Contractors in Chaos Getting Coffee

Our recent home renovations required a state of controlled chaos for about two months. During this time we saw a lot of contractors and served them a lot of coffee. We ignored the saying, ‘If you feed them, they will never leave,” and sometimes provided donuts. They have all left now, and left us with a safer, more comfortable, lovelier home.

Big changes to a small bathroom
Big changes to a small bathroom

We’ve not always been so fortunate with contractors. Back in PA, we experienced some stereotypical contractor-not-showing-up, contractor-not-calling-back, contractor-leaving-job-unfinished situations. Facing renovations here in Providence and having abundant free time, I resolved to manage the situation better. I asked family members and neighbors for referrals. I looked online for contractors with advanced credentials in their fields. We interviewed the contractors ahead of time rather than hiring them in desperation to fix problems that couldn’t be ignored any longer. Then we selected electrical, plumbing, flooring and painting contractors, and created a timetable for rewiring the house, installing new lighting, painting the living and dining rooms, and remodeling the first-floor powder room.

The contractors we hired were all competent, interested in their work, desirous of doing a good job, pleasant and efficient. There was one exception, a grumpy plumber, but the other workers sent by the same plumbing firm were good-natured.

Being retired, we could hang around the house most of the time while the contractors were working, so we were available for consultation whether they wanted us or not. We got to know some of them pretty well. They all seemed to approach their work with a can-do attitude and a sense of humor, and for the most part, so did we. A little humor – and seeing the funny side of things – helped us all to coexist during the many tiresome days of dusty, dirty, loud work. Here’s a look back at some of the more memorable exchanges.

Me, after hearing many loud sighs from the plumbing boss during his preliminary inspection: “How bad is it?”
Him: “It’s bad. But I’ve seen worse. Maybe a FEW worse.”

Me, after hearing many loud sighs from the head electrician on his crew’s third day of rewiring our house: “How bad is it?”
Him: “This house is in the top twenty of difficult houses that I have worked on since I started this business 15 years ago.”
Me: “You mean the top twenty percent?”
Him: “NO, the top TWENTY!”

Me, to the plumber’s answering service: Many important details about the upcoming installation of fixtures in the powder room.
Answering service to the plumber: “This lady wants you to call her.”

Me: Many helpful tips about how I think the new powder room floor should be installed.
Flooring installer, after listening politely to all of it: “I’ve installed a lot of floors before.” Then he set about laying the tiles with resolute good humor, despite having to contort his 6’4” frame into uncomfortable positions to fit into the very small room.

Me: A very logical explanation of how I want to replace an existing wall-mounted sink with a corner vanity.
Plumber: “You don’t want to do that.” Followed a bit later in the conversation by, “Why do you want to do that?” And still later by, “Do you really want to do that?” And lastly, by that most eloquent of non-verbal communications, “Sigh.”

Me, to the painting crew boss: “How about if you hang the mirror first and then we can see where to position the light above it?”
Him: “Mrs. O’Connell, what would we do without you?” Followed by much laughter from both Jeff and the painting crew.

The plumber: “How do you expect me to install THIS vanity on THIS floor that is NOT AT ALL LEVEL?”
Me: My best, most dramatic, highest-shoulder, with lifted palms and raised eyebrows, shrug.

I also overheard random comments and noises, including:

“Uh oh.” (I learned that it’s best to pretend not to have heard that.)

“Is it on? Is it on now? How about now? NOW?” (yelled about 200 times during rewiring, often accompanied by boots stomping up and down stairs.)

Frequent noise of a drill sounding like a moose with terrible gas, or a middle-schooler learning to play the saxophone.

“We have to cut another hole in the ceiling.” After hearing that, Jeff closed the door to his office and stayed in there for the rest of the day.

(VERY LOUD CRASH) “Ow!” “Are you ok?” “Yeah, I’m ok.” After hearing that, I carefully tiptoed downstairs to investigate. Everyone was ok, but there was collateral damage to an innocent bookcase, which they fixed later.

“Sheila?  Sheila!!  SHEILA!!!”  I ran downstairs expecting to see an electrician lying pale and still on the floor, smoke rising from his electrocuted body. Happily I saw instead a small flood, which I was able to mop up with old towels. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve been happy to see a flood in my house!

Despite all of this, or maybe because of it, the work was finished days before our Christmas Eve party, to which we had invited 21 family members and significant others. Everyone fit somehow into our little house, we enjoyed the time together, and I got to show people the new improvements. Among many nice comments about our remodeling was this one: “I love how you put the toilet paper holder above the radiator to keep the toilet paper warm.” We did have a lot of good ideas, but we didn’t think of that; it was pure serendipity. Also there are not many options for arranging things in a tiny 4 X 4 powder room! Or lavette, as they call it here.

More controlled chaos: cousins and friends on Christmas Eve
More controlled chaos: cousins and friends on Christmas Eve

Afterthought: It is distressing to see a bunch of holes cut in your walls and ceilings, as was necessary to replace all of our old knob-and-tube wiring. One morning, up early before any workers arrived, I noticed how some of the exposed cables formed graceful, almost dancer-like bends and loops. I took a few pictures. I felt better.

Dancing on the ceiling. And the walls.
Dancing on the ceiling. And the walls.

Coaxing Plants – and People – to Grow

Impressionistic view of a perennial border at RWP Botanical Center

Shortly after we moved to Providence RI, my sister-in-law Karen sent me a flyer announcing a photography contest running throughout the summer at the Roger Williams Park Botanical Center.  Jeff and I visited the park early on a warm, humid Sunday morning in August, with me thinking that I’d wander around the garden a bit and plan what I might snap and submit for judging.  The Botanical Center was closed until 11:00 a.m. (so much for my planning skills), but as we were looking through the fence we met Master Gardener and park volunteer Holly R.

Holly’s big smile and friendly manner drew us in, and we chatted through the fence about soil, climate, invasive plants, and the often-frustrating challenge of coaxing plants to grow where and how you want them to grow.  We were charmed  by Holly’s enthusiasm for gardening in general and for this garden in particular.  Despite our previous pledges to each other to not make commitments right away in our new town, we both agreed to come to the Botanical Center the following Thursday to join the “Green Team” volunteers for a morning of orientation and garden maintenance.  Thursday dawned bright and hot, and we packed our trowels, gloves and kneeling pads, threw some shovels in the back of Jeff’s truck, and drove to the garden.  The gardening group that day comprised Holly and a few other Master Gardeners, some non-credentialed backyard gardeners like Jeff and me, and some individuals and helpers from the RI Perspectives program, an organization which helps differently-abled young adults find ways to contribute to community life.

We learned how to identify and dispatch the dreaded Pokeweed.  We discussed the grave importance of carefully extracting the roots of any weed whenever humanly possible rather than just yanking it out to make things look neat.  We touched on the art of pruning, a task that is restricted to the Master Gardeners, for good reason.  Then we fanned out across the garden, each of us picking an area to weed.

A greenhouse beckons
A greenhouse beckons

Over the weeks the Thursday Green Team has evolved and specialized a bit, with volunteers gaining more confidence in identifying weeds.  We’ve learned that the term “weed” can include a garden plant that has popped up in the wrong place.  (This is a tough concept to internalize; it’s hard to pull up a lone pretty flower blooming amongst a swath of boring green groundcover.)  The RI Perspectives group has taken over the large ornamental pots and urns, filling them with colorful late-summer-into-fall flowers and foliage plants.  New volunteers have joined the group, and we’ve become quite a convivial bunch.  Holly circulates among us, joking, cheerleading, and instructing as needed.

Jeff has been a very dedicated volunteer, not missing a single Thursday morning.  I have not been as consistent or productive a worker, having been troubled lately with some pesky arthritis pain in my knees and hands.  About the photography contest: I did submit several photographs.  I didn’t win any of the prizes, but I loved roaming around with my camera in the perennial gardens and greenhouses of this beautiful place that feels a little like my own garden now.

Point and counterpoint
Point and counterpoint

More about Roger Williams Park: The Botanical Center is a very small part of this unique and wonderful urban oasis, nicknamed “The People’s Park”.  Roger Williams Park also has a zoo, a Victorian-style carousel, an extensive network of walking paths, quaint footbridges spanning small lakes, manicured grounds perfect for concerts and picnicking, a museum of natural history, a planetarium, several historic buildings, and many artistically significant sculptures.  The original land bequest was given by the great-great-great-granddaughter of Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island and champion of the separation of church and state.  The Rhode Island Foundation is leading a $10 million campaign to preserve and enhance the park.

More of my photographs from the Botanical Center

Salad Day

Edible flowers from City Farm in Providence, RI

Some Saturday mornings we walk to the Hope Street Farmers Market in Lippitt Park.  It’s a longish walk from our house, about a mile, but we enjoy looking at the houses along the way, noting paint colors and landscaping ideas that we might try someday on our own home.  As we near the park we are swept up in a stream of walkers, bicyclists, and families with babies in strollers and dogs on leashes.  Many of the dogs sport colorful bandannas, and most of the adults carry reusable fabric tote bags, as they head purposefully toward the market.

First we pass the artisan booths lining the sidewalk on the street side of the park; I try to resist the attractions of beachy bohemian jewelry, ocean-themed prints, blue and green pottery.  Then we reach the tantalizing display of farmer and food artisan booths.  On the market’s web site I counted 47 food vendors!  Some of the best names: Fully Rooted, Humble Pie, The Local Catch.

Cool names aside, my favorite vendor is City Farm.  Staffed by tanned, busily efficient yet pleasant young men, the City Farm booth overflows with bagged greens of both exotic and familiar varieties, an array of dewy fresh vegetables, and sometimes berries.  A fellow shopper and waiter-in-line told me that she likes to shop there because they are a great organization and she supports their mission.  I researched City Farm later and learned that they are part of the Southside Community Land Trust, a group that helps people grow food and provides the necessary access to land, resources and education.  City Farm grows tons of organic produce in a small urban space in South Providence.  (Yes, literal tons.)  They host gardening workshops for adults and field trips for school groups, and they give away food to local soup kitchens and food pantries.

Last Saturday I noticed a few paper boxes of small flower blooms among the vegetables at City Farm.  As I was paying for my greens, I asked the handsome young farmer, “What would I do with the flowers; put them in a salad?”  He flashed an irresistible grin and said, “You could use them in a salad, or you could garnish things with them, or maybe strew them over your bed.  Anything really!”

I brought the flowers home.  I took a picture of them.  I pondered the possibilities.  That night I strewed them over … our salad.  Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.  After that, make a really good salad!

Remodeling Blues

My very blue bathroom
My very blue bathroom

Our ‘new’ old house in Providence RI has a very blue bathroom.  I never planned to have a bathroom with blue fixtures, but the color scheme is familiar.  Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, I spent time in blue, green, pink and even red bathrooms at the homes of friends and relatives.  Although my family’s home had beige bathrooms, my mom decorated with cheerful colors in other parts of the house.  I remember orange shag carpeting in our family room, leaf-green trellis patterned wallpaper in the hall, and climbing strawberry vines on the dinette walls and seat cushions.

Fast-forward to 2016, past my previous suburban home in Bethlehem PA with its quiet beige and pale gray bathrooms.  I now own a bathroom with two blue sinks, a large blue corner tub, and blue wallpaper with a tiny red and green flower print.  A merciful previous owner tiled the floor and two of the walls with shiny white ceramic, painted the window, door and baseboards white, and hung white Roman shades.  Other than that, all is blue.

Not just any blue, either.  According to our plumber Angelo, this is “Regency Blue”, a color used by American Standard in the 40’s and 50’s.  Angelo was here last week to solve some plumbing problems, probably the first of many such visits.  When he walked into the bathroom he said, “Wow, look at this!”  He told us the color name, and said that he still sees some of it around the neighborhood.  “You used to be able to get the matching Regency Blue toilet, but unfortunately you can’t get those any more.”  So unfortunate, I thought.

Before moving into the house, Jeff and I commented to each other a few times, “That blue bathroom has to go.”  We continued feeling that way for the first few days we were in the house.  Then we started saying things like, “It’s really kind of quirky.”  And, “The blue is pretty, especially with the white tile and trim.”  And, “That wallpaper actually works in this bathroom.”

I did some research on vintage blue bathrooms.  Here’s an image from a 1957 American Standard catalog showing a Regency Blue bathroom, featuring the unfortunately now-unavailable matching blue toilet in the foreground.

1957 Regency Blue bathroom
1957 Regency Blue bathroom

Five years later, the 1962 American Standard catalog shows Regency Blue fixtures complemented with purple accessories, to prove that it “harmonizes with almost any color!”

1962 Regency Blue bathroom
1962 Regency Blue bathroom

Harmony or discord?  I think I prefer my blue surrounded by clean bright white.

However, the lady shown in the advertisement below is having a lot of fun in her blue Cinderella tub, so maybe yellow and pink are the accessory colors to pick.  Or maybe she’s just happy that the day’s housework is finished and the casserole is in the oven.

Cinderella tub advertisement
Cinderella tub advertisement

I’m not sure yet what the future holds for my blue bathroom.  Its vintage look has charmed me, and my attitude about tearing out and replacing things is changing.  My friend Sandy G told me, “If someone GAVE me a NEW house, for free, I would sell it and buy an old house with character.”  Another friend, Ellen J, who has lived in and renovated many old houses, sums it up nicely, “An old house is like a person.  You don’t necessarily want to impose your will on it.  Let it speak to you.”  Wise words.  I am listening.

Stuff Happens in Providence RI

Empty sunroom before furniture arrives
Empty sunroom, early on our move-in day

We woke early on our move-in day, deflated the inflatable mattress we’d been sleeping on, and waited inside the empty house.   The big orange moving van rumbled up the street a little after 8:00.  Happy to see it, we also felt nervous about whether all of our furniture and boxes would fit into this house.  And the garage.  And the basement.  And the yard, if necessary.

The guys came up the walk after parking the van, with large bearded Wayne in the lead, followed by the even larger Joe and the short, stocky impassive Murphy.  They tramped around the house for a few minutes, noting all the rooms, stairs, passageways, and odd twists and turns.  Then Wayne asked me to call the police.  “The police!”, I thought, wondering if it is a crime to have a doorway that is only six feet high, as is the one at the outer entrance to our kitchen.  “The police?” I said.  Wayne told us that his van had knocked down a low-hanging tree branch a few blocks up our street, and he would rather we report the incident than have the police arrive and arrest him for leaving the scene of a broken branch.

I found the non-emergency police number and called.  A man answered, “Providence Police,” gave his operator number and said “What’s the problem?”  After I explained, he said “You on Everett?”  I said yes, and he said, “Yeah, that was reported at 8:20, and a cable was knocked down too.  National Grid is already out there working on it.”

“Oh no,” I said timidly.  “Is there anything we should do?”  To which he replied, “Nah, stuff happens!”  And then, “Hey, where are you moving from?”

Stuff happens?  Where are you moving from??  Not the response I expected, but a very welcome one.  “Bethlehem PA,” I said.  “Bethlehem,” he replied.  “I was there once, years ago.  What brings you to Rhode Island?”

We chatted a bit, with him filling me in on various Providence and Rhode Island events, including Waterfire, the Seafood Festival, the Kite Festival, the Hot Air Balloon Festival.  “There is so much to do here in the summer,” he said.  “I hope the rest of your move goes well.  Welcome to Providence!”

After I hung up, we all breathed a sigh of relief that there would be no repercussions for the damage sustained to limb.  The rest of the move-in went well.  Murphy even made a joke toward the end, something about a second truck on the way bringing the rest of our things.

Stuff happens, indeed.  It’s good to know that kindness and reasonableness also happen.  By the way, all of our furniture and boxes did fit into the house, garage and basement.  Just barely.

Empty living room
Living room
Empty office upstairs
Upstairs office

Ten Things I Love about Bethlehem PA

My moving preparations are almost finished, and soon I leave for my new home in Providence RI.  Despite my eager anticipation of new adventures, my thoughts keep returning to Bethlehem PA.  It has been my home for 26 years, and was a great place to raise a family, grow a small business, and find good friends.

Here are ten things that I may have loved the most about “o little town”:

Old Chapel at Central Moravian Church
Old Chapel at Central Moravian Church

When I go downtown to shop or meet friends for lunch, I like to park near the library on Church Street, then cut through the Central Moravian Church campus on my way to Main Street.  I usually pause for a moment or two to look at the Old Chapel, which seems to sit contentedly, enjoying its long retirement since 1806 when the “new” Sanctuary was built.

New Street, Bethlehem PA
New Street, Bethlehem PA

The downtown historic district is a visual delight of beautifully preserved homes, diverse in style, size and level of elegance.  From the grandest Georgian estate to the smallest carriage house, homes on every block have welcoming doorways, gently aged or tastefully aging exteriors, and pops of colorful paint and flowers.  All changes to exteriors in the Bethlehem Historic District must be approved by the city’s Architectural Review Board, which causes some grumbling now and then. But the neighborhood’s charm is thus preserved, enchanting all who visit.

Me at the art show with my personal framer and booth erector
Me at the art show with my personal framer and booth erector

In May on Mother’s Day weekend, the annual Fine Art & Craft Show takes over Main Street.  Artists’ booths fill both sides of the street from the Brew Works to the Moravian Bookshop.  An artist-in-residence, roving musicians, and a children’s art area add to the ambience.  That sounds suspiciously like marketing-speak.   And it is!  I served happily on the art show committee for ten years, and even showed my photography at the show for a couple of those years.

Tree sculptures at Lehigh Fields
Tree sculptures at Lehigh Fields

Public art everywhere!  You cannot drive or walk far in this town without seeing a a sculpture or two, and perhaps a mural.

Some views of the Steel Stacks in Bethlehem

Bethlehem’s own “high line”, the Hoover Mason Trestle, offers closeup views of the preserved Bethlehem Steel stacks and other remnants of the town’s industrial heritage.  The abstract patterns of weathered brick and rusted metal, colorful layers of peeling paint, and broken windows are simply gorgeous:  a photographer’s dream.

Kwanzan cherry blossoms
Kwanzan cherry blossoms

Springtime and its intoxicating cocktail of blossoms on cherry trees, dogwoods, rhododendrons, and Japanese magnolias.

Small but enthusiastic contingent of BCEP at the Heart Walk
Small but enthusiastic contingent of BCEP at the Heart Walk

Convivial gatherings with other local alums in the Brown Club of Eastern PA.  The college fight song was right: ‘We are ever true to Brown, and We love our college dear … and something something beer.’

Saucon Creek
Saucon Creek

A ramble through Saucon Park on a misty morning, before the picnickers converge.

Looking up at the Alumni Memorial Building at Lehigh University
Looking up at the Alumni Memorial Building at Lehigh University

On warm summer evenings, Jeff and I like to get an ice cream cone at The Cup and meander around the campus of Lehigh University.  We admire the splendid landscaping and the Gothic style buildings, and luxuriate in the quiet unique to a college campus when the students are away.

Salsa dancing and uke jamming in the garden
Salsa dancing and uke jamming in the garden

At the Sculpture Garden concert series, I’ve heard some good music, attempted to learn salsa dance and contra dance moves, and even jammed with other audience members and the band on my ukulele.  It’s one place where my enthusiasm for trying something new was not dampened by my lack of talent.  (A big shout-out here to the plucky Elaine D!  There can be no truer friend than one who will play the ukulele in public with me.)

The list could go on but I’ll stop here.  Another day I may remember white lights and candles in winter windows, or sweet summer grass smells and bicycle bells on the towpath.  Or handsome policemen on horseback, oh my!

Making Space

Sunrise at Mariton Wildlife Sanctuary

I arose well before dawn, packed camera and tripod, and drove to Mariton Wildlife Sanctuary in Easton,PA.  Mine was the only car in the parking lot, and I saw no one else except three wild turkeys as I hiked through woods filled with birdsong.  I had in mind to photograph a stand of trees in a meadow, pre-visualizing an image of their dark columns rising dramatically from the misted undergrowth.  While setting up the shot, I turned and saw this view down the path I had walked minutes earlier.  Another few minutes and it was gone.

I gave myself space that day, and time, and permission to deviate from the plan.  It’s hard to break a habit of lifelong schedules, plans, productivity goals, and general busyness.  But I’m trying to leave more open space in my life and in my mind, to let experiences and images drift in and out, to perhaps see beyond what I thought was there.

I emerged from the forest bug-bitten, sweaty and happy, my only other goal that day to have a cup of coffee at a nearby riverside diner.

P. S.  I am moving to Providence RI in less than two weeks!  I expect to have a busy life there, filled with family, new friends, explorations into the local arts and culture.  But I will also make space for quiet unplanned days, take time for second looks, and welcome whatever thoughts and images may come.

The Space Between and Around Things

Space re photography

The space between and around things can be the most important compositional element in a photograph.  I made this photograph of the Merrill P. Barber bridge in Vero Beach last winter.  It shows a solitary individual walking across a very long bridge.  The bridge and the person are elements of the photo, of course, but neither is the subject.  What makes the image memorable is the expanse of sky and clouds above the bridge, and the pieces of sky between the bridge supports.  Looking for and using the space that surrounds forms is an exercise that I often use to improve my photographic skills.

Looking at this image set my brain off on a ramble about space.

My husband and I have a contract on the house that we are selling in Bethlehem PA, with the sale scheduled to close in less than three weeks.  Before we listed the house for sale, a professional home stager provided by our realtor spent a couple of hours walking around our house with us.  She made copious notes of things we needed to improve, while kindly assuring us that our home was already 90% of the way there.  The next day she emailed us SEVENTEEN PAGES of detailed instructions!  Yes, that’s seventeen, 17, pages.*  A lot of the instructions had to do with making space so that potential buyers could visualize themselves – and their stuff – in this house.

We set about doggedly following the stager’s instructions and clearing out our closets, garage and basement. My poor husband agreed to tackle the basement and garage, while I started winnowing the closet contents.  To my surprise, I began to enjoy the task, and my closets sort of became little design projects.  Here’s how our coat closet ended up:

Space re stuff

(I don’t have a “before” photo, but it would have showed:  Coats and jackets for every season, jammed onto ugly hangers of all kinds, completely filling the rod. Snow boots, rain boots, and random sneakers jumbled on the floor.  Also on the floor: a large wicker basket overflowing with dusty gloves, winter hats and scarves left by our kids who are long grown and gone, a vacuum cleaner and some attachments, a handheld carpet spot cleaner.  On the shelf: messy piles of hats, scarves and gloves belonging to the remaining two people here, a hatbox with several of my hats smushed into it, a bunch of little black travel umbrellas, a cardboard box with yet more vacuum attachments, and several boxes of vacuum bags and filters.)

I open that closet door at least once a day now to admire the spareness inside.  I feel much freer having given or thrown away a lot of my stuff.  And I have reclaimed some of my space – the important space between and around things – that is often the most important thing in the picture.

Next post: learning to value the spaces in life.

*All kidding aside, our professional stager was wonderful, with a great sense of humor, and her advice to us was spot on!  I recommend Jill Kratzer of Stage-Coach to anyone who is preparing to sell a home in the Lehigh Valley of PA.