So let me tell you about my tower #4: Inspiration

Actually, we never thought we were designing a tower.  That came later.  We were designing a rectangular addition with a shed roof that would allow us to peer over the existing cottage so we could enjoy the sun coming up and down over the Catskills and reflecting on the Hudson.

We kept talking about this structure and were amazed to find it as a fantasy in a book on our own shelves.   We immediately sent it to Duke.

It would have a loft.

It might have a breezeway between the buildings, or it might have an enclosed entry.

It would have an open stairway.

And the bridge would be a greenhouse.

In keeping with the eyebrow window houses of the Hudson Valley it would have eyes.

I looked for inspiration everywhere.  Architectural Design was a disappointment.  The editors seemed to equate spending lots of money with quality design, and the magazine soon bored me with celebrity house tours.   San Francisco was energizing – it was my first visit and I quickly fell in love with the row houses.

There was a wonderful selection of design books at the Rosendale Library and many more available through interlibrary loan.    Unfortunately I didn’t realize until later that Mid Hudson Library System does not retain your borrowing history unless you ask that they do so.  Much of my bibliography is lost.

Zimmerman House

One book in particular, Wright-Sized Houses: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solutions for Making Small Houses Feel Big, by Diane Maddex, shares the blame (or the credit) for changing my cost efficient plan into a design with pizazz and all its trimmings:  fun, challenge, compromise, and expense.  I read the entire text, remembering a long past visit to Chicago and a highlight bus tour of the Wright homes and Unity Temple.  The Zimmerman House in Manchester, New Hampshire, part of the Currier Museum, was one of my favorite places to bring out-of-town guests.  I never tired of the tour guides pointing out the specially designed music corner, the plantings inside and outside the floor to ceiling windows that made the walls of the house disappear, the specifically designed cabinets and storage space which never seemed sufficient to me.

But it was Wright’s overhanging roofs that excited me now.  I could picture that roof on the top of my house.  It would provide shade from the brutal late afternoon sun, and it would provide shelter so that I could leave the windows open in the rain.   I immediately wrote Duke.

Duke liked the idea.  He placed that shallow wide roof on top of my addition, giving it the feel of a forest ranger’s tower, a lighthouse, a prison guard tower, the squirrel queen’s lookout.

The plans came in.  We were very happy.

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Other books that contributed to the addition and to the collage are:

A Little House of My Own:  47 Grand Designs for 47 Tiny Houses, by Lester R. Walker, 8/9/2011

Little House on a Small Planet:  Simple Homes, Cozy Retreats, and Energy Efficient Possibilities, by Shay Salomon

Living Under Glass, by Jane Tresidder & Stafford Cliff — greenhouse in collage

The New Cottage Home, by Jim Tolpin — peekover roof and enclosed double entry in collage

Inside the Not So Big House:  Discovering the Details that Bring a Home to Life (and others), by Sarah Susanka and Marc Vassallo

Pictures of Home, by Colin Thompson — fantasy shed roof in collage

More Small Houses, edited by Fine Homebuilding Editors and Kevin Ireton — loft in collage

So let me tell you about my tower #2: The How

Both Lee and I have experience with design and construction.  He has converted three lofts, in San Francisco, Manhattan and Brooklyn, into residential/studio spaces, and has renovated rental properties.

Our first home in needlepoint by me 1981. I never tried needlepoint again.

My late husband and I had picked up someone else’s crazy half-finished expansion of a cottage and turned it into our first home.  We later built  the home where our children grew up.  Our last adventure was to gut and redo the three-bedroom owner’s quarters of our 1790 bed and breakfast.

Hopefully the maxim “practice makes perfect” will prove to be true.

Entrance to the owner’s quarters, 2005

Lee and I were prepared for the work but had to work out some very important issues. Who would pay for what?  Whose house would this be?  Who would do what?

After much discussion, we agreed that it would be my financial responsibility and remain totally my house.  My sons do like the house and Lee, and we didn’t want feelings for him to have any sway over their decision-making when/if the house should become theirs.  Lee is a generous man and he is always taking chances.  I don’t have to worry and the boys don’t have to worry about him loving me for my house.

Lee is doing a lot of the work on the house: carpentry, wiring, taping, trim, tile, floors.  He has started grimacing about his shoulder, sometimes one and sometimes the other, and falls asleep during movies.  Hopefully he won’t become an  achy old man during this project. He will be bringing in help with the sheet rock and flooring and I’ve just set him up for a massage.

It made sense to divide the work so that the design is my responsibility and the construction is his.  It’s easier said than done.  There is a lot of interplay between the two.

I chose to hire an architect, even though Lee thought we could do it ourselves and wanted to save my money for materials and labor.

Our second home where we were a family, painted by my father, 1990

My husband and I designed our second home, and while we did pretty well, after living in it a few months, we realized we were not as smart as we thought we were.  We hired an architect for our owner’s quarters redo, mainly because we were stuck.  He got it perfectly, and we learned that working with an architect doesn’t mean one has failed.  (Clark was a do-it-yourself-er in theory and practice, and so is Lee, and so am I).  An architect is well worth the additional cost.

An architect would transform my squirrel house vision into an actual livable structure.  Having professionally drawn up plans I would be less likely to step on the contractors’ and Lee’s toes.   An architect’s advice and expertise would boost my confidence about the project and provide peace of mind.

There were practical considerations also.  What was code?  Could we actually put more structure on the little lot?  How much would it cost?   Where would Lee live until the addition was completed?

I read the town code and thought we could do it, and was hoping our architect would agree.

Lee and I picked a figure we would like to spend, a figure based on nothing in particular.  We’ve already gone over the first figure; we knew it was unrealistic.  We are hoping we come in close to what we chose for the second.

Jackson

Lee moved in with his clothing, his dog, some art, and a lot of his kitchen in October 2011:  we didn’t want to commute across the river  another winter.  He found a space nearby for his office and man space.  I get a little romantic buzz walking from our home to his office for a cup of tea in the afternoon.

There were more difficult soul-searching questions.  Would our relationship make it through this project? Would I be able to complete the house if for some reason Lee couldn’t or wouldn’t finish it with me?  What would I do with this larger house if I were once again on my own?

We’ve touched on these questions but they are mostly floating in my subconscious.  Hopefully they will not have to be answered.

Process 2: The Five Sighted Men and the River that Runs Through Hills Like White Elephants

The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.

Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

My temptation is always to write too much.

Hemingway to Maxwell Perkins, 1940

Writing about the view of the Hudson River and the Catskills from my window has been a struggle.  There is so much to say, so many stories attached to the view and so much history to my feelings about it.

I remember a story telling workshop led by Jay O’Callahan.  He had each of us talk about some object in our childhood home.  He wanted us to describe it using details.  We could talk about how it looked, or what we used it for, or if we liked it, or what it meant to one family member, anything – but fill it with details.  And that’s how I started writing about the view.  My mind was exploding with ideas, the content grew but I needed to keep from trying to squeeze a book into a brief essay.

Finally I remembered Hemingway and his iceberg theory.  I didn’t have to tell it all.  I could just know it and it would be there.

*

Since I have a view of the Hudson River and the Catskills from my home, when I think of the Hudson River I see my view.   I’m very close to the water.  I went out and counted 70 paces from the back of my house to the river, if I could walk it like the crow flies.  It’s down 14 steps, across a narrow piece of CSX land, thru the lilacs, across a trench where some have said CSX has an overflow pipe to keep the river off the tracks during storms and high tides (I haven’t found any such evidence), over a northbound and a southbound set of rails, through a mess of sumac to the river.

It’s not an idyllic view and conversation ceases as the train goes by.  Although only one unhappy person, who never seemed to want to see anyone else be happy, has actually told me that my house was a very, very bad purchase, mostly because of its location, I am sure there are many others who probably would feel the same way.  I think the realtor who showed me the house was very surprised that I brushed off the train with a wave of the hand.

There are ten windows across the river side of the second floor of my house and they offer ten different pictures.  I delight in each one. Starting from the north, I look up the river and never really see anything, but I keep hoping something will come into view.  From the second window I see the cement plant, which could be worse, and which I think of as a castle lit up at night.

The next picture is of the hamlet directly across from mine.  I have driven over several times, and I sit on a bench put up by someone and peer back at my house, which looks a bit industrial itself.  At night I can see the lights of cars coming down the hill and imagine mothers and fathers coming home for dinner with their children.

When I hear the whistle of the freight train across the river, I look out the fourth window to the one spot where I can actually see the cars going by.

The next window gives a straight on view of the little island with two trees – the old Cheviot dock and an in-your-face telephone pole. I forgot to mention the telephone wires that I usually photoshop out of the view on the computer, and when I’m not focusing on the birds on the wire – out of my mind also.

In the winter there’s a blinking green buoy seen from the next window, and it is joined by a red one in the warm weather.

I’ve got tracks, telephone poles, and a cement factory, and a public launch parking area.  But it’s a wonderful view – not a complete 180 degrees, but close.  In addition to the island, there’s Round Top and Kaaterskill Pass.  Actually it is Kaaterskill Clove Pass.   There are beautiful sunsets and even more beautiful, the reflection of the sunrise in the morning.

I can watch the ripples, sometimes waves of the water and wonder about the currents.  Much has been written about the Muhhekunnetuk – the river that flows both ways, and has two spellings and has two pronunciations.

The pictures change by the minute.  I sometimes see geese with their heads under their wings taking a rest as they hitch a ride on a chunk of ice. I first hear the throbbing and then see the lego barges of red, white, blue and yellow floating by.  I see glorious cloud formations and mist and sometimes the fog comes in so thick I see nothing.  Every now and then the rays coming from the clouds are so outstanding and brilliant that I really believe there must be a God.

*

I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.

Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

I’ve got to constantly remind myself about that, rather than create posts with titles like the above.

The only time I had even a little bit of hesitancy about my view was when I first visited Olana, Frederick Church’s home.    That story is still in my well.

My Boyfriend had Crabs

There we were.  Cuddling together watching Factotum on the laptop.  We cuddle together every night with a movie on the laptop – it’s a wonderful way to end the day.  I kept thinking the story seemed familiar, but I’ve read a lot about down and out writers and seen a lot of movies about bums and bargirls.  The guy’s name was Hank, he was reading his poetry, his voice was crusty.   I decided this was somebody’s Kerouac film.

All of a sudden Hank starts scratching his balls – can’t believe I just wrote that.  Really scratching his balls, and he starts fishing around in his pants and pulls out something – it had to be a bug.  And then the scene shifts to a doctor’s office it turns out that Hank has crabs.   The doctor writes him a prescription and tells him that he must NOT let the ointment stay on for more than 30 minutes.  We’re back at Hank’s.  He says forget that.  Hank goops himself up and goes to bed.

My boyfriend says something like “He’s going to be sorry.”   My eyes light up!  I pause the movie.  I lean over, look him in the eye, and say, “Did you have crabs?”  And then I bug him until he tells me the story.

It’s a good story.  It was during his hippie days when he was living with the Lots-o-Bucks Commune and Follies Review in Baltimore.  I asked who was she?  I asked did she live there?  I asked did everyone in the house have the crabs?  I asked was she your girlfriend?  Was she everyone’s girlfriend?  Anyone’s girlfriend?   He had told me lots of stories about the Lots-o-Bucks Commune, but this was something new.  My boyfriend had crabs.  I kept probing:   Did you leave the medication on too long?  Did you ever get them again?

I wasn’t surprised that he had crabs.  Once he left his family home and moved to downtown Baltimore he discovered a whole new world.  He wasn’t that young.  He had already finished a few years of law school and a stint in the reserves, he had been in and out of a first marriage founded on rebellion.  He was doing photography and carpentry for a theater troupe.  Divine was among his acquaintances.  But I was surprised he had crabs.  Whenever we talked about our sexual pasts he always led me to believe that he had a very innocent sexual history.   This didn’t sound so innocent to me.

I was ecstatic with the discovery!  But why hadn’t he told me this before?  I know it was forty years ago but this was interesting.  We do exchange tidbits about our romantic pasts.  But somehow we’ve got enough common sense — mine acquired the hard way – to not tell too much of our pasts, and not to dwell too much on the other’s.

What else hasn’t he told me that would make me pop up with delight?  What hasn’t he told me that would destroy me?

Of course, I’ve had so much fun with this new bit of information – I wish I could remember even two or three of the great lines I teased him with this morning.  He’s such a sport. He even encouraged me write about it.

Anyway, back to the movie.  It was Charles Bukowski.   Of course.  I realized it towards the end of the movie when his former landlady opens his mail and read a letter from Black Sparrow Press accepting one of his stories.

My boyfriend has said that he would rather hear a good story than a true one any day.  It’s up to you decide.  Love is wonderful.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

The Process #1: Bittman on Twinkies

I was reading the Times online after dinner the other night and found the Mark Bittman column on Twinkies, and when I got to a certain point in the article I said this reads like my blog.  He’s clever and funny, his prejudices – or better – his preferences are evident, he plays with words, he winds several stories into one.  I like to think my writing does that also. However, he is writing about food.  He always writes about food.   His column is on food and that makes sense, because that is his thing.  I cannot figure out what my blog is going to be about.  I want to write about everything.

I’m not sure why I think my blog has to be about something.  I guess it is because when I looked into wordpress, it seemed to suggest that the best blogs are about something.  But, I know, that when I decided to start my blog I knew that I would write about whatever came to me that day:  a leaf, a line in a book, a fleeting color, something in the news. . .

And that’s how I started writing.   I put up two posts.  The train post has been in my head for a long time now, and I already know of several other train posts that will come.  Christmas, however, pushed itself in first.  I’ve already written that Christmas is pushy.

As I read further in the Twinkie column, I found Bittman branching off more and more into his own life, but with the Twinkie front and center.  He wraps himself around the food in his column.  I, on the other hand, wrap my topic of the day around me.

I started to look at other blogs, and at wordpress’s chosen postings and I found – and I hate saying this – I wasn’t interested in reading them.

At this point I don’t really care if anyone reads my blog – although I wouldn’t mind knowing if someone enjoyed something I said.

I have told a few people about the blog, but very few.  Maybe I’m writing because I have something to say to these particular people.

I’m amazed at the number of people blogging.  Some I know have purely practical reasons  — they are being paid to report on restaurants, or they are promoting their own book, or they are providing support for survivors of stem cell transplants.  But not all.  Some are doing it out of vanity, others for therapy, some hoping for discovery, some to challenge their creativity.

I’m blogging because I want to see if I can write – at least that’s what I think I’m doing.  I’ve fantasized being an essayist ever since I read Joan Didion’s Slouching towards Bethlehem back in the late sixties.  I’m not sure if I have a story in me or if I have the discipline, or the talent, but I’m thoroughly enjoying it.

Blog posts are short and they provide a structure.  They are little exercises – I can take a thought and make it into a story and come to a conclusion in a day or two.  They are non-threatening.  And perhaps when I have written 200 posts I may be able to glue them together into “my philosophical truth” and create a book. I’ll have developed confidence, a style, and I will be a writer.

I was startled to discover Bittman’s column is not considered a column, but is a blog.  Perhaps because I am old fashioned and don’t tweet, have dropped out of Facebook, can’t deal with a phone which is also a computer, and prefer a bound book to a Kindle, I also haven’t granted the blog the status of a column.

I think it’s time to finish the Twinkie article.  I never had a thing for Twinkies, but my very, very favorite childhood lunch was a can of Chef Boyardee meat ravioli.  I could probably write a post about them.  About how I thought my mom didn’t serve them enough, about how they were the ramen noodles of my frugal graduate school days, about how I’m pretty sure I will never again be tempted to bring home a can when I see them on the shelf in the market.

But that would be Bittman’s column. This is mine.