excellent video (except I needed fewer replacement parts).


It was not rocket science, though I did encounter some metal-on-metal tightness in both removing the follower gears and replacing them once cleaned, so I had to use a PVC tube and a rubber mallet to get things back where they needed to be without adding insult to injury. I also used needle-nose  jewelry pliers instead of the retaining ring pliers that would have made this job much simpler (I am mentally adding them to my estate sale shopping list). I am learning that ingenuity goes a long way in these sorts of situations to make up for a lack of specialty tools.


I cleaned out all the gunky grease with popsicle sticks and Q-tips. About a million Q-tips.


I took the dirty gears outside and cleaned them (in a cardboard box to absorb the grease) with brake cleaner and a little “old toothbrush scrubby action”. ((Also: Ventilation! Solvent-proof gloves! Eye protection!)) It was amazing how, when the solvent dissipated, there were tiny silver bits everywhere. Gear case glitter. All the wear on the parts over time left metal debris laced throughout all that grease, and that would surely cause further unnecessary wear on everything in the gear case over time. Clean it out!


I did not replace the worm follower gear, but you can see some real wear in its teeth. I have enough grease left for 3 more full repairs, so I will plan to clean it out again in 2-3 years or so, and I will inspect all the gears again at that point and probably replace this guy.


My hands were covered in the new replacement grease* while putting it all back together so there are no real pictures of that part, but rest assured there were no leftover parts and my mixer is purring like a kitten again. I made pizza dough again just to make sure all was well. It is. I can rest peacefully again :)

Things I learned:

#1: I can do it myself!!

#2: There’s truly no reason to be afraid when you have nothing to lose.

#3: Some disasters are blessings in disguise, even if they don’t feel that way at first.


*PSA: I will also add that projects like these are where you want any brand of that “orange pumice hand cleaner” readily available from any auto parts store anywhere, and probably any grocery store. It removes grease like a boss and leaves your hands silky and smooth. And it’s durn cheap. And it works better to exfoliate than fancy schmancy stuff that costs 5 times as much. Also good for dried paint removal from skin. The more you know…

Monday, July 20, 2015

Seedless Wild Black Raspberry Jam

My beloved KitchenAid mixer stopped working :( Sadness. So what does one do when mourning the (temporary) loss of a faithful friend? One makes jam. Delicious, foraged jam. To eat while ordering replacement parts.


Our house is situated on what used to be a little doglegged dead end street. But some years ago, let’s say 10, before we took up residence, a new development sprung up next door and connected our quiet 11 house community-to-be to a larger conglomerate of carefully manicured, brick-sided McMansions on streets with prestigious sounding names. They are lovely homes, set on lovely lots, and at least some have lovely people living in them (all the people I’ve met, anyway). This association has some very well maintained trails around and through, and we do our best to act like we pay the association fees for them (though we don’t)… and that includes regularly biking around to our favorite spots to pick wild black raspberries. I like to imagine that if any of the real residents, noticing my scrubby clothing and stained fingers, ever asked me what I was doing that I’d simply look confused like I don’t speak English. Or, on the Martha Stewart end of the spectrum, that I’d confidently reply, “Making the most mouth-watering jam from these berries that no one else cares about. What amazing thing are you doing today?” If it actually happened, I’d probably just try to hide in the thorny bushes and wait them out. Yeah, I’m smooth. So far I’ve managed to simply say hello to passers-by and no one has inquired further. Yet.


Anyway… These berries are delicious, though mostly consisting of seeds that will inevitably get stuck in your teeth. They are richly colored (= healthy!) and readily stain nearly everything they come into contact with. Like most things, my love affair with foraging is due in part to the amazing people I know who infect me with their hobbies. My mother-in-law used to make the best wild black raspberry jam, so of course I want to try too. And one of my very best friends admitted to wearing nail polish only to cover up her black raspberry stained nails. I love that about her :) ((She also links to a pectin-free wild black raspberry jam recipe if that’s your thing, and a bunch of other great recipes for these berries.))

Seedless black raspberry jam has been my goal since we moved in, but I wasn’t ready to do it until I had this blank window of time in which stand mixing was on hold and berries were ripe. It was meant to be. This was my first successful jam that used commercial pectin, and I am as pleased as punch with the final texture. It set, but not too hard. Intense flavor. Not too much volume lost in steam. Quick. All good qualities in a jam.


So, without further dithering, here is how I made the jam (I made two batches, each in this proportion):

Seedless Wild Black Raspberry Jam

Makes 5-6 12 oz jars


  • 2 quarts (8 cups) of fully ripe black raspberries
  • water
  • 4-1/2 cups sugar, measured into separate bowl, divided
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1 box SURE-JELL For Less or No Sugar Needed Recipes Premium Fruit Pectin
  • 1/2 tsp. butter or margarine


Combine berries and a cup of water over low heat and stir, until juices are released.  Strain and reserve juices, pressing pulp through a fine mesh sieve to separate seeds. Discard seeds and add enough water to increase volume to 7 cups. Add lemon juice.

Mix sugar and pectin, then add to juice in a large saucepan. Mix well to dissolve the sugar. Add the butter (this tiny amount keeps the foam down). Bring the mixture to a full rolling boil, stirring constantly to prevent the bottom from scorching. When boil cannot be brought down with stirring, boil for one more minute. Remove from heat.

Jar jam in hot, sterilized jars. Wipe rims, apply sterilized lids and bands, and process in a boiling water canner for 10-15 minutes.

I love this jam on toasted homemade English muffins (recipe here). For a really decadent treat, smear the toasted English muffin generously with cream cheese, then jam, and top with a sprinkle of feta (and I recommend chopped walnuts too,  if you have them). It’s crazy good.


Friday, July 17, 2015

DIY In-Ground Pool Repair: Part V–Staining a Previously Painted Pool Deck

To catch you up, here are the posts about the pool area work we had done up to this point:

  • Safety
  • Replacing fallen tiles
  • Repairing crumbling concrete coping blocks
  • Replacing old cracked caulk in pool deck expansion joints

So the final step in this renovation was repainting. After doing the requisite research, it became clear that pool deck paint is special stuff, often expensive, and not available at Lowes or Home Depot. The knowledgeable and supportive pool forums at troublefreepool provided some options, and the simplest, cheapest, and best seemed to converge on a product called H&C Solid Color Water-Based Concrete Stain. It was available at Sherwin-Williams, like the specialized caulk we needed, and we were able to purchase it at 40% off, for a final price of $26 per can. We chose to use the ultra white for the coping and a sandy-tan “Bombay” for the deck. We also picked up some of their SharkGrip product to mix in for anti-slip protection… on sale, it cost less than $10 for enough to do 5 gallons of paint (we needed 4 gallons total).

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I spoke with the SW people about prep… I scraped and peeled off any loose paint, and made sure the surfaces were clean, dry, and rough. I still cannot wrap my head around the difference between paint and stain in this situation though. Paint is a surface coating, stain sinks in. How can stain go over previously painted surfaces? How can a stain have a non-chemical additive? Even after successfully applying this product, I just don’t know. It certainly behaved different than paint… much drippier, dried thinner, but very intensely pigmented  and it almost didn’t need a second coat (almost but not quite). According to the SW website:

“H&C® Concrete Stain Solid Color Water-Based bonds to concrete and forms a tough shield so it doesn't fade, peel or flake like paint. It is resistant to acids, ultraviolet rays, oil, gas and alkali while maintaining a decorative finish. Available in a variety of ready-to-use and tintable colors, as well as a clear, this stain is ideal for high pH surfaces.”

Okay then. Brushing it on the coping was a loathsome task among other loathsome tasks, but it looked so good it was addictive and I just wanted to coveralltheuglyconcreterightnow!! I could just tell it was going to be fabulous. And it was. While the reviews on the SW site are mixed, I am very pleased with this product so far and will leave my own review after it’s been in place for a while.


You can see above how it doesn’t fill in depressions… we can definitely still see depth differences in areas that were never painted amidst the heavily painted ones. But the uniform color now masks those imperfections really well. I painted two coats on the coping while Tim cleared debris and plants and anthills and bird poop from the pool deck. Then he rolled the first coat on the deck as I cut in with a brush. We started in the morning, took a loooong break to go to the zoo with the kids, and finished the first coat in the dark of night.


In the morning (on July 4), it was clear it needed a second coat. Below you can see that the corner part has a second coat, but the closer portion is thinner and still needs it. All the same, this was amazing coverage and adhesion. I put on the second coat and then we went to go swim elsewhere and eat and celebrate our Independence.


Whew! I can’t believe we ever got this far! DIY pool repair is definitely NOT rocket science, or brain surgery, or like building Ikea furniture. But it will exhaust you, and also save you a lot of money. All that was left was to have a really big 5th of July party and enjoy the finished project…


Honestly, I don’t think anyone noticed the repairs at all except for my mentioning it. And that’s okay… because now it just looks right. Clean, fresh, and oh so right. I plan to spend a big part of the next 2 months in or near that pool, and I couldn’t be happier that its done!

Good luck on your own DIY adventures, and happy summering!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

DIY Inground Pool Repair: Part IV–Replacing Cracked Caulk in Expansion Joints

After doing repairs to the tile and coping, we had simply planned to fix some small cracked areas of caulk in the expansion joints of the pool deck, then repaint it. Upon closer inspection, however, all the caulk was clearly in need of replacing. This part of the process was as fun as it sounds, or maybe less, and my back was spasming for days from the effort. Still, well worth it. I have read of estimates that suggest you would pay someone $5-8 PER LINEAR FOOT to replace caulking. What?!?! We have about a million linear feet of this stuff, so even if I needed medical attention after this DIY, it was still going to save us big money.

Removing the caulk was time-consuming but not terribly difficult since it was in bad shape. Some pulled right out, other parts needed some help from a linoleum knife. I didn’t think to take pictures of this part, but you can use your imagination to visualize disturbed ants nests, dirt of all colors, and general filth and decay. One pool’s worth of old caulk and backer rod filled a 5 gallon poly bucket. I then swept out the areas so they would be clean and dry for putting in the new caulk. At this point, I wish I had sprayed all the cracks for ants… they love burrowing under the caulk, and they don’t mind eating through it if they have to. So, consider that if you have a multitude of anthills along your expansion joints.

Since I did my homework, I knew I needed paintable, elastomeric caulk, ideally with some silicone content for durability. This is not something you can find easily at the Blue or Orange stores. I looked around the interwebs, asked in some pool forums, and finally found that the stuff I was looking for was available at my local Sherwin-Williams*. I chose the Powerhouse Siliconized Acrylic Latex Sealant… the red tube. I bought it on sale and used a $10 off $50 coupon, so it came out to be about $1.59 per tube instead of $2.99. Which is great because this project required about 31 tubes of caulk. We bought 5 cases of 12 and returned what we didn’t need (they even recommended that we do that, and it was as easy as pie to return the unused tubes).


To properly repair expansion joints of this width (1/4”-1” in places), you need to first place foam backer rod into the crevice, leaving room for caulk on top. Backer rod looks like a long length of tiny pool noodle foam. It saves caulk by filling some volume, and prevents the caulk from adhering to the bottom of the trough. When you know the concrete slabs are going to move over time due to instability of the material beneath it (the definition of an expansion joint; in our northern climes it occurs due to slight erosion and/or frost heaving in winter), you want to create a bridge of caulk that spans from one side of the crack to the other, to keep out water that can freeze and cause problematic cracks in the concrete or induce the aforementioned erosion of the ground under the concrete. If the caulk is also adhered to the bottom of the joint, it can limit how the caulk can stretch and cause it to crack and fail prematurely. So, backer rod. Find it near the insulation area in any home improvement store. It might run you about $3-5 for 25 feet. We used about 5-6 packages of the stuff, in varying widths to fill whatever size gap you have. 31hGdh1LAgL

I then filled the gaps with backer rod, and proceeded to caulk the joints. I put a generous bead of caulk on each side of the rod to make good contact with the concrete sides, then used a very flexible putty knife to smooth the top level with the concrete. As it dried, it pulled down to form a concave trough. The excess wet caulk I scraped up I would then slop into a nearby deep area so as not to waste it, and I just moved along around the pool until I was back where I started. It took basically forever.


Now, in an ideal world, you’d have a week of dry weather both before and after caulking in order for it to cure the best. Here, it had rained a day before and then about 36 hours after, so it took a loooong time to cure properly, and a few lingering smooshy areas got a little mangled by little toes that needed to go swimming. I was feeling very pessimistic for a time, but eventually it all cured properly and there are precious few areas that I feel will need attention from me any time soon. We waited over a week before painting, but some of that waiting was due to more rain and other life happenings.


Next up is the painting (actually staining) of the concrete pool deck.

Here are the other pool repair topics I have already covered:

  • Safety
  • Replacing fallen tiles
  • Repairing crumbling pool coping

*This is my honest review of the product, which we purchased with our own money. I recommend it, and they had excellent customer service.