Follow by Email

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Creative Ideas: Stocking Stuffers

Growing up, most of my friends received socks, tighty whities, and candy in their Christmas stockings. Needless to say stockings weren't the most thrilling thing for them. In my family, though, stockings stuffers are the best part of Christmas.

My mom elevated stocking stuffer shopping to an art form. My childhood stocking always contained treasures like brightly colored gel pens, butterfly hairclips, and fruit-flavored glittery chapsticks (it was the 1990s...that was the height of pre-teen cool). As an adult, my mom makes sure that the treasures I find each year in my stocking are no less magical, though considerably less fruity smelling. After my father passed away I took over the job of filling my mother's Christmas stocking and it is a task that I cherish.

In truth the key to stocking stuffer shopping is patience: ideally it's a marathon rather than a sprint. I space out my stocking stuffer purchases throughout the year, often picking up little items during my travels. This spreads out the cost (which is key for me) while also producing a carefully curated collection of items rather than a frantic assortment of last-minute stuff.

However, with only 8 days until Christmas the time for marathons has passed and you may find yourself struggling to find last-minute stocking-friendly goodies. Before you panic and fill your loved ones' stockings with Q-tips and old Halloween candy, take a deep breath and check out this list.

I geared it specifically towards adults, but there are some child/teen friendly items too. Remember, not every stocking stuffer has to be thrilling but it should be something the recipient will actually appreciate and use.

For the foodie:
Cutting board oil: keep wooden cutting boards from cracking with mineral oil or a specially formulated cutting board oil
Silicone food savers: reduce food waste and plastic waste with these reusable gems!
Wine journal: these slim little journals help you remember what you liked or didn't like about each bottle you buy
Pretty potholder or hand towel
Fun spice blends
Fun fridge magnets or fridge poetry set

Magnetic poetry sets: use responsibly
Household items:
Home scents: mini reed diffuser, pretty plug-in, or car air vent freshener
Scented sachets for dresser drawers
Microfiber dusting mit: I keep mine in my car to battle dashboard dust
Reusable dryer balls or DIY sachets: use these instead of disposable dryer sheets to cut back on waste! Extra points if they are made in cute shapes or colors.

General items:
Notecards and/or wax stamp/seal: tis the season for thank you notes!
Essential oils: pick a classic scent like lavender or opt for a multi-scent kit (TJ Maxx often has essential oil travel kits)
Mini bottles of booze: a fun way to try new things without committing to a full bottle
Bananagrams or other small games
Collapsable reusable shopping bag
Fun sunglasses case
Night time toilet light: no more choosing between stumbling around in the dark or blinding yourself with the bathroom light when nature calls in the middle of the night!
Nocturnal relief has never been so much fun!
Sartorial items:
Shoe shine sponge
Jewelry or cufflinks/tie clip
Nail polish
Makeup: Elf brand has great cruelty free products for $1-$4 and is available at Target and Walmart
Tocca mini perfumes: I'm partial to the orange blossom inspired "Stella" scent.
Fun patterned stockings
Emergency beauty kit: buy a little pouch and fill it with mini nail files, extra earring backs, tweezers, handiwipes, and bobby pins

Support their interests! My husband's pride and joy is our record player, so this year his stocking will include record cleaner and a new record brush. Do a little research and find out what hobby accoutrements would be appropriate: guitar picks, bow rosin, valve oil, special brushes or paints, etc.

While I have included handy links for online purchase, all of these items are available at local stores as well. So forget the bland stocking items and raise the bar. Your loved ones will thank you.

Merry Christmas and happy hunting!

Friday, November 25, 2016

Politics and Nesting Totally Mix: DIY Chair Cushions

Step 1: The Decision
Sometimes sentiment dictates what décor ends up in our homes. For example, I inherited the chairs for my breakfast/dining table from my grandmother. They aren't necessarily my style and they aren't the most comfortable, but they have sentimental value and I love them. However, I did want to make them fit into my home and life a bit better and that meant making them more comfortable for daily use. I needed to make seat cushions.

A contributing factor to this decision was that November 8th was approaching and I knew I needed something to occupy myself while I watched the election results. Nesting is soothing for the nerves. So, on November 8th I drank whiskey sours, made seat cushions, and watched the votes come in. Given the amount of shouting, pacing, and whiskey flying around that night I'm actually quite pleased with how well the cushions turned out and how few times I stabbed myself with my sewing needle.

Step 2: Reconnaissance 
After my initial decision to make the cushions I had to address the facts that I don't have a sewing machine and that my hand-stitching skills are more "serviceable" than attractive. I needed a way to cheat. "Just buy seat cushions," you say? Neither my budget nor my nesting nature would stand for it.

A chance encounter in the sale aisle of Home Goods provided the solution. I found a set of 4 placemats on sale for $8.99. I liked the fabric and the material was both heavy and stiffened, making it ideal for daily butt traffic. The placemats were also double sided, meaning all I had to do was take out the stitching along one side, stuff some batting in between the layers, and sew the opening closed. I returned home triumphantly with my spoils.

The 16"x16" placemats were the perfect size for my chair seats and the mudcloth-eqsue look was exactly what I wanted.

Step 3: Stuffage and shapeage
Remove the stitching from one
side to create a pocket
The first order of business was to use sewing scissors to remove the stitching from one side of the placemats, creating a pocket. Think of it like preparing to stuff a piece of pita.

I had some spare pillow batting, salvaged from a husky attack on two throw pillows during Saffi's puppyhood, and I used this to fill the cushions. It took a few tries before I found the right amount of batting: too much and the cushions looked too puffy on the chairs, too little and their purpose was moot.

Next, the rounded backs on my chair seats meant I needed to do some shaping. I folded the back two corners in to create an angle and sewed them to fit (more or less) the shape of the chair seat. I then sewed the cushions shut.

Step 4: Anchorage
The last step was to add ties to anchor the cushions securely to the chairs. I had recently bought a lipstick at Anthropologie and the pearl-grey cotton handles of the bag they gave me for my purchase was perfect for my purposes. Upcycling, indeed!

I cut each handle in half to make 4 ties and singed the cut edges to ensure they wouldn't unravel. Be careful here: there is a fine line between cauterizing and flambéing. Then I folded each piece in half again and sewed the centerline to the back cushion corners.

Step 5: Congratulate yourself 
Et voilà! Instant chair cushions with minimal sewing required. Our butts and those of our friends have already reaped the rewards, and no one has even suspected they were made from placemats and shopping bag handles. Which is good, because the election results are going to make for some looooong dinner conversations!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Hostessing 101 Lesson Learned...Again

Hello all!

It's been a while. The holiday season is my favorite time of year, but it is also the most stressful time of year. Mid-November heralds the annual student freakout period as well as the heaviest grading period of the semester. Holiday travel plans must be made and budgeted for, which usually involves complex family negotiations. Perhaps the most stressful thing about this fall, however, has been my volunteering to host a potluck party for the specialized academic program of which I am student chair.

While the party had seemed like a great idea at the time I proposed it, by the week before the party I was deeply regretting the decision. The program is interdisciplinary, and invitees included not just other anthropologists but students and faculty from programs across the university. Perhaps most terrifyingly, my entire doctoral committee would be in attendance. The people I look up to most in my field would be in my house, my inner sanctum. My professional relationships were about to reach a whole new level of personal, and the same part of me that seeks their approval in my research wanted to impress them with my home. This was a Code Red hostessing situation.

The day before, and of, the party my husband and I scrubbed every surface of our home: walls, baseboards, windows, and the tops of picture frames. We took the rugs and blinds outside and washed them down with the garden hose. We laundered throw pillows, curtains, and the dog beds. We washed and brushed the dogs. I sanitized and polished every square inch of the bathroom, including the toilet brush and plunger. We pruned and weeded the yard and I planted pansies to bring some color to the front porch. I rearranged the furniture about 4 times.

Less than 2 hours before guests were to arrive I had just put a cake in the oven and was about to mop the floors while David prepared to poop-scoop the backyard. I did a final wipe-down of the kitchen when, suddenly, Murphy's law struck. The sink backed up. We abandoned mopping and poop-scooping in favor of taking apart the plumbing and trying to clear the clog, but it was to no avail. The clog was somewhere in the piping back behind the wall. We reassembled everything but discovered another problem: the threading where the piping attached to the sink's base was stripped. There was no way to reconnect it tightly.

With no time to run to the hardware store, we did what we could: put a large bowl underneath the sink to catch water. There was also no time left to mop the house or de-poop the yard. My perfectionist nature was in agony. My squeaky clean baseboards were all for nought. Everyone would arrive and see our un-shiny floors and backed-up kitchen sink. Some professor I don't even know would step in dog poop on their way to the firepit. I poured myself a (rather large) glass of wine and steeled myself for our guests.

About 30 people came to the party that night and I didn't catch one person staring at my floors or peering down my sink drains. Instead, people I didn't even know complimented our home and requested tours so they could ask about particular items. Everyone gamely watched out for dog poo on their way to the firepit. Wine, beer, and whiskey flowed and much food was consumed. Our collection of musical instruments was put to good use. Professors looked nostalgically through our 1970s-heavy record collection and kept the music playing all evening. We laughed and joked and by the end of the night I had forgotten all about our unmopped floors and out-of-order sink.

A good party can bring out the best in your home. Do I regret putting in all that extra effort to make things look nice? Absolutely not. But, despite the state of my floors and plumbing, my relationships with my committee members remain excellent and I was once again reminded of the importance of embracing imperfect hostessing.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Potluck Season is Upon Us

Despite the fact it's still 85 degrees in Knoxville during the day, calendrically speaking autumn is here. It is my favorite time of year for a number of reasons: the onset of cooler nights means we can start using our firepit again, the decline in the mosquito population means we can host bocce and croquet parties without itchy reprisal, the start of college football means regular tailgating events with friends, and my favorite holidays of the year are approaching.

Of course, these all mean an upswing in socialization and that means FOOD! That's right. Potluck season is upon us! As a person with dietary restrictions I fully believe it is my own responsibility to ensure I have something to eat at potluck style gatherings. I do not expect everyone else to be conscientious about that sort of thing (as opposed to hosted dinners which are an entirely different story). Plus, I know "allergen-free" can sound intimidating and complicated if you aren't used to cooking that way. That being said, our friend group includes several vegetarian, vegan, gluten-, dairy-, and/or soy-free folks. As someone who has spent a lot of time collecting recipes that meet David's vegetarian needs as well as my own multitude of dietary restrictions, I really enjoy making things I know everyone (or almost everyone) can eat.

So here are my go-to vegetarian and vegan appetizer, main dish, and side dish recipes for fall gatherings. They are also all gluten-, soy- and nut-free. Each dish is a tried and true crowd favorite that rarely produces leftovers.

Before you even ask: I am not including any dessert recipes here. There is always a preponderance of desserts at our potlucks so I prefer to bring savory offerings instead. I'll leave allergen-free desserts for another post!


Grand Aïoli
Yes, I know aïoli is basically flavored homemade mayonnaise but do not attempt to use store bought mayonnaise here instead. You will be missing the entire point of the recipe. In this instance, the difference between homemade and store bought is like the difference between the New York Symphony and your sixth grade orchestra concert. Homemade mayonnaise is a Tahitian beach. Store bought mayonnaise is a kiddie pool and inflatable palm tree in your back yard.

The beauty of a grand aïoli is that you can pair the sauce with whatever dipping materials you want. My favorites include boiled eggs, boiled new or fingerling potatoes, cherry tomatoes, radishes, grilled asparagus or avocado, baked golden beets, grilled okra, steamed broccoli, steamed or pickled artichoke hearts, steamed or pickled cauliflower, fresh green beans, and grilled or pickled carrots.

Vegan variation: keep the vegetables but instead of the aïoli use this lemony white bean mash instead. I add an extra spritz of lemon and yes, fresh parsley versus dried makes all the difference here.

Main Dish

Tomato and Cheddar Pie
This is the perfect combination of fresh, creamy, flaky goodness. You can use a pre-made pie crust to save time, but I love this crust recipe so much that it is the only one I make anymore. For my needs I leave out the bacon and substitute-in gluten-free flour. Tip: do not leave out the dusting of cornmeal on the crust before adding the filling! It prevents the crust from getting soggy.

This recipe also holds up well with creative variations. Adding caramelized onions to the layers is delicious. I've also made a version with green tomatoes, fresh rosemary, and ricotta and mozzarella cheeses instead of cheddar. Or you can divide up the pie crust to make individual tomato-cheese tarts rather than a full pie.

Vegan variation: use your favorite vegan pie crust recipe and for the filling ditch the mayonnaise, egg, and cheese for an 8 oz package vegan cream cheese and 1 c. vegan mozzarella cheese shreds (Daiya makes soy-free versions of both).

Side Dish

Two Potato Gratin
Next to macaroni and cheese, this is my favorite comfort food. It is adapted from a 2001 Williams
Sonoma Thanksgiving recipe. While many gratin recipes call for heavy cream or all half and half, with the velvety texture of the sweet potatoes and the amount of cheese involved in this recipe I've personally never found that to be necessary.

Makes 1 9"x13" gratin

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 1/2 c. whole milk (or 1/2 c. half and half and 1 c. 2% milk)
1/2 c. vegetable broth
2 1/2 lb sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8" thick
2 1/2 lb red potatoes, unpeeled and sliced 1/4" thick (or russets if you want more starchiness)
1/2 lb gruyere cheese, shredded
1/4 lb Parmesan or manchego cheese, grated
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 Tbs. fresh tarragon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
2 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp pepper

Directions: 1) Preheat over to 325°F. Grease your baking dish. 2) In a bowl, toss your manchego and gruyere cheese together until evenly blended. 3) In a large bowl stir together milk, vegetable broth, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and tarragon. Toss potato slices in mixture until evenly coated. 4) In a pan, caramelize the shallots in a little butter. 5) Layer half of the red potato slices in the baking dish then sprinkle with 1/4 of your cheese mixture and 1/4 of the shallots. 6) Repeat process with sweet potatoes, then red potatoes, then sweet potatoes again. 7) Before sprinkling the last of the cheese over the final layer, pour remainder of milk mixture over potatoes. Then add the final cheese layer. 8) Bake about 80 minutes or until top is browned, sauce is bubbling and thickened, and potatoes are tender.

Vegan variation: For this version, chop your potatoes into chucks instead of slices and slice your shallots thickly. 1) Preheat oven to 425°F. 2) In a large bowl, stir together 1/4 c. olive oil, salt, pepper, tarragon, and nutmeg. 2) Toss potatoes and shallots in olive oil mixture until evenly coated. 3) Transfer potatoes into baking dish and bake for 60 minutes, stirring every 20 minutes, or until potatoes are golden brown and tender.

This recipe works with any root vegetable: parsnips, carrots, beets, turnips, and yucca can all be used alongside or in place of the potatoes, so get creative!

Now go forth and socialize! Happy eating everyone!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Floral Arranging 101

I am a huge fan of having fresh flowers in my house. It's a simple way to give a room instant polish.

Done well, flower arranging is an art form. It can also be very intimidating. There are a lot of "rules" you can get hung up on, such as the rule that the arrangement itself should be 2 1/2 times taller than the vase or the "thriller, filler, spiller" triad. These are, in general, good rules. I belong, however, to a far more informal school of flower arranging and no one has (yet) fainted or run screaming from my attempts. Not to toot my own horn, but I get many compliments on my arrangements. They even seem genuine most of the time.

Arrangement made from my step-grandmother's garden
last week. Roses, grasses, lavender, and sedum in a
wide-mouthed glass vase create a loose, natural look.

The more you start doing arrangements, the more your personal style will develop. I tend towards very organic, loose, informal looks that privilege texture over all else. I like using unexpected elements. However, the following tips for fuss-free floral action apply to all aesthetics:

1. Texture is key. This comes from a place of practicality. Sometimes your yard may not have much color to offer, but you can still make beautiful arrangements with an all-green array if you have a variety of textures.
2. Color is still important. Even in an all-green arrangement look for various shades of green.
3. Don't discount weeds, trees, grasses, or herbs. They can be very beautiful! "Floral" arrangements shouldn't be restricted to flowers.
4. Use your vase as a guide. Larger vases will need larger impact arrangements rather than wispy ones. Wide-mouthed vases lend themselves to looser arrangements and more stems compared to small-mouthed vases.
5. Not everything needs to look like a magazine cover. Remember, we are in the business of real life here, not creating Stepford-esque illusions. Even the most basic arrangement you come up with will elevate the look of your room.

Now for the process:

Here are the 3 vases I always keep filled in my house. Note that they are all very different, yet I can often use the same flora in all 3. It just takes some adjusting.

This is one of those times of the year when our yard does not produce much in the way of cutting flowers. While I occasionally buy flowers for arrangements, mostly I make due with the foliage in our yard.

So here is what I had growing in my yard this week: azalea branches, magnolia branches, Japanese maple branches, and "weeds." I also had some sedum, rosemary, and sage.

Cut stems at an angle
When taking cuttings, always cut them longer than you will need. It's always better to cut plants down to size than to have them too short to begin with. Also, cut the stems at an angle. This will help them draw water and stay fresh looking longer. Also make sure no leaves are touching the water in the vase. The arrangement will last longer if there are only stems in the water, so remove any low-lying leaves.

When you start your arrangement, begin with a "frame." For example, placing the azalea branches here first provide a general shape and structure to which I can then add other elements. Always start with your most basic items (your main greenery) then add the showier pieces later.

Next add some "high-low". I used the magnolia branches an element of height and sage to create fullness near the mouth of the vase.  Work on creating groupings as you add new elements: here the two sage cuttings are placed together as are the two magnolia branches in the back. However, don't make that a hard and fast rule! Note that in the arrangement I did at my step-grandmother's that there is a cluster of roses on one side balanced out by a single rose on the opposite side. In floral arranging, "rules" should always be secondary to creating balance.

Lastly, add some filler. The spiky, slender shape and reddish color of the Japanese maple branches fill out the middle of the arrangement.

Then fiddle with it until it looks balanced and pleasing to your eye. And yes, "fiddle" is a technical term here. Rotate it, fluff it, shift things around. Remember that "balanced" is not the same as "symmetrical"! Everyone has their own aesthetic, but I find that the most interesting arrangements are those that are balanced but not perfectly symmetrical. It makes for a more natural looking arrangement.


For the other two vases, I kept their arrangements more compact, as they both reside on bookshelves. The wide mouth of the yellow vase lends itself to a looser arrangement, so I used sedum here and more slender cuttings for the small-mouthed turquoise vase.

Rosemary, sedum, and some sort of weed (that I've let grown up near the air conditioner because it's pretty) pack a lot of punch into a small, simple arrangement.

Azalea, Japanese maple branches, and Israeli ruscus create a compact, structured arrangement perfect for small spaces. The ruscus is one of my favorites as it can last for months if you change the water once a week.

As with all artistic endeavors, the best advice is to make sure that you do you. Practice. Find out what you like and what you don't like. If you follow your gut and the 4 rules here and I guarantee your arrangements will make people smile.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Craft Paper Is Not Wine Resistant

Since July, a nail sticking out of the wall has served as my bag hook in my office on campus. Last week I finally decided this had to change. Not only was the nail scuffing up the faux leather handle of my schoolbag, but it only allowed me to hang one thing at a time. Come winter, where would I put my coat? What if I had office guests who also had coats?? A solitary nail could not meet these needs. Winter is coming, and the code of good hostessing requires coat hooks. Clearly a crafting session was in order.

I found a piece of wood in the shed that was roughly 14" x 5". I sanded the edges and applied a single coat of stain to the side with the most interesting grain.

After stain
Before stain

I had saved the knobs that came with my armoire before I refinished it, so repurposed 3 of them as "hooks" for this project. I spray painted the knobs using an oil-rubbed bronze color left over from painting planters. This gave them a subtle bit of shine.

On the back side (unstained side) of the wood I marked where the knobs should go then drilled the holes for the screws. When pre-drilling a screw hole, remember to choose a drill bit that the same size or slightly smaller than the screw itself so the threads can grip the wood rather than rattle around inside a too-large hole. Also, the old adage of "measure twice, cut once" applies here as well.

I now had the basics complete: a piece of wood with 3 "hooks." The next step was to spruce it up a bit. If you recall, my office on campus is a peculiar combination of dried blood-colored walls and teal trim. I needed a to design a hook that was neutral in palette but still visually interesting. I also wanted a texture that contrasted with the wood but still felt organic. I had some craft paper on hand so I played around with color and pattern combinations.

Mondo Guerra: pattern guru
For those of you who are/were Project Runway fans, my decorating aesthetic runs parallel to Mondo Guerra's fashion aesthetic: more pattern, more better! Not surprisingly, then, I chose two papers with contrasting patterns: a dark grey diagonal stripe and a golden honeycomb design. Both were geometric in nature and contrasted nicely with the organic swirls of the wood's grain.

I chose the diagonal pattern as the base paper and layered a narrower piece of the honeycomb paper over it using ye olde Elmer's gluestick. No need to get fancy, folks. I made three of these then glued them to the board, one centered over each screw hole.

Then I spilled a glass of red wine on it. Herein I discovered that craft paper is not wine resistant. Happily, I had extra paper but there's a life lesson here: when crafting, go stemless.

With the knobs screwed in over the (new) paper background, I was pretty pleased with the overall effect. Plus, I had now tripled my "storage" space. The fact the wood was faintly scented with pinot noir was an added bonus.
A piece of gardening twine serves as a practical and durable hanger. Tying each end of the twine around the outside screws and then tightening the screws keeps the twine secure. As the knobs made the piece front-heavy I took two small nails, hammered them partway into the board, and bent the rest over the twine on each side near the top of the board. This anchored the twine firmly against the board, preventing the board from leaning out away from the wall when hung.

And there you have it! A homemade hanger that has my office ready for the demands of winter apparel. A few scrap materials, a little ingenuity, a little wine, and a little time. That's how I do nesting.

Saturday, August 27, 2016


I am a proponent of the "a place for everything and everything in its place" policy of homemaking. Containing the clutter in a neat, organized, easy-to-access fashion is particularly important in small spaces where storage is at a premium.

Baskets are my favorite storage solution, and they feature prominently in our home. Brick and mortar stores such as Pier One, Home Goods, and TJ Maxx often have sales on their baskets and online venues like Overstock and Amazon also have reasonably priced basketry. Aside from their affordability, their wide variety of shapes and materials make baskets a practical storage option for almost any space and content.

In our living room a large grass basket is perfect for holding magazines while a ceramic bucket holds dog toys. As opposed to a true basket, the weight of the ceramic bucket keeps it from tipping over when the kids root through it.

On a bookshelf a lidded, braided basket serves as a catch-all for sunglasses, wallets, and others odds and ends as we come and go from the house. This makes it easy to keep track of our items while also keeping them safe from doggy teeth. From an aesthetic point of view, it also adds some nice texture to the shelfscape.

In the laundry alcove, matching baskets keep laundry supplies, household cleaning items, and pet supplies easily accessible yet out of sight. These medium-sized baskets are surprisingly spacious, making them the perfect choice for organizing an abundance of items this tight space. A fourth, smaller basket holds cleaning rags.

However, the pièce de résistance of basket employment in our house is the hall "closet" space. This series of open shelving offers much needed storage, but as a person who hates clutter the idea of open shelving initially horrified me.

Finding a way to keep all our linens, extra blankets, towels, medications, and medical supplies out in the open -- without looking cluttered -- was key. Fortunately, my little binder of inspiration came through once again with this organizational gem from the January 2015 issue of Southern Living.

Reassured that open shelving can be both functional and attractive, I set to work translating this idea for our own home. Ultimately, a combination of neat folding and basketry created an easy to maintain storage space.

On the lowest shelf a basket reduces confusion by keeping sheets for the guest bed separate from the master bedroom sheets. Baskets on the middle shelf hold medications, medicines, vitamins, and all the items our small bathroom cabinet cannot accommodate: spare razors, lint rollers, sunscreen, and so forth. On the top shelf a round, linen-lined basket holds bubble bath, essential oils, and other pampering materials.

The curtain on the bottom, made from leftover upholstery fabric, hides the baby gate protected litterbox (or, as the dogs view it, "treat box") along with spare litter and scoop.

Overall, employing baskets to organize my clutter has been one of the smartest organization decisions I've ever made. I have owned almost all of the baskets featured here for years, and in every apartment and house I've lived in they have proved both versatile and essential. 

So join me on Team Basket and see for yourself why baskets have been used for centuries and across civilizations: they are awesome. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Grad School: It Ain't Glamorous!

The view from my window. Note the missing
screen, providing an unobstructed view of this
cement wonderland and a point of
ingress for inquisitive squirrels.
I spend about 20 hours a week in my office on the university campus. Located in the underbelly of the football stadium, the student offices for my department come with all the amenities one would expect from the underbelly of a stadium built in 1921 that routinely hosts crowds of over 100,000 people: mice, cockroaches, and asbestos warnings. It may not be pretty, but it certainly has plenty of character.

I share my office with up to 3 other people at any given time, so carving out a personalized spot is key for keeping one's sanity. There isn't much I can do about the dried-blood colored cinderblock walls, teal trim, fluorescent lighting, 1980s industrial furniture, or my wonderful office mate's views on "office organization," but I am working on making the most of the space.

Seriously, Tyler. What is this??

My little corner of paradise may not look like much, but it happens to be the premium desk space in the office. Seniority has its perks. It boasts both a radiator and a window, its own private filing cabinet, an easily accessible wall outlet, and is on the opposite side of the room from the pipe with the asbestos warning.

I consider myself a very lucky girl.

The lack of color coordination borders
on the perverse. I admit the red
microwave was my doing, though. 
A new building is being constructed for our department, but for decades we have been housed beneath the football stadium. Ergo, for decades the student offices have collected hand-me-down items left behind by former graduate students. In my office, dorm room-esque decor left behind by a 2014 graduate furnishes a reading nook while various office mates have contributed to a kitchen area complete with microwave, mini-fridge, electric teakettle, and no less than 2 coffee makers.

As a side note:
In my 3 years here, it has become clear that there are 3 types of office mates: those who leave useful items behind (like our reading nook furniture and books), those who leave their crap behind (like old exams and half-eaten tins of peanuts), and those who take everything with them. A 2015 graduate even took the lightbulbs from the lamp by her desk, which is a level of thriftiness that deserves respect. Don't be a #2, folks.

When spending so much time in such an unappealing space, keeping up morale is key. For me, this means surrounding myself with pithy humor and reminders of all the cool fieldwork I get to do.

This doesn't cancel out the threat of industrial-sized cockroaches dropping from the ceiling, finding a mouse infestation in your desk drawer, or returning from the bathroom to find a squirrel perched on the radiator (all of which has happened to me) but it helps remind me why I put up with all that. And think of all the character I'm building!

Original art, photos, and souvenirs from fieldwork and travel around the world are mixed with family memorabilia. The handwoven blanket that covers my filing cabinet belonged to my grandmother.

As I write this post it occurs to my that I really need a potted plant here. Some sign of life that can't be classified as "vermin."

The Far Side comic that my mother sent me on my 19th birthday my first year of college is one of my most prized possessions. It has taken pride of place in every office space I've had since. I may study post-conflict zones rather than ancient Egypt now, but the sentiment still applies!

A sign with dark humor and a series of original  3-D art pieces found in a downtown Kansas City art gallery add visual and textural interest without competing with the -- let's call it "strong" -- wall color.

My point here is that sometimes carving out a tolerable, personalized haven in a less-than desirable space is enough to make that space enjoyable. In the case of my office, I think its crappiness ends up being part of its appeal. This funky, filthy, eclectic, shared space filled with hand-me-downs is a reminder that graduate school is still "college." I am grateful for this opportunity to continue my education and I know I'll look back at this time in my life with great nostalgia. I might even miss the stadium when we move into our shiny new building next year.


Friday, August 5, 2016

Bubble Baths and Balance: Redefining Bliss

Sometimes it feels like everyone is in a competition over who is the busiest. My friends with small children one-up each other by competing over who showered the longest ago. My graduate school peers compete over the number of looming deadlines for publications, grants, or job applications. My friends with jobs compete over who works the most hours in a week or whose boss is the most demanding.

At the same time everyone is fascinated with stories of people who quit their corporate jobs to "follow their bliss" and are now private yoga instructors in some fabulously exotic tropical place. They only own 1 pair of shoes and live in a shack on the beach and they are the happiest they've ever been. At least twice a day I see sponsored stories like this on my Facebook feed with the promise that I, to, could achieve this kind of life.

There is a perversity to this dichotomy. Do we really have to go to either extreme to feel satisfied? To feel accomplished and happy? Whatever happened to the search for balance?

Recently I've been feeling particularly overwhelmed. The end of the summer semester is coming to an end with just one week left before the start of fall semester. There are lesson plans to make and papers to grade and exams to write and books to order and start-of-the-year newsletters to put together and mentorship programs to organize and budgets to set. I bounce from my teaching job to my office job every day in a mad dash between downtown and the western suburbs. In between I'm supposed to find time to do international research and write a dissertation. I'm sure this sort of schedule sounds familiar to many of you; even if the particulars aren't the same the general sentiment is.

I firmly believe that everyone needs a refuge to keep their sanity. A hobby, a quiet place to contemplate life, a passion they pursue just for sake of their own happiness. This blog is one of my self-care indulgences. My garden is another. Both have ended up neglected of late. As I grow overwhelmed and put all my attentions towards school and work, the things I do simply to bring me happiness somehow get pushed aside. It's been almost 2 weeks since my last blog post. As for my garden, caterpillars moved in and in one day decimated my kale crop. My blueberry bush is refusing to fruit. White flies killed 2 of my 4 green bean plants and my dill plant bolted. Half my cucumbers turned yellow before they were ready for picking, and my bell pepper plant has acquired a blossom rot problem. My little sanctuary isn't faring so well.

Many of us put ourselves last. Our hobbies are labeled "less important" than our jobs. But am I doing myself any favors by neglecting to invest in self-care and feeling burnt out? Alternatively, if I gave it all up to live in a shack on the beach and own 1 pair of shoes would that bring me bliss? Probably not. What really makes me the happiest is when my life has balance.

In an attempt to regain some balance before the impending school year I set aside Wednesday night for some "me" time. No checking my email, no tweaking my syllabus or thinking about data collection methods or grant deadlines. I did some work in my garden then poured a glass of wine, downloaded a new mystery on my Nook, and ran a bubble bath. It was heavenly.

Saffi, the bringer of gifts.
As I marinated in my bath one of our dogs, Saffi, nosed her way into the bathroom. Looking very pleased with herself she dropped a gift into my bath. A chewed up, still twitching cockroach floated on the cloud of bubbles next to my shoulder. The conditions for relaxation no longer ideal, I concluded that "me" time was over. I praised Saffi for her thoughtful gift, disposed of the bug, poured a much larger glass of wine, and tried to convince myself that cockroaches are loners and always live by themselves.

Self-care can be difficult. It always feels like there are more pressing matters to attend to than ourselves, but even a few minutes a day can make a difference. My relaxing evening may have been cut short, but even the hour I managed to fit in left me feeling re-energized. Indeed, I'm not sure I have ever moved so quickly in my life as a I did to exit that bath. I set aside time for myself for the first time in a while, and that's a step in the right direction!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Return of the Stencil

You didn't think I went through all that trouble to make my DIY stencil just to do one project, did you? Heck no. Those things are reusable for a reason! So here was my next project: a wall-mounted coat rack for the hallway.

We needed someplace other than our bed to put guests' purses and coats (as well as our own when feeling lazy) and our little hallway has been woefully bare since...The Zoo Incident.

Let me back up to October 2015. The scene? Our wedding reception. We had a wide-matted picture frame and some metallic Sharpies on a side table for guests to sign their well wishes. It was an idea I'd poached from a friend and the end result was both beautiful and meaningful. We planned to put our favorite photo from the wedding in it and hang it in the hallway.

David's father reads the well-wishes left by friends and family.
Zoo, bringer of destruction
Fast forward to November, when we agreed to foster this little guy who had showed up in our yard one day. We named him Zoo. At roughly 3 months old, he needed to be potty-trained and we watched him like a hawk. Or so I thought. Turns out he had been sneaking off to pee under our guest bed. Which is where I had stored our wedding frame until we could choose and print our favorite photo. Needless to say the wedding frame was ruined and since that time I haven't had the heart to think about framing wedding pictures. As such, our hallway has remained naked.

In a house of roughly 900 square feet, however, no space can go un-utilized for long. We needed a coat rack and the hallway was the obvious place to put it. I thought about buying one, but making one sounded way more fun.

We had some spare bits of wood left over from building the addition to my garden. David makes fun of me for hanging on to wood scraps but it's a trait I inherited from my father and I really enjoy coming up with creative ways to use them. I chose one of these scraps, sanded it smooth, and stained it with a blend of mahogany and ebony stains to bring out the grain. I then applied my stencil using the same terra cotta and ochre paints I'd used on the armoire. When it dried I applied a low gloss urethane which deepened the stencil colors and gave the paint a slight translucence.

When I was choosing the knobs for the armoire I had ordered four different styles to see what I liked best. I picked one style for the armoire but this left me with three other knobs of different shapes but in the same coppery-bronze color. Never one to let something go to waste, I used these for the pegs on my coat rack. Ta da!! Not a bad afternoon's work, I'd say.

The hallway clearly still needs work, but at least it's a start! To me unique, handmade pieces like this are what give a home real heart. Sure, I would have preferred to showcase a wedding photo surrounded by messages of love and well-wishes from our most beloved friends and family, but on the upside we had the satisfaction of finding a loving forever home for a puppy in need. Plus, I got to prove to David (once again) the value of my scrap wood collection. If you can't hang the thing you love, at least love the thing you hang.