Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Behind the Scenes Look at Our Hobo Camp

When I started this blog a few years ago I chose the name True Skinny. The name came after I had been looking through Facebook and really started thinking about the image of my life I had created online through carefully chosen pictures of my perfect family, slim body, and organized home. When I compared that life to reality I realized that only part of it was true. By posting pictures of the kids when they weren't fighting, crying or threatening to run away, photos of my skinny side, and interior shots of the one clean room in the house, my Facebook image was a pretty good-looking reality.

In contrast, I wanted my blog to be the real True Skinny, a true-to-life account of the workings of life as a mother of 7, military wife, antiques dealer, freelance writer and home renovator. But this morning I realized that some of the things that I continue to keep "hidden" are the things that make me and my family real. My philosophy has always been that actions and the way you treat people are far more important than the way you look. That being the case, why did I let our hobo camp driveway tick me off the way it did this morning?

So, this morning when I left to drive the middle schoolers to school at a little after 7:00 am I was tired. I was cranky because I stayed up too late painting furniture. I hit the snooze about 4 times and had just enough time to throw on one of Dave's huge sweatshirts before I had to run out the door. There is so much crap piled up in our bedroom that I nearly killed myself trying to find my slippers. Neither of the middle schoolers-Evi or Landon-had set alarms, so I ran franticly to their rooms banging on doors yelling, " Wake up, you're late!". We haven't grocery shopped because payday is tomorrow, so a packaged pop-tart was the best I could do for breakfast.

Evi commented, "I'd rather starve."

I decided to sit in the car and wait for them to come out. What happened next is my inspiration for this entire blog post. This is the scene that I saw out the windshield.

I sat staring at my driveway and yard in disgust. I thought "What would I do if people actually saw the way we live?" Then I realized that people do see this. My neighbors drive by my house every day. When new friends' parents' drop their kids off at my house they see it; although I always offer the disclaimer, "Please excuse the mess, we are under renovation." Then I thought about my blog and wondered what you would think, because until now, I would never publish a picture showing this kind of chaos. Would you be surprised by the mess? Would you be reliveved knowing that my life with 7 kids isn't always perfectly clean, well organized and painted a pretty shade of distressed pink paint?

When Landon got in the car I asked him, "Do you realize that it looks like we live in a hobo camp?"

His response was, "No, what it looks like is that we have a son who has a hobby of fixing up go-carts and dirt bikes. There is nothing unsafe there and it isn't going to rain."

After what I will admit was kind of a long lecture on the way to school about picking up after yourself, I really thought about what Landon said. What I saw as a mess-something to be ashamed of, he saw as a playground-surrounded by classic cars and guy toys. What I wanted to hide, because it looked messy and unorganized, he wanted to promote.

Then I thought about my blog. I realized that the true skinny is that I am the mother of 7 busy kids and a military officer's wife-that alone is enough to fill anyone's plate. If that is all I did I might be able to keep things organized and clean, be on time for practices and dentist appointments and do baths and bedtime a night with without raising my voice, but then throw in antiques dealer, freelance writer and home renovator. How do I do it all you often ask, and make things look so good, and raise great athletes and be so creative? The fact is-the true skinny is-that when one thing looks great, there are often many other things that are compromised, and doing it all flawlessly is impossible. When I post pictures of a beautiful dresser that I refinished in a day, what I am not telling you is that the kids had to hunt for clean socks out of a pile a mile high because I didn't fold any laundry. Just because I don't post pictures of my dirty dishes, publish threats from my kids that they are going to live with Grandma and Grandpa, or detail the accounts of someone sneaking beers at a family party, doesn't mean they don't happen.

Now, I am not quite ready to post a picture of my bikini clad body before the big spring diet or the condition of my master bedroom (you know, the one that I almost killed myself in this morning trying to find my slippers), but I will try to dispel the belief that I am superwoman by posting some of the pictures and stories that I would have otherwise censored before this morning's revelation while sitting in my driveway. I just hope that all of my friends out there, whether physical or cyber, will have the same respect for me knowing I live in a hobo camp. At least it's a happy hobo camp.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Modern Wing Back Chair: Love it or hate it?

Cal's new physical therapy office (for rehabbing his shoulder) sits just in the middle of my three favorite thrift stores. Not that I ever needed an excuse to shop for a great deal, but now, every Tuesday and Thursday I am guaranteed an hour to hit all three stores before closing time. Last week I found the most awesome-unusual, modern, cool, ugly?-wing back chair that I just had to have. When I say "I had to have it," I don't necessarily mean that I have to have it and keep it. I mean that I have to acquire something based on a combination of its coolness, low price and the fact that it doesn't belong in a thrift store. Later I decide where it really belongs, which might be my house, my antique booth at the Iron Gargoyle, or in someone else's house for a slightly higher price than I paid for it. I never mark things up too high because my grandfather always says, "You have to leave room for the next guy to make a profit."

Chair side view. Piped in a dark cranberry suede cloth.

This is a handmade modern wing back chair by Vanguard Furniture. This particular chair is from their Bungalow Collection. It has a tall back (50.5" tall X 30" wide X 30" deep). It is super comfy and has a down-filled throw pillow with a removable cover. It appears to never have been sat in. It appears to be brand new.

The original tag. See what somebody paid to have this chair made?

Here is my dilemma. I saw this chair in one of the many decorating and home improvement magazines I read monthly I would think "wow, that chair is awesome!" But, as neat as it is, and as expensive as it was, it is really not my style. Although it matches our green walls and fall decor, both are temporary. We are planning on painting the walls dark tan. When fall is over, and all the pumpkins and leaf garland is put away, there really isn't any orange in my house. The light colored laminate flooring is being replaced with dark wood. That being said, this chair looks pretty nice in the corner of my dining room. Is it just too designer-ish for me? Cool in a magazine but not in my house? What do you think?

Update****March 13, 2013****

I decided to sell the chair in my shop about a week after this post. As much as I loved the chair, it wasn't right for my house or my color scheme. It lasted in my space at The Vintage Market for a day until a sweet young couple put it on lay-a-way. Purchase price $450. What a deal!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Preparing for Hurricane Isaac

The pretty tubes at Bob's Canoes
Hurricane Isaac, the first hurricane in our new house. How exciting! How are we preparing? Well, today we spent the day with our Pensacola friends floating down the Black Water River in Milton, whiling the day away in the sun. Yes, we live in the projected path of Hurricane Isaac, but it was the farthest thing from my mind as I floated down-river in my hot pink tube with three little boys in tow pretending to shoot bad guys hiding behind the trees along the banks. A bigger fear than the pending hurricane was the snake that meandered across the river just in front of us as we rounded a curve. The hurricane is two days away, plenty of time. The snake was right there in our path. Thankfully it was as afraid of us as we were of it, and it slithered away into a half sunken pile of downed trees.

The ride home from Milton was quiet. We were sun-drenched and worn out after a long day on a lazy river. As we drove home listening to the radio the alerts blurted through the music updating us on the storm's progression. "The Florida panhandle is under hurricane warning," and "Santa Rosa County Schools are cancelled beginning on Tuesday," aired on every radio channel. My cell phone signaled notifications from the kids' coaches and the superintendent of schools with messages granting permission to evacuate and encouraging families to stay safe. I guess there is a hurricane coming.

It wasn't until we entered into our neighborhood that things were noticeably different. People were actively boarding up their windows. Boats, just pulled from the water, were sitting on trailers in driveways instead of bobbing gracefully in the aqua blue waters of Pensacola Bay. My phone rang.

"Hi Jenni, it's Dad," he said. "Is everything OK there?"

I assured him that we have a plan-a plan to prepare the house and to evacuate if necessary-we just hadn't started yet.  He, of all people, would understand. My dad always says that it makes no sense to worry about things and spend lots of time preparing for them if in the end what is going to happen is going to happen anyway. And he is right. We could have stayed home all day today preparing for a storm that might or might not hit us, or enjoyed a day on the river. We chose the latter.

After today's sunny day I am looking forward to some rain, wind, and clouds. I love the anticipation of impending severe weather and the feeling in our house when we are hunkered down, waiting. The kids get along better, they want to help out, they wait for cues from us that dictate how they should react to emergency alerts. We stay calm so they can stay calm.

But now it's time. It's time to fill vehicles and the generator with gas. It's time to clean-up around the pool and move patio furniture, bikes and yard toys into the garage so they don't become projectiles under the control of hurricane strength winds. It's time to make a mental note of where the photo albums are, the savings bonds, and each of the kids' memory boxes in case we have to flee. It's time to remember the feeling of returning to Pensacola after Ivan hit here in 2004 and the devastation it caused that can still be felt. Even today, eight years later, there are vacant lots where houses once stood. Certainly Isaac is nothing in comparison to Ivan-which was projected to make landfall as a category 5 hurricane. But it is a hurricane nonetheless. And due to the uncertainty of its path, strength and timeline, it's time to start taking Hurricane Isaac seriously-well, more seriously anyway.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Let's Add Curb Appeal: Before & After Photos

Thank you to so many of you who visited the This Old House website and rated our exterior renovation entry in the Reader Remodel contest. As you know, despite a call from Scott, the editor, we didn't win the truck this year. (Read the full story in my "Did I Catch You at a Good Time?" blog entry.) But talking with him on the phone about our project, and learning that our entry was "notable enough" to gain recognition in the issue, was a nice consolation. Alas, the reveal issue was published in July and we weren't mentioned anywhere. Having a background in publishing I am not too surprised. Some content makes the cut, and some doesn't.

Our exterior renovation included:

  • New exterior paint
  • Finishing and installing a new front door and sidelight
  • Updating house numbers and doorbell
  • Wrapping and trimming-out porch columns
  • Staining the concrete porch floor
  • Laying a flagstone walkway
  • Installing a tongue & groove porch ceiling
  • Installing ceiling fans and porch lighting
  • Constructing window shutters out of reclaimed wood
  • Installing new gutters and downspouts
  • Defining the garden spaces and planing perennials
  • Adding a fountain and yard statues
  • Furnishing the porch

I've been busy keeping up with weeding the flagstone path (despite having laid weed cloth beneath the stones), and watering the garden by hand since we still don't have the front yard sprinkler system up and running. My red potting bench is getting lots of use storing gardening gloves and an antique watering can. It also makes a great Lego table for Rowan and Davison who like to be wherever Mommy is. The bistro set and wicker chairs couldn't have been better picks for porch seating. I've spent hours this summer sitting under the ceiling fans, reading my decorating magazines while the kids have enjoyed tea parties and picnic lunches.

When we bought this house I didn't give the front porch any thought. It had been covered with clutter and camouflaged by green paint. It wasn't until after moving in that we realized the space's potential. And we're certainly enjoying the fruits of our labor on this project.

Before: Every square inch of the house was green.
Also, notice what is missing here? There is no walkway to the front door. 

After: New paint in a much prettier shade of green and a winding flagstone path
lead to a welcoming landing and a new front door.
Dave brought this door knocker of his pilot wings home from for me from Korea.
As soon as we got to FL we had Dermody engraved on the banner.

One of the first things we did when we moved into the house was start painting the exterior. We knew that a fresh coat of paint and a contrasting trim color would help transform the exterior and we wanted to see results quickly. We bought an unfinished wood door and sidelight at a building materials outlet and primed and painted the door inside once it was too late to work outside. Installing the sidelight was a breeze. I actually did it myself when Dave was at work. Cutting the door down to size, adding hinges, and hanging the door was Dave's project, and it was not easy.

This pair of solid wicker steamer chairs were a perfect find
for the porch. They recline and have pull-out footrests. 

The gardens and walkway were really important to me. I wanted to create the feel of a New England cottage-comfortable and cozy. The flower garden is made up mostly of Salvia, Daisy, Mexican Heather, Black Eyed Susan and decorative grasses. Large sago palms, the only two plantings that existed in the original landscape, anchor the two sides of the garden.

With all the other renovations on our list there was no way we could afford flagstone for the walkway-but I really wanted it to complete the look. We removed old flagstone from the backyard of a rental property that we own on the other side of town and used it to form the new walkway. We had just enough!

I found this vintage bistro set on craigslist for $20.
A good sanding and a fresh coat of paint gave it a whole new look.
The vinyl decals add a personal touch.

We repurposed wood from the old deck that we tore off the back of the house to make
hefty board and batten shutters. The shutters are both decorative and functional
and can be latched closed in the event of a storm. The fountain is another craigslist find.  

The porch floor, that used to be green along with the entire exterior of the house,  got a facelift. First, I painted it with a textured porch paint. Then, I applied a deck stain over the paint. I poured the stain on with a small paper cup and spread it around in small sections using a crumpled plastic shopping bag. It looks just like stained concrete!

A potting bench under the window adds a touch of color. 

Welcome home!

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Perfect Mudroom: Before & After Photos

I can't believe that so many people have no idea what a mudroom is. For as long as I can remember, and certainly more so since I started a family, I have dreamt about the perfect mudroom. A mudroom isn't as formal as a foyer, which is a landing just inside the front door for greeting guests. It's not a breezeway, as it doesn't connect a barn or garage to the house. It isn't what Davison thought either, that it's a room filled with mud.

Mudrooms are primarily found in homes located in northern states-which explains my familiarity with them since I'm originally from Massachusetts. Commonly located just inside the back door, the mudroom is a receiving room for muddy boots and winter jackets during the cold-weather months.

The house I grew up in, on Spring Street in Amesbury, MA was a late 1700's colonial. Our mudroom was a small space just inside the back door that was outfitted with built-in peg racks along the walls and baskets for hats and mittens. The knotty pine floors were worn through from all the foot traffic.  There was a pond in our backyard so our space doubled as a place to put on ice-skates and thaw out firewood for the wood stove-our only source of heat. 

My mudroom here in Florida will never experience the commotion that accompanies the cold weather months in New England. It won't see the days of winter boots and waterlogged mittens in need of a thaw. However, it will cheerfully hold the flip flops from our feet and be a comfortable place to brush the white sands of Pensacola Beach from between our toes. In fall it will be packed with school bags, muddy cleats and football pads.

I incorporated every item from my list of "must haves" into the design of our new mudroom. From sunny window seats with flip-top lids for storage, to a place to hang my collection of vintage tourist plates bought over the years at each of our duty stations, everything has its place.

This picture is of the original finished garage the day we closed on the house. It was taken standing in the back doorway. The door off to the right leads to the laundry room. Straight in front of you, on the other side of the wall, is the kitchen. In the end this space will become three dorm-style bedrooms for the older boys on the right, and a mudroom.

This picture is the same view as the picture above, after some work was done. We cut through the wall into the kitchen to make a doorway. On the right Dave framed walls to make the boys' bedrooms. Notice the position of the attic access on the ceiling in each picture-that will help you make sense of the space.

Finally, the space is transformed. Again, this picture is taken from the back door looking in. The opening to the kitchen is not visible but is off to the left along with the laundry room door and the built-in desk area. We did every inch of this work ourselves from framing, built-ins, hanging cabinets and crown moulding, installing the tongue and groove pine on the walls, tiling, painting and of course decorating the space.
This picture was taken from the kitchen doorway
looking toward the back door. Cal's bedroom
door is on the left. The window looks into the
driveway. The back door is to the right.
This is the same view taken from the kitchen doorway
looking toward the back door. Now, Cal's bedroom door is
between two window seats with flip-top storage under the
custom seat cushions. The wall cabinet holds keys, 
outgoing mail and store returns.
A bookshelf built into the 6" wall studs holds books and displays collections. Dave's maternal grandmother's blue glass dishes and my paternal grandmother's elephants collection are displayed on the shelves. A vintage plate collection, one from each state where we have been stationed, hangs on the wall outside Austin's bedroom.
Lockers for each child hold shoes and sporting gear. An old shrimp boat sign reading "Thistle" sits above the lockers adding a splash of color. A primitive painted white bench offers a place to sit.

A hand forged iron wall rack that we had made in Sicily hangs just inside the door.
Hand painted tiles show Mt. Etna in a typical Sicilian scene.

Mudroom Design Must-Haves:

  • Location near the laundry room for washing uniforms and gym clothes
  • Lockers for each family member
  • Shoe cubby for guest shoes
  • Storage for totes and bags for trips to the beach or sleepovers
  • Pet supply storage and hangers for leashes
  • Cabinet for store returns
  • An area for outgoing mail
  • Desk area for the family calendar, lateral files for each child's school papers and permission slips 
  • Area to display artwork
  • Clock
  • Bench for changing shoes
  • Seat near the window for waiting for company or a ride
  • Hanging coat rack near the door
  • Storage for bug spray and sunblock
  • A closet 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Kids For Trade

Living away from family all these years is a bummer. Sadly, my kids hardly know their extended family. They have never had family birthday parties surrounded by aunts and uncles, proud grandparents and cousins to play with. I can count on one hand the number of times they have met Dave's parents or my grandfather, who happens to still be alive.

In contrast, I knew my paternal grandmother like I know my own mother. I spent weekends at her house growing up, and weeks at a time with her at her camp in New Hampshire. When I got older, and she got older, I called her just about every other day. I remember thinking that I would not be able to live without her when she died. But I made it through.

Living away from family all these years has opened the door to awesome opportunity. We have made friends with people that we love so much, and identify with so well, that they might as well be family. These are the people that we talk to every day through text or Facebook or have made the Godparents of our children. Their kids are our kids' best friends. We carry on relationships with these chosen few because we want to, not because blood relation and the branches of the family tree expect us to. They have probably spent more birthdays with my children than my own parents have which is both sad, and a blessing at the same time.

We met Lisa and John when we moved to Sicily in 2007. Coincidentally both of our families had been stationed in Maine at the same time but had never met. My friend Dina, who knew both of us, assured me that we would get along great if we ever crossed paths. In Italy we finally did cross paths and Dina was right.

Dave and I drove three hours east today meet up with Lisa who drove three hours west to meet us for a kid swap. Her kids Sarah, Hannah and Will are the same ages as my Evelyn, Lillian and Rowan and you couldn't imagine cousins who could get along better. I feel an overwhelming gratitude for the life we have been blessed with as a families serving in the Navy. I am honored that Lisa trusts us like family to take care of her kids for the week. I am thankful that my husband is at home to help me with the kids and that we can give Lisa a week off while her John is out to sea. 

So yes, living away from relatives is a bummer sometimes. I miss my friends back home, family and Dave's family too. But the distance the military has forced us to sustain has made us vulnerable-opening the pathway to new friendships that are as strong as family ties. 

  • Two weeks ago Austin drove 8 hours to Orlando to spend the weekend with his best friend Justin, a friend made during our tour in Italy. When we think of Justin living 8 hours away we think of that as close.
  • Last week Abby (Austin's girlfriend of two years who lives in Virginia) and the boys' friend Sarah came to visit for the week. They have visited us 3 times in 6 months. It may be a lot of miles but really Virginia's only a short flight away. I am certain they will remain lifelong family friends
  • Today Austin and Cal flew to Virginia for a few days to catch up with old friends. They called to say it was weird seeing new people living in our house and they didn't like it.
  • At the end of the week Austin and Cal are heading to New Hampshire and then Massachusetts to hike with my parents and have a family cookout at my Dad's beach house. My sister is arranging for the teenage kids of my high school friends to be there too. My kids don't see any of them often enough but when they do, they pick up as if they were never apart.
  • This week we are hosting the McGonagle kids. Next week our brood is headed to Lisa's house for another kid trade.
  • Phil and Amie, Rowan's Godparents, just got orders to Japan for the next two years. We are lucky enough to be stationed 30 minutes away from each other until January 2013.
All of these relationships are possible courtesy of the red, white and blue 
and years of serving in the US Navy!

Dave at Malcolm House's retirement ceremony.
Family vacation with the McGonagles, Outer Banks, NC, 2011.
Lily, Hannah, Sarah and Evelyn

My godmother (Great Aunt Elaine) with Rowan and Davey during a visit to Virginia, 2011.
Rowan and Will swimming in Sicily, Italy, 2009.

Landon's birthday stationed in Brunswick, Maine with the Brock boys, 2006.
Harrison, Liam, Ethan and Landon

Friday, June 29, 2012

For Sale or Barter

Sometimes I have to remind myself that reality TV isn't reality at all.

Note to self: If a trade on Craigslist seems to be too good to be true, it probably is.

I've entertained the idea of getting an old travel trailer. Not just a used trailer but an oldie, a classic. I don't even know if we would actually use it for camping or tailgating, but the thought of owning one is appealing. It could be a decorating project or a place for the kids to hang out with their friends. Part of the reason that we bought our house away from the covenants and restrictions of a HOA is so we can park whatever we want, wherever we want. Dave is worried that an old trailer in the driveway screams "redneck". I disagree. Who can't appreciate the nostalgia of an old Airstream? Plus, we've already got 4 cars in the driveway-including two classic convertibles-a landscape trailer, a go kart, and a collection of bikes and scooters. How much worse is a travel trailer?

I found an ad on Craigslist last week for a 1970 Airstream trailer for barter. Basically, with house renovations in full swing we can't spend any money on toys right now so the barter part of the deal was really appealing. Before I even called on the ad the kids were arguing over who would live in the trailer as their bedroom and what color the lights would be when we decorated it for Christmas.

"OMG Mom, Lily and I will even share a room if you let us sleep in the trailer. Then the boys can turn Lily's room into a man cave," Evelyn said.

I called on the trailer. It was still available. So Dave and I went to see it in Elberta, Alabama.

If you've ever pictured back-woods Alabama, Alberta is the heart of it. We pulled down a dirt road lined with dilapidated trailers, tractors rolling along to their own beat, and cars up on blocks in front yards. We joked about wishing we had brought a gun along, just in case we needed to use it. We pulled up to the address on the ad. The house and yard looked like something from the TV show Sanford and Son.

We got out of the truck and were greeted by a seemingly normal man named Rich. He was about 50, clean shaven, wearing blue jeans and wire glasses. Dave walked around the back of the house with him discussing the details of the trailer. I bent down as I got out of the truck and picked up a tiny kitten off the ground. He was orange and about 6 inches long. Two other kittens from the litter laid nearby, covered with tiny gnats. They weren't doing as well. I followed Dave's path to the trailer. The little kitten curled up in my arms and meowed like he had never been picked up before-he probably hadn't. Rich looked normal but clearly couldn't be.

After a walk around the property discussing what Rich was looking for in trade for the trailer, we left with a good feeling. The Airstream was in much better shape than we had expected it to be and Rich seemed motivated to make a deal. We happened to have a couple of the things he was looking for including a dirt bike and firearms. He also wanted a riding mower or cash. Cash was out of the question. On Barter Kings, (Have you seen that show on TV?), they never bring cash to the trade.

The story goes on, and after a dozen emails and phone calls between Dave and Rich we didn't end up with the Airstream trailer. It seemed that no matter what we offered Rich was never satisfied enough to seal the deal-firearms, a dirt bike, even a 2010 riding lawn mower! I guess there is a reason that his yard looks the way it does-he never gets rid of anything. Perhaps the only visitors he gets in Elberta, Alabama are Craigslisters. I think he likes the attention.

I still want a vintage Airstream. Eventually I'll find one for the right price, or trade. On Barter kings they always make the deals happen. I guess in real life it doesn't work that way. For now I have to figure out what to do with the slightly used riding mower that's outside? We bought it hoping to trade it for the trailer. If we leave it sitting in the driveway people might just think we're rednecks.

The vintage Airstream trailer that was almost ours...sort of.