I’m turning 40 – let’s have a house party in Detroit

Here’s what the internet tells me are suitable gifts for a woman turning 40: a cruise, a necklace or bracelet, tickets to the Ellen show, an iPad, a sweater.  It doesn’t mention my gift to myself for this year: a brick behemoth of a century-old house in Detroit.

Likewise, ideas for outdoor 40th birthday parties on Pinterest (“drink station using bookshelves. jello shots, frozen mimosa pops, glittered champagne bottles, etc.”) don’t seem designed for the bash we’re planning for our back yard this weekend — ostensibly a party celebrating our house purchase, but on the date that just happens to be my 40th birthday, and the day after Brian’s birthday, to boot. Ahem. I give you the ‘after‘ shot of our own little haven following an afternoon my sister-in-law and I spent raking, weedpulling, and power washing.

The contractor assures me the kitchen sink and other charming items piled up in the corner will be gone before the party.  (Yep, the same fellow who promised the electrician and plumber would be ready to go the moment we got started. Two and a half months ago.)

Party planning guides also seem to be missing the chapter I need. Namely:

How to host a house party with outdated (if any) plumbing, no furniture, and a single used appliance (a stove) that you haven’t tested yet.

But you know what? It’s ok. I was fretting about the paltry water pressure in the sole operational shower and the absence of a nice stack of fresh bath towels or enough sleeping rooms for our houseguests, let alone any kind of amenities, when I realized what a nice problem that is to have. We have enough friends and family who are excited for our Detroit house adventures that they want to come celebrate with us. It’s a holiday weekend and they’re traveling — from Louisville, from Cincinnati, from Phoenix, from their own amazing adventures — to spend it with us and discover what we love about Detroit. They won’t care that I’m using a paint-spattered dropcloth as a shower curtain, or mind too much if they have to queue up for the shower, or use the kinda creepy toilet in the basement. They know this house is a labor of love in progress and aren’t looking for a designed-for-Pinterest setting.

That said,  if the hide-and-seek plumber doesn’t get his arse in gear and give me some decent water pressure, he can’t run far enough to get away from me. And so help me, if he pulls a stunt like the electrician did, and shuts some portion of the water off then leaves for the weekend, well, hell hath no fury like a birthday girl burned. I’ve warned my friends to be prepared for urban camping, and have welcomed them to BYOB, but that does *not* mean bring your own water.

Anyway. For quite some time, we’d talked about celebrating my 40th year with an extended stay in Paris, a long-time dream — renting an apartment for a few months and making it our temporary home. After just a week in Detroit I knew I had to push that dream aside for a much more exciting one: our own — permanent — house in the D.

I smiled while I thought I had only a few staples to pull left behind by the crew we hired to rip out carpet. (Happily, there are no photos of the fit I threw an hour into this Sisyphean task)

It’s been maddening as often as not — a hair-pulling, whiskey-swigging, teeth-clenching, stomach-churning, sleep-depriving, sometimes sobbing kind of madness that only a close few have had to bear witness to. We don’t know if it was the right decision, and won’t know for years, likely. Paris will have to wait. For that matter, all travel will have to wait until (unless) we break even and possibly start earning some income on the two rental flats. But at the end of every day, it’s what we wanted more than anything.

I’m turning 40 and I’ve done something hugely scary and even more tremendously exciting, and potentially more rewarding than anything in my life till now. It’s a terrifying and wonderful mess, and with or without proper party accoutrements or maybe even the necessities of modern life, we’re going to celebrate that.

See you there!




You can ring my bell … just kidding, you can’t, because it rings in the neighbor’s house

Among the charms of a 95 year old house like floors with hills and walls with curves (not originally intended, I’m sure) come little quirks that defy explanation. Our doorbell, for instance. Brian spent a lot of time driving around Detroit with our second floor renter, K, last week, who’s lived in the house for going on five years. And he learned about some of the house’s oddities.

To wit: It seems our doorbell and our neighbor G’s doorbell have an identity crisis. When you ring our bell it buzzes in G’s house next door. And when you ring his, you got it, it rings in our house. I don’t even begin to know what to do about this. We’re accidental landlords — we just wanted to buy a house in Detroit and knew it couldn’t sit empty between our stays, lest everything be stripped in our absence. We didn’t set out to buy a 4,000 sq ft plus triplex (though according to our local post office madame there is no such thing as a triplex in Detroit, but we’ll leave that story and the question of our address on the third floor — I suggest 2305 and 3/4 — for another day). It just so happened that the first house within spitting distance of our price range that didn’t need *everything* was one that houses three sets of people.

Anyway. Now we find ourselves property owners, meaning we are also the fixers. We fixed the wasp nest, to start. K told us about a monstrous nest on the garage, and asked if I’d seen it. “No way!” I shot back. I’m terrified of wasps. “I’m not going near it!”

Oh, wait. It dawned on me that the wasp nest is my problem. So after a trip to the hardware store we found ourselves in the alley come sunset last Saturday night, set to send the wee beasties to their eternal home via a can of some sprayable poison. K’s wife kept a safe distance on their second floor porch, rolling with laughter at the landlord bracing himself for imminent attack by hundreds of angry wasps. (I had halfheartedly volunteered to do it but Brian assured me he could sprint faster than I could and I went with it). K and I helped plan Brian’s escape route, then hung back to watch. After a couple tentative sprays, Brian blasted the things, then tore down the alley like his pants were on fire as I collapsed into giggles and tried to video him with my phone in case something dramatic happened, capturing nothing but the weeds growing in the alley.

Preventing an attack of the killer wasps

I can’t help but wonder if that’s anything approaching normal landlord behavior. I imagine it’s probably not. But nobody said we knew what we were doing. As for the doorbell situation, I have no idea. If you know a handyman or woman in Detroit who can look at our confused doorbell, send them our way, will you? If nothing else, I can assure you no wasps will interfere.

We made it

Yesterday morning I woke up on a mattress on the floor in the attic of our Detroit house. I rolled over to look at my husband. “We made it,” he said with a little smile. I was  too tired to ask him what he meant. But we had made it. Despite the vortex of things conspiring against us  getting the house ready to even camp out in — a plumber who left the country, a contractor with a habit of over-promising and under-delivering, a flood in Detroit, a work-stopping back injury Brian sustained the first day on site, and the myriad pains plaguing me — here we were, snug under the eaves with our two dogs. After working from Friday through the following Saturday, we’d collapsed into bed the night before in the most profound state of exhaustion I’ve ever known.

The list of things still to be done hung over me like the bare bulb dangling from the plaster where the electrician busted into our freshly painted plaster (after weeks of “the electric will be done this week” we gave up and painted — and then he showed up) but I allowed myself a few moments to remember what we had accomplished in eight days’ time.

We painted virtually the entire first floor. With help from our energetic 18 year old nephew Nathan, we knocked a lot of that out in one day. Living room, dining room, two of the bedrooms, and the main wall in the kitchen are all freshly coated with ‘Navajo White’ (a lovely shade that hovers between the lightest of celery and moss green shades and creamy white) and the baseboards and trim are renewed with fresh white semi-gloss. The built-ins (and the trim in the third bedroom — or sunroom as we call it, with its five windows) are painted white.

We painted the entire attic apartment. Forget neutral rental appropriate colors. The sleeping nook is Very Purply, the living area is really orange, and the bathroom is hot pink, ceilings included. Ok, the kitchen is navajo white, but I painted the sole cabinet purple.

The hardwood floors the contractor proclaimed ruined? We refinished four of them thanks to the renter in our second floor flat, K, who has loads of experience with home improvement — and who also has a truck. He sanded the rooms, then I swept, shop vacced, mopped, and applied two coats of poly to the living room and all three bedrooms (and pulled the staples left behind by the spectacularly non-motivated crew our contractor provided to rip out the carpet. An exceedingly low point of the week found me lying on the floor in pain from crawling around with screwdriver and pliers pulling up hundreds of stubborn staples, requesting in no uncertain terms that he get the crew back over to finish the @$#*ing job.

With help from K. we put plywood down over the one floor that was not salvageable, ready to be tiled next time we go back. Brian can get excess slate from the plant where he works at a fraction of the cost, so even as insanely expensive as the plywood was ($200!!!) it will still be a bargain for a beautiful floor.

I scraped the years’ worth of blobs of paint off the attic floor (Brian and another nephew, Nick, pulled the carpet up on earlier trip), then swept, shop vacced and mopped till the floor was pristine, and painted the hardwood. I went back the next morning to apply the second coat and found the electrician and his crew busting holes in the plaster. When they finished I did my cleaning all over again and applied the second coat (“seal skin” brown).

Power washing the garage

This was the most fun I had all week!

We raked, bagged and removed bales and bales of pine needles from the back yard, thanks to my sister-in-law Angela, who busted arse helping us all day on Friday. We also took turns raking the banks of needles on the garage awning – the single hardest workout of the week. With a power washer borrowed from the contractor (who was worried that us girls couldn’t handle it) we blasted the grungy, nasty exterior of the garage. It was like an eraser washing away years of grime!

There’s lots more – every moment of every day, except the five minutes I (sometimes) sat down to cram a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my face – I was painting, scraping, sweeping, cleaning, pulling, pushing, carrying, lifting, climbing, crawling, and/or otherwise working, but those are the biggies. The electric is still not finished, the plumber is in Mexico, and the deck to replace the hazardous, shanty thing up now and the insulation needed to fortify against the breathtaking heat bills are still but a dream. The basement gutting,which we hired out through our contractor, is about 80% complete (and a woman who worked harder than any guy I’ve seen on our job yet completed the immensely hard job of hauling out the junk after the demo crew did their thing).

All things considered, it was a productive week, though I can’t help but be disappointed that we don’t have more done. I’m trying to use this experience as a way to learn to be more patient and accept when things are out of my control (mostly related to our infuriating contractor). I’m not doing so hot so far. But Brian reminded me yesterday of how proud I can feel when I walk through the house and see the things I did. And it was gratifying. My work involves putting words on a piece of paper (or screen) and sending them off. To see a physical change that I brought about with own hands (hands that hurt so bad after a few days, and still, that I cry out when I try to turn a door knob or squeeze a tube of toothpaste) is incredibly empowering and satisfying.

Looking ahead to the work that remains is daunting, but I think I learned last week that I’m up for it. We made it.

Until Saturday night we commuted every day from Brian’s parents’ an hour outside Detroit. It was a good time to decompress and review what we’d done and our list for the next day.




Making our house a second home: first purchase! Tuft & Needle mattress

Here's the 'before.' The  'after' is still in my imagination.

Here’s the ‘before.’ The ‘after,’ with the bed in the little window nook, draped with a mosquito net we brought home from Bali, is still in my imagination.

We haven’t spent a night in the Detroit house yet and there’s a bit of a tussle over it. I don’t care that the work isn’t done. I won’t feel like it’s real until we’ve slept there, whereas Brian wants it livable before we spend the night. We’ve been staying with his family an hour outside the city on trips up.  It’s nice having a furnished house to sleep in, but I’m ready to claim our own space.  We made our first real purchase this week and once it arrives I’m ready to arm wrestle if that’s what it takes (or thumb wrestle, since I don’t have a chance otherwise) to get what I want.

The big purchase is our bed. I’m kind of (ok, really) particular about beds. We spent what felt like a small fortune on the bed we have at home and it’s super, super comfy. That wasn’t an option for the Detroit house, so I was considering alternatives like floor cushions that fold out to a bed. Looking for shikibutons led me to Tuft & Needle, where I immediately fell in love with the story: in a nutshell, a newly married guy found that mattress shopping was as dreadful as car shopping and decided to start a business to make it fun and easy. He launched Tuft & Needle, which makes mattresses here in the USA, and sells them online with no sleazy salesperson or mattress showroom or glossy Sunday paper advertisements. If their website design reflects the bed quality, I think I’m going to love it.

While I was looking for reviews (it’s a new company so there’s not a ton out there, but what I found was glowing) I found a blog post from a guy who not only loved his mattress, but he had a referral code for $50 off. My $350 mattress became $300. To top that, I got my own code, and when people use it, I get $50 back on my purchase price! I love this idea so much. [if you’re mattress shopping and want $50 off, use this link: https://www.tuftandneedle.com/r/W1QZ1dkd]

lampTo celebrate this exciting buy, I splurged a little on a beautiful hanging lantern from a store that’s going out of business here in Louisville. All their inventory comes from their shopping trips to the near East and Central Asia. I wish I could furnish the house with their beautiful pieces (think 50 year old Uzbek fabrics, breathtaking Oriental rugs), but even at 70% off it’s still too spendy. This lamp, though it was definitely more expensive than the garage sale scores we’ve picked up so far, is so striking I couldn’t pass it up for $50.

I’ve been a little obsessed with hanging lanterns since our first trip to Istanbul.  I remember standing in the maelstrom of the Grand Bazaar under a canopy of multi-colored lanterns, utterly captivated. Later, in Marrakech it was the same thing. There’s just something magical about them. If there’s one image in my mind that represents travel to somewhere far from home, it’s these lanterns.

This house will take the place of any international travel for the next two or three years, so I want it to embody the magic of travel. That means we’ll furnish our little attic apartment with some of our treasures from around the globe, and try to create a feeling of transporting ourselves somewhere amazing. Which of course it is! Detroit holds enough mystery and marvel to hopefully fulfill our wanderlust for a while.