Saturday, June 26, 2010

Go Ask Alice

Like every self-respecting girl of my generation, and probably every other kind of girl too, I loved the Brady Bunch. Every Friday evening for five years (decades in little-girl-time) centered around it. Like every other little girl I knew, I wanted to be Marsha, the oh-so-cool and beautiful older sister, or at the very least to be as cute as little Cindy, who everyone adored. Even to be Jan, the relatively plain middle daughter, would be better than the knobby-jointed, crooked-haired, four-eyed, bad-toothed, unpopular child I saw looking back at me from every mirror. Raised an only child (my siblings having grown up and moved away before my earliest memories), I envied those sibling relationships. I wanted cute brothers to fight with but who would secretly really love me, and would defend me when kids picked on me at school. I wanted a family name that would escort me immediately into the attention of every teacher and student who heard it. And, of course, I wished for such parents: in equal parts kind, respectful, fair, caring, young, hip, and wealthy.

Ah, the Brady's! They had it all. No wonder they smiled! No wonder we loved them.

But there was one smile in the Brady household that puzzled me even in childhood - Alice's. This was a smile I could never account for. She had neither youth, nor beauty, nor husband, nor child, nor car, nor home of her own. Oh, sure, they threw her and Sam, that non-committal butcher, on an occasional date, but, so far as I was concerned, she had no life. She lived her every waking moment smilingly serving this family - every one of them - as if she were a slave, and smiling as if they were her own flesh and blood, which they weren't. In my mind there was just no accounting for it.  Don't get me wrong, I wasn't a stupid child. I understood this was TV and these were actors. But even then I had some awareness that in the world there were and had been real slaves, and real servants who really lived their lives in that way. I knew that somehow they had to find their happiness within that structure, and I knew that those who did where finer humans than I could ever hope to be. I was awed to think such a thing was possible, and yet, admiration aside, I knew I did not want to be that fine of a human, not if that's what was required. I'd rather be numbered among the shallowly happy elite than the deeply happy humble.

Alice was a bridge to another time, a hold-over from a day who's sun was setting. I've heard our economy referred to as "service-based" and yet I've wondered again and again, "Where is the service?" Indeed, I've just as often sat on my end of a phone call wondering, "Where is the human?" Service, along with professionalism, are relics of by-gone days. There was a time when it was only the elite (and the men - but that's a discussion for another day) who expected to be served. Now, we all want to be served, but no one wants to be a servant. So it wasn't just homely little-girl-me. It's my whole generation; we all want to be the Brady's. The yearbook from my junior year of high school satirically depicts the two seniors voted "most likely to succeed" in the school custodian's closet holding his mop and bucket. Poor janitor, mocked by the children he served....

No one wants to be Alice.

But think of the poverty of a world without "service with a smile". Imagine how your soul would shrivel if you knew that every last person who served you did not care about you at all, not in the least, but did it only for selfish gain, or avarice, or desperation, or fear. What if every smile really covered a cold dark universe of swirling motives. Imagine a world without mother-love, father-love, the mutual admiration of lovers, without genuinely concerned employers and employees interested not just in making a buck, but in making the world a more lovely place. Imagine if the whole world was like the DMV.

It seems the longer I live, the less I need to use my imagination.

Yes, I've seen Gosford Park. I know Alice represented an ideal, and there never was a time when the world was full of people like her. But behind every ideal is a hope - a vision of a perfect world. She represents a yearning in us all - the tugging need to be cared for by someone devoted to us, deeply committed, loving us selflessly and unconditionally. If there is a picture of the humility and love of Christ in the Brady Bunch, Alice is it. She represented the secularized residuals of the Christian ideal, the dying legacy of the Protestant value of work as worship and self-sacrifice as love. Alice did have a life. Her life was consumed with love and spent loving. That may not have been her family by blood, but it was by choice, and it was by love. That is why Alice smiled. She knew the joy of love. In this she was rich. In this, she was beautiful. In this, she was better than all of them.

So why don't we see it? Why is it that everybody wants an Alice, but no one wants to be one?

Why does no little girl want to be Alice when she grows up...?

"The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." Matthew 23:11-12

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Three years and counting - part two

So, yesterday's post brings us up to about February of this year, three years after the house went into escrow. One thing I alluded to, but did not state outright, was that during this past Christmas season my mom passed away. Things are a bit of a blur surrounding that time and the four or five months that followed, but having a temperament that requires me to be busy when grieving, a lot got done around here in spite of it all. Some of it also came from a different kind of necessity. Mom passed exactly one week before Christmas, and two weeks before the first of the month when her apartment would have to be vacated. We siblings and our grown kids sorted through her belongings - laughing, crying, remembering - then divided them up and carted them off to our various dwellings. This led to a flurry of rearranging to make room for our keepsakes and added further impetus to our plans to "finish" the house. It was a bittersweet time, finding new homes for Mom's treasures, thinking how much she would like the way they look in their new spots, wishing I could show her, and then crying. 

It was my mother's floor lamp that finally helped me choose the color to paint the living room. Since it is separated from the dining room only by an "arch", it was important that we choose a color which looked great with terra cotta.  I didn't mention it earlier, but I LOVED that color from the moment I laid eyes on it and about cried over how great it looked in the dining room. There was a part of me that wanted to coat every surface of the house in it. So I felt a lot of pressure to choose just the right color for the front room. The lamp offered me choices between green and gold. I determined early on I did not want green. I just didn't.  So I set out to Lowes, paint chip of dining room color in hand, to find a nice gold....even though I don't like the color gold. I settled for the one that looked the best with the paint chip, brought it home, then proceeded to procrastinate. There is always plenty of other stuff to do when you're trying to put off painting. (Have I mentioned yet that I HATE painting?) But here was our main reason for putting it off:

This wardrobe is huge and PACKED with movies, books, games, etc. All of this would have to be moved somewhere. In other words, painting this room would require rearranging everything.  
While I was dilly-dallying about the living room, the announcement came that Tony was moving out. The room he left behind is off the kitchen, but it in my life it might as well have never existed - really. It was the hole my teen son crawled into shutting the hatch behind himself. (This is also why I don't have a before picture of it. Imagine rental-house white walls covered entirely with posters of no interest to full-blown adults.) Once it was empty I would just stand there with the door wide open staring in awe. Someone had added on to my house! There was a window that let in light in the afternoon! With that door open, the kitchen seemed washed in it. I could put stuff in there when I got up the nerve to paint the living room, then, later, it would become my office/hobby/art/guest room! I started to tidy up the random items Tony left behind.  Just about when I got everything picked up enough to vacuum,the announcement came that Tony was moving back in. Adulthood proved a tad more of a challenge than he was up to just then. (I'd told him that I'd hold his spot for three months, in case things didn't work out. Good thing.) We had two weeks before he would be back. It was paint now or for a really long time hold our peace. So we agonized briefly over a nice color that would reflect well from the kitchen - settling for a soft color called "Spice". I thought it looked like Chai. Everyone else called it peach. I moved in a normal length twin bed instead of the extra-long model he'd used, covered it with Paul's childhood quilt, hand-stitched by his grandmother and stared at it, longing for another child, or a grandchild to come sleep in it. Tony really likes his new room. Napoleon does too.

Detour complete I was fresh out of excuses. The living room's time had come. It looked like a dull blob next to that bold and beautiful dining area. I took it in stages so as to move as few large objects at one time as possible, read that, the walls which were not behind the wardrobe and TV stand.
I was in for a shock. The color made me feel ill. I hated it. But for some reason, stubbornness maybe, or disbelief/denial that I could have exhibited such poor judgment, I kept on painting all the while thinking, "It'll look better when all the walls are done."  It took a couple of weekends to get to there and I did not think it looked any better. But, I hate to paint and I hate to spend money on paint and wasn't about to do either again any time soon. So I told myself, "Remember the gold stripe on the ship? Remember the gold in the lamp? Remember...? It'll look great when we put the furniture back." At this point we also decided to change the furniture arrangement. The room looked so much more open without the wardrobe looming in that front corner. Strangely enough it looked much better in the interior corner, alongside the arch. So, we positioned it there and placed The Napoleon (the ship, not the cat) in its place atop it. Suddenly, the room was beautiful. The gold stripe in the ship justified a whole room of gold. In fact, Gina stopped by at this stage of the works and said, "Wow the color looks really great with the ship!"

Then we placed the rest of the furniture. It all looked crisper than it had before. Even the rotten loveseat and chair (which we were about to replace that last weekend until we heard our wallet weeping openly...) didn't look quite so bad. Then we started trying out art. The gold walls made everything we tried pop. Every single print we own looked better on that horrible gold. Suddenly I knew I'd made exactly the right choice, and did a dance of joy. The picture at left is what you see straight ahead when you walk in the front door, a lovely little print we picked up at the Getty Museum gift shop on our first anniversary.  The one at right is to your right if you're standing just inside the door. The photographer is our friend James Evarro of Rev411. This was a wedding gift. Notice how great the colors look!
And here is the rest of the room. That picture above the TV will probably not stay. I have other ideas.
So that's the bulk of it. All that's left is nothing of great consequence...well, at least until the giant sack of money drops on us which would permit us to redo the floors. Until then we have a few small projects: crown molding in the dining room and Paul's office, and the bathrooms which we haven't done a thing with yet. But these are small things compared to what we've already done. We've decided to leave our bedroom as it is. There's something peaceful about it that we like. If we do paint it someday it will be only a brighter shade of white... but that's not going to be any time soon...there's that really big armoire to consider.

Did I mention we have the world's smallest bedroom? We had to put in a folding door because the regular door could only open halfway before hitting the foot of the bed. I love that black and white oil painting of Venice. I bought it from a pair of Israelis who were earning a buck selling them door to door.
The little Asian doll was my mother's. It held a special place in her heart, and so in mine. The print above it came from Paul. I framed it for him for his birthday one year. It's a map of Atlantis! Bet you didn't know it was a real place, did you? Well, I have the map as proof. When I'm sick, I lay in bed and stare at it.  On the other side of the door, next to the closet, is a charcoal drawing I did decades ago and underneath an antique gate, just perfect for hanging purses and assorted stuff.

So that's the grand tour. I'm afraid you'll have to leave without visiting the bathrooms, so I'll describe them for you. If you head to the back of the house, past the kitchen there is a hallway. To the left is a small bathroom. To the right, is a small bathroom. We always joke that we should put signs on them: "Men" and "Ladies". Both are basic rental house utilitarian. Beyond the bathroom doors to the left is a dryer, facing it on the right is a washer, and straight ahead is the back door. And there you have it. Thanks so much for visiting! You are welcome any time.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Three years and counting - part one

Well, this Wednesday marks the third anniversary of my marriage to Paul. When he proposed to me, he promised me, unbidden, three things: that he would provide for me, that he would pursue me, and that I could do whatever I wanted with the house. He's been true to his word on every count. It's been a rich three years. Two months before the wedding, we purchased our home and I moved in with Gina and Tony.  After the honeymoon, Paul moved into the house, and Gina traded him for his primo condo, close to campus. In that condo were about 8000 books. We had no place for them really, since our garage had a dirt floor, so we moved them all into our tiny less than 1100 sq. ft. house. What didn't fit in Gina's former room (with the exception of the kitchen, all our rooms qualify as tiny) was stacked waist high in the front room. Because we run a used-book business we had to have access to them, which meant we literally climbed in, over and around them for over six months - the amount of time it took to lay concrete in the garage. (Note to friends: pouring concrete looks amazing and fun for five minutes only. After that it's miserable, backbreaking labor. Thank God for dear Jim Richards, who did most of the work and did not charge us for a dime of his labor.) Sadly, I have no pictorial record of our time of in-home spelunking. At the time, I couldn't wait to forget, and certainly didn't want anyone to see how we were living. Now the memory makes me laugh. I wish I could show you how crazy it was, and how far we've come. Once we got the books moved out to the garage and shelved we set to work on the house. We'd moved in, but we were cramped, very cramped. Paul owned a lot more stuff than I'd imagined - random doo-dads, what-nots, and books, books, cd's, more cd's, and more books. It's taken all this time, but we are done with the biggest changes and are feeling so happy with the results we wanted to share the joy.

Our house was built in 1905, probably as a farm-workers' bungalow. It was originally even smaller. Though we haven't been able to ascertain the exact original floor plan, there's plenty of evidence of walls and doorways being moved around. The one thing we know for sure is that Tony's room (my someday art/hobby/guest room) and the bathrooms and laundry area were added a few decades ago. His room, we were told, started as a side porch. Beyond that all we know is that it has been a rental house for many, many years - and it showed. The walls were all the same shade of nicotine white. The doors are apartment grade. The carpet (which we cannot afford to replace any time soon) is also apartment grade. Everything was BLAH, well, except the dreadful wallpaper which lined the lower half of what is now the dining room. We didn't even know it was there until we moved in. (The tenants had the whole place stacked and ringed wall to wall with junk when we viewed the place. I can't help but wonder if they weren't trying to keep someone from buying. It was that bad.)

Since we were spending the bulk of our time there, cooking and eating, and since it seemed so dreary, I decided to start in the kitchen. Here are the "before" shots. That shelf with the glass doors did not come with the house. It was in my sister-in-law's breezeway, waiting to be taken to the dump. She kindly let us take it. It fit the space as perfectly as a built-in, and with a fresh coat of bright white added charm and much needed storage.

And here are the "after" pictures. My goal was to allow myself freedom to bring in almost any colored item that suits my fancy and be able to work it in somehow. I'm tired of living a neutral and austere life! Age and dotage are apparently taking over - and I love it! (Still haven't decided what art to hang on that large green wall - we're considering our giant black and white print of the Synod of Dordrecht), or possibly some prints from the Rip Squeak children's books.

The large print at right is something Paul brought to the marriage, a spectacular rendering of the Sutro Baths, which happened to pick up every color found in every room of the house from which it is visible - I love that kind of serendipity!

I'm not a doll person - really - but Mom was. She was forever trying to get me to bring home that Pillsbury dough doll you see there on the shelf. I never would, but when she passed I knew she was mine, and wouldn't you know, she looks cuter there than I imagined, right at home.

On the refrigerator (despite how dreadful it looks, conscience and wallets do not permit us to replace such a thing while it still works) is a handsome carved rooster I purchased years ago when I worked at an antique/curiosity shop. I determined upon first sight that I would never have a kitchen in which this fellow would not fit in. He was the first thing I considered when choosing the colors to paint. Lucky for me he is very colorful! He was even more handsome before my cat Napoleon gnawed off the tip of his beak....We pretend not to notice.

Our next project was Paul's "office" aka The Cave. It was the room that I exuberantly ripped all the carpet from when we moved in, to see what was underneath. We did not find hardwood gold, just subfloor, covered with filth and paint splatters, but the carpet was gone, thrown away in a moment of hopeful enthusiasm. When Paul was laid off from his job we began to be concerned that we might lose this house, or have to sell it. We figured we'd better deal with that hideous floor. So it became our next project.

Here's what it looked like.

The next shot shows how it looked after the belt-sander mess. (Note to friends: when using a belt sander, completely seal the door with plastic and tape, open a window and direct a fan out of it. We did not do this, thinking a nailed-up bed sheet would do just fine, and ended up with a 1/8 in. layer of dust over every surface of the house.

You can see our dog, Ginger, was very interested in our doings. She actually did get one lick of white paint before we caught her.  Gina and Paul selected the red. I was dubious, but they proved right. It looks great! (Note to friends: when painting anything red, BUY THE PRIMER! I know it seems expensive and like a wasted step, but four coats and a whole second gallon of even more expensive paint later...well, I think you get the idea.)
As for the floor, since it was of poor quality, and since we couldn't afford Pergo or the like, we opted for a floor paint. The weird bit in the corner was an area that had been rotted and long ago crudely patched with a piece of scrap metal. To properly repair such a thing is as above our fix-it IQ and pay scale as it apparently was for the last person to tackle it, so I did what any self respecting domestic diva in my situation would do, got out nails and spackle, hammered the patch as tightly as I could then smoothed its edges and irregularities with the putty. After paint and the inevitable furniture, well, who's going to know (Christov, stay out of this!) the difference?
We finished up with another happy and timely find, a bookshelf we found on the street a couple of blocks from our house with a "FREE" sign on it. We raced a couple blocks past to borrow my brother-in-law's truck, post haste! Within 15 minutes we had this giant 70's hewn hulk of a "stereo stand" in our living room. It had been painted a nasty shade of grey, which was easily remedied. We were bowled over by how perfectly it fit the space, no small thing in a house with ridiculously small rooms and equally ridiculously high ceilings.

This room looked so great, so crisp and clean that the rest of the house looked even more dreadful. Unlike the kitchen, this room is clearly visible from the living areas. It was like a gold tooth in a rotten mouth. In short, we were motivated. Then the Christmas season piled on the last straw. Moving a bookcase to make room for the Christmas tree brought me up close and personal with the revolting wallpaper we'd been studiously ignoring for a couple of years. A piece of it hung down, so I pulled it, and that was that. I was committed. After the holiday it came off, revealing really nasty wall board. Once again finding myself in over my head, (I have no skill nor intention to re-drywall a room in my house.) I decided to putty and retexture! (Note to friends: retexturing is fun for five minutes. If you can afford to pay someone to do it - do! Also, if you are ever going to paint or resurface over a stain - get a sealant for the stain first. It WILL bleed through if you don't. Please hear me on this.) It was a difficult but highly rewarding experience. I opted for a troweled look. I have seldom felt prouder of a project than that re-texture. I think it is a thing of beauty.

The decision to go with white textured wallboard below the chair rail made up my mind that this room would never be a living room again - it screamed DINING ROOM!  We could seat more people and sit around it playing games without having go off to the kitchen. Out went the too-big sofa, in came the nice dining room set Paul had left in the condo for Gina.  I'll let the pictures tell the rest of the story.

That's enough for one blog post, wouldn't you agree? So tune in tomorrow for the rest of the story.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

You are gods

What amazing power we humans have been given over all creation, to study it, to understand it, to master it, to use it, to help it, to destroy it. But even greater in the eyes of God than this dominion of our planet is our power to help or hurt those beings created in His own image - our fellow humans.

God spoke to his people Israel, reminding them of the power He had given them - the authority of gods - warning them of His judgment should they fail to use this power for that which it was intended.

God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
"How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?

Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked."

They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk about in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I said, "You are gods,
sons of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, like men you shall die,
and fall like any prince."

Arise, O God, judge the earth;
for you shall inherit all the nations!

And God will certainly rise and judge what we gods of earth have done. Every human is a being created in the image of God, and as such is a god on this earth, each entering this world with the gift of dominion, imbued with sublime power for good and evil, love and hate, help and harm. Life is not a game, an act, or a reality show. Life is real; life is short; life is serious. The things that happen in it, big and small, are significant. If we are to take this life we've been given and use it for what it is worth, it is inexpressibly important that this understanding, this sense of real power and real responsibility, permeate our souls. Consider it. Live it. We live this life as gods, bringing real pain and real healing wherever our feet carry us. We must determine which it will be. What will we take to the weak and needy among us? Will we bring them justice and kindness, or add to the weight of their suffering? What has our power done to our neighbors, our friends, our families, our enemies? What will we pass on to the next generation? What are we teaching our children to do with the dominion they've been given? Have we taught them the things that matter to the God who will hold us accountable for the influence we've been given? Have we taught them that their actions have the capacity to cause real pain, real harm, or to bring joy, delight, comfort and healing?

We who name the name of God will answer first for our treatment of the weak and needy, our justice for the helpless.What will He think of us? (See Mt. 25:31-46)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Thinking out loud

How is it that we do not come into being as individual humans until atoms combine for the formation of our own unique DNA, and yet do not cease to exist as individual souls when our genetic material has long since decomposed into atoms which have long since become a part of the genetic creation that is a new human being?

Walking in Silence

I walked a mile with Pleasure;
She chatted all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh! The things I learned from her,
When sorrow walked with me.
-Robert Browning Hamilton

Thanks to Simplemann