Tuesday, January 22, 2013

mi madre saves the day.

This past October, my mama made all sorts of magical things possible.

First, I celebrated my thirty-second birthday. I think it's pretty clear how my mom was involved in orchestrating that event, but truly...she's freaking awesome, and the older I get, the more I appreciate her.

Carvel ice cream cake from friends. #homerdonutnoises

Second, there was the teeny tiny realization that I had neglected to plan a backsplash for the kitchen, and my mother ultimately saved me from Volcanic Meltdown Mode.

Yep. Just completely forgot about the backsplash. (Blame my advancing age?) When we were finishing up with the counters, it hit me that we'd have to do SOMETHING with the wall behind the range and between the counters and cabinets. I wasn't about to re-use our foxy backsplash of yore...

...and I'd chosen to get the countertops cut straight across, instead of including a backsplash, both for aesthetic and monetary reasons. That left an unappealing, raw expanse of drywall above the counters that would no doubt be a bitch to patch and paint.

Although, let's be real: At this point, anything I needed to finish for the kitchen was kind of a bitch. It was my first time doing any kind of major house updating, and, eight months in, fatigue was taking over. But I'd heard that installing a backsplash was one of the easier DIY jobs to do, so even though bile rose in my throat every time I imagined wet saws and grout, I went ahead and chose a tile. Needing some inspiration (see: forgot to plan a backsplash), I decided to go straight to the source: The Tile Shop.

Initially, I saw myself going for a colorful tile, maybe one that would accent the blue walls.

I loved the blues and greens, and the colors probably would've gone great in the kitchen, but this tile was a little too bathroom-y for my taste. In fact, all the bright blue tiles I saw screamed "RESTROOM" to my eyes. (Not literally. Although that's probably the wave of the future...talking tiles.) I started looking at subway tiles instead, and surprised myself by being drawn to the white ones.

Usually I'm a sucker for COLOR COLOR OBNOXIOUS COLOR, but when I brought home a sheet of white subway tiles and posed them atop the counters, it just felt right. OMG, a decision made easily - either a sign of refining my taste or reno fatigue. Who cares? Either way, the decision was made.

That is, until I returned to the store to purchase all the tile and installation materials...and someone sexy caught my eye.


White hex ceramic tile. Yeah, it surprised me, too, but everything about it was perfect - there were some subtle gray undertones for added interest, it was glossy and clean-looking, and it was an unexpected choice in terms of shape. I do love the sleekness and order of subway tile, but it's a trend that - like all trends - will come and go. Hex felt more unique, more me, and at $5.99/square foot, totally affordable. (I also got 10% off, thanks to Young House Love's perma-sponsor-discount...woo!) I snatched up 38 square feet, along with some Whisper Grey grout.

Buuut about that installation. I just couldn't do it. I had absolutely zero desire to tackle another new-to-me DIY project. In every project, I think it's good to step back and ask, "Is this worth it?" "It" could be anything - time, energy, money, scale, permanence, whatever. For the backsplash - and the kitchen in general - DIY'ing had been half the fun. (Okay, "fun" is a strong term.) (And so is "half.") Now that they're done, I absolutely love looking at various aspects of the kitchen, from the cabinets to the flooring to the lights, and knowing that I'm intimately familiar with everything it took for them to look like they do. And there's no way I could have afforded to pay someone else to complete the projects we completed on our own. So yes, DIY is usually great.

But it was October, yo. It'd been eight months since we started our little kitchen update. It was cold outside. I'd learned a great many new skills. I was already intimately familiar with every aspect of the kitchen reno - sometimes overly familiar. Didn't need to know about Ground Zero of Spiderville or mouse poop hiding on top of my dishwasher, thx. Overall, let's face it: My enthusiasm had dwindled to nil.

I was on the phone with my mom one night, telling my tale of (first-world, middle-class) woe. She had one simple inquiry: "Why don't you just hire someone to do it?" I told her it would totally break our budget, which technically already had been broken by the counters. She asked if we had the money available to pay someone to do the install. Officially, yes; just not in the kitchen budget, which had become set in stone in my mind. Being the fabulous mom that she is, she understood my need to stick to the budget (hell, it's probably HER genetic weakness passed on to me), and - hold on to your butts - she offered to pay for the install for my birthday and Christmas presents.


Within a week, I had an appointment for a highly-recommended handyman to take care of business. And at the end of Day One, I returned home to this beautiful sight:

Actually, truth be told, I was unnerved by the way the tile looked after Day One. It was busy and seemed jarring, adjacent to the counters or cabinets. I have absolutely no experience with backsplash installation, so I underestimated what a huge impact grouting would have. Thankfully, when I got home on Day Two, not only was the job done, but it was done well. And it looked freakin' fabulous.

A reminder of the Backsplash Before:

And After. AHHHH! I die. I die! 

Of course, this last picture highlights some of our final tasks to be accomplished - specifically, rewiring the outlets on either side of the sink to be GFCI outlets, and installing a light over the sink (for the first time since December of 2009) and two ceiling light fixtures. Also, um, I still needed to patch the ceiling over the sink, paint the caulk between the cabinets and counters, add some storage solutions, design a desk/frame wall, and put some endcaps on the backsplash (wtf? No one warned me about those).

But, oh, that hex tile...and the fact that I DIDN'T HAVE TO INSTALL IT (thank you, thank you, thank you, Mom!)...it was like a balm on my soul. No, seriously - staring at the kitchen and imagining the Befores and Afters, stroking the smooth hex tile, using the "spray" and "stop" functions on the pretty faucet....Look, I know it's only a kitchen reno, but I was (am) ridiculously proud of it. Nothing like admiring a job well done.

And - spoiler alert - the day did finally come when it was officially done. The blog is just taking a while to catch up. Mostly because I can't stop staring at the kitchen. :)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

major game-changer.

Throughout our kitchen renovation, it was of utmost importance to me that we not lose functionality in the space. I mean, it's the kitchen. And while it's just the two of us, I'm sure the house would have seemed a lot...smaller...had we not been able to use the kitchen. Also, J.J. was already wary about the whole project, so I wanted him to be able to pretend it wasn't even happening.

As far as the appliances were concerned, they were pretty much exchanged one-for-one as we purchased them, which meant that (a) we always had use of them, and (b) they remained in the kitchen for the whole four- six- eight-month renovation period. (Ha, remember when I thought it would only take about four months? Ha. Hahaha.) We emptied out the cabinets for painting, but that just meant that our small stockpile of dry goods was relocated to various surfaces until we installed the pantry. So far, so good.

It was the countertop and sink installation that worried me.

First off, let me say that the counter ended up being more expensive than the rest of the renovations (minus the appliances) put together. Seriously. I'll do a total budget breakdown soon, but let it be known that everything else - hardware, flooring, electrical work, lighting, backsplash, paint, materials, and new cabinets - cost less than the counters did. The "Everything Else" stuff totalled about $2,150. Since our original budget was $5,000 (again, not including the appliances), that left us a pretty sizable cushion of $2,850.

Or so I thought. Then I fell in love.

I fell first for Zodiaq Minera Pearl.

I knew I didn't want granite (too costly, too high-maintenance), but I wanted something higher-quality than laminate. Really, I was only browsing when I ran across Minera Pearl in the quartz section. I absolutely loved the way it pulled in different colors from our kitchen, and how it came across as neutral but still packed a close-up punch. I brought samples home and stared for hours.

...Was also sampling the floor tiles, apparently.

Honestly, I thought that was it; Minera Pearl was the right material and the right look. Price, however...was not right. $74 per square foot, installed. I had estimated we had about 48 square feet to cover, which would add up to nearly $3,600. Wonk-wonk. I even called around to other installers to see if I could get the price down, but Lowe's was far and away the least expensive (especially with my credit card discount and/or a 10% off project coupon).

I looked at the budget again, peered lovingly at the Minera Pearl posing all over my kitchen, and realized it would only put us about $500 over budget. Not too bad. And, importantly, WE NEEDED A FREAKIN' COUNTERTOP so we could finish the dumb kitchen.

Let me just tell you, it is annoying as all get-out to not have counters on either side of the range. Just in case you're planning on trying it anytime soon.

So I headed to Lowe's in July, all ready to make my purchase. Well, turns out there are all sorts of semi-hidden fees associated with countertop installation at Lowe's, which brought my estimate over $4,000. Um. False. I was so pissed at the countertop lady that I ended up just leaving. Mostly I was pissed because I asked the dude who gave me the original estimate about extra fees and costs, and he was all, "Oh, no, this would be the final cost." BS. A more confrontational person might have eked a deal out of the whole situation, but since I didn't have the estimate in writing (and since I was already stressed to the max this past July), I headed back to the drawing board.

I considered laminate, just to bring costs down, but it turns out the laminate would have only cost about $1,000 less than stone. I mean, $1,000 is nothing to sneeze at, but taking into consideration long-term value, resale value, looks, quality, etc., it seemed worthwhile to invest more to get more out of it. Make cents sense? I tried to look at the bigger picture, I guess.

And, also, I fell REALLY TRULY in love with someone else. Someone better.

This is allen + roth's Angel Ash quartz countertop, and it. Is. Beautiful. I brought it home with a few other samples, and it was my clear favorite - even more so than the Minera Pearl. It was understated but gorgeous, reading as a grayish-brownish (greige?), neutrally magnificent wonder of the world. Overdramatic, right? WRONG. Words can't describe how perfectly this seemed to work with every element of my non-designer-designed kitchen: the blue walls of the kitchen, the yellow walls of the family room, the white cabinets, the brown flooring, the stainless appliances, the couches....Really, I would get home from work and spend an embarrassing amount of time imagining what it would look like. *Sigh* It was love.

So I bit the bullet and ordered it, half out of love for the material, and half out of hatred for my never-ending kitchen renovation. Angel Ash is usually $70/sq. ft., but it was on sale when I bought it, and I had a 10% Lowe's project coupon, too. (They wouldn't let me use that on top of my 5% credit card discount, though. Bummer.) Along with the installation costs, the edging costs, taxes, and other lovely fees, it ended up costing $3,639.45. YEP. Wayyy more than I had planned. And actually, when I sat down with the lady in the store (same lady who dashed my Minera Pearl dreams), the estimate was $3,100, which was totally reasonable for our budget. They called me three weeks later, after the countertop measurements had been done, to say it would actually be $500 more. I was so over everything kitchen-related that - have I mentioned I was unduly stressed at work this summer? - I quietly expressed mild displeasure (shaking my head at my nonexistent confrontation abilities) and took the hit.

All I knew was...that freakin' countertop better be gorgeous beyond belief, considering it was singlehandedly blowing the budget to which I had so carefully attended. I was also nervous about what amount of leveling would need to take place, even though the guy who measured for the counters assured me it would be fine.

Finally, finally, in the BEGINNING OF OCTOBER (long drawn-out kitchen reno was long and drawn-out), it was installation day. I shimmied the range out of the way, cleared the counters, and emptied the cabinet under the sink in preparation. Side note, turns out I had rodent friends visiting that cabinet occasionally to poop and eat the furniture-scuff-repairing walnuts I had stored under there (Pinterest never warned me about THAT). Groooooss. I also did some last-minute spackling on the trash cabinet front because I didn't want them making some comment along the lines of, "Who did your cabinet install? Because you need to make them re-do it!" But, spoiler alert, last-minute spackle is an unwise choice right before a counter installation, so my plot to avoid DIY embarrassment kinda backfired. Ah, well.

When the two counter dudes, Gary #1 and Gary #2, showed up, I wasn't sure where I was supposed to be or what I was supposed to do while they were removing the old countertop and installing the new one, so I alternated between taking pictures and updating my Facebook.

Old countertop GONE, BABY!

Awesome creepy dead-space-hole in the corner that was,
blessedly, rodent- and insect- and poop- and spiderweb-free.

Top of dishwasher that was, unblessedly, NOT poop-free.

As for who "Alex" is - have I mentioned we have a snake?

...And on and on until...UNTIL...


That area right there - under the microwave shelf? That's both J.J.'s and my favorite spot in the new kitchen. It didn't really exist before, given that the range was where the drawers are now, and the fridge was where the range is now. It's a whole new counter space, and we're in looove. With the whole thing, really. Having the counter finished made me feel like the kitchen would really, truly be finished someday. The plumber came the next day to hook up the sink (and replace our broken garbage disposal), so we were only without a sink for about 24 hours. YES NEW COUNTERS! File under Major, Major Game-Changer.

I was indeed left with a little bit of after-work to complete. Because the Garys ended up having to do a fair amount of shimming and caulking to make the counters level, I needed to paint the caulk between the cabinets and countertops. You know, one of those areas that no one would ever, ever even think to look, but that I would have always known was incomplete. Not a big deal, and I did it quickly, re-energized by the fact that THE KITCHEN WAS ALMOST DONE.

All I needed now was an upcoming birthday, an awesome mommy, and some professional help. Spoiler: All three were bestowed upon me, resulting in a finished back splash. But that's for next time. :)

Friday, January 18, 2013

why, what do you do on your sick days?

Wednesday was Day Three of being home sick. Like, three days IN A ROW of being home sick.

With one tiiiny catch.

I wasn't sick.

Okay, that's not entirely true. I spent the end of last week/the whole weekend hacking up a lung, but otherwise felt mostly fine. I felt less awesome on Monday morning - still coughing, shivering in the shower, cloudy head, weeping eyes - but chalked it up to just wishing I had more weekend. I hauled my ass to work and had been there for almost an hour before my boss announced we had almost 20 kids and about five staff members home with the respiratory flu, aaand I was unceremoniously banished.

That first day, I succumbed to the crud and mostly napped while waiting for my Candy Crush Saga lives to regenerate. The second day, I woke up feeling crummy, but felt better as the day progressed. Good thing, because I was hosting a big information session for about 30 families that evening. Turns out I was more run-down than I realized, and I spent four dizzy hours at work in the late afternoon/evening, feeling like everyone was screaming (my head. So cloudy). I fairly collapsed onto the couch when I got home.

Wednesday, though, I felt pretty great after sleeping in a little. My boss had ordered another day of rest (actually, the University's Department of Occupational Safety and Environmental Health ordered another day of rest, but what do THEY know?). I texted her mid-morning to say I was feeling fine, and could I please come in and stop burning through my sick time? I promised I wouldn't even LOOK at children or co-workers, let alone breathe on them. I was told absolutely not, and this is literally the first sick time I've used since last January (other than random trips to the dermatologist for freaky rashes), so chill out and take advantage of it. Seriously. Awesome boss.

But what do I do when feeling 95% fine and stuck at home all day? Duh. Organize!

And now for a peek inside my hyper-anal brain. Please. Don't beat yourself up for not being as super totally awesome as I clearly am. You, too, could one day be this awesome and spend all your precious free time tackling exciting projects like this. (Kindly note the sarcasm here. I don't actually think most normal people get excited about ridiculousness like this.)

So. I already have all my bills and papers organized in our home office's filing cabinet.

There's a file in front labeled "TO PAY" where I shove all unpaid bills, receipts, etc., as they arrive. Once or twice a month, I go through and pay the bills, at which point I also file everything in the appropriate folder - Mortgage, Electricity, Cable, Phone, Credit Card, Car Payments, Car Repairs, Income Taxes, Bank Statements... 

When my friend Leonard happened upon my file drawer, he stared for a moment and then quietly said, "I hate you." But he really loves me, the way everyone on "Friends" loves Monica because she provides them with comic fodder organizes their lives for them so they can function. Haters gonna hate, but I don't know how people function without organized files! They come in especially handy when I need to dispute a charge or bargain for lower monthly payments. I was even allowed, after about four years of begging, to organize J.J.'s papers for him. Granted, he still doesn't file new papers regularly...but THAT'S WHAT MY SICK DAYS ARE FOR! 

(Maybe I am sick. A different kind of sick.)

I also keep files for all of our user manuals, receipts from major purchases, and the like. I store them in a single file box, which has been disorganized and bursting at the seams for, oh, a couple years. And we had a bunch of new papers to file away following the kitchen renovation, so yeah. It was time to re-organize the home files.

I scrounged up an empty file box from the basement and some unused file folders and tabs (people like me just have this shit lying around), and all the manuals, instructions, and receipts that had been piling up in different areas of the house. Then I got to work, spending a good GREAT hour combing through everything to re-group papers by room and ending up with some new categories.

Files in the first box:

  • Entryway/Front Room
  • Kitchen Appliances (manuals)
  • Kitchen Receipts
  • Kitchen Installation Instructions
  • Downstairs Bathroom
  • Family Room 

And files in the second box:

  • Tools
  • Basement
  • Outside/Garage
  • Upstairs Bedrooms
  • Upstairs Bathroom

I also got rid of a stack of papers that belonged to appliances or items we've sold or gotten rid of - the old refrigerator and range, our dead washing machine, the first and second kitchen faucets we had before our current one...

Recycling everything in that stack in front!
Keeping everything in the file boxes.
I'm also hoping this will make our home inventory easier. Our insurance company has been after us since we bought the house to create a home inventory. Basically, you photograph everything in your home and either scan the corresponding receipt or link to a corresponding website. Then (in theory) you save all the info on a flash drive, which is stored not in your house (at the bank? At the insurance office? In the Cloud - which, btw, was totally my idea? Hell if I know). Should something awful happen - fire, robbery, zombie apocalypse - the insurance company can consult the home inventory to help you replace items. A fantastic idea, right? I've just never actually followed through on it. (Except for a partial kitchen inventory, that is.)

Which means...I've got PLANS for my next sick day (i.e., next January). Home inventory, baby! 

Again, try to contain your jealousy. Sometimes it's hard being this cool. (/End sarcasm font.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

your own version.

Because what is adulthood, other than tweaking the norms until you've created your own version of life and own it? Your own version of - everything. Family. Home. Career. Looks. Thoughts. Friends. Morals. Priorities.

Even, um...recipes.

I'm not much of a cook. I make a few tried-and-true desserts (fudge and chocolate-ginger cookies being my faves), some staple entrees (which, let's be real, are really just variations on a mac & cheese theme), and some killer dips (shudder) and pasta salads (do those count as cooking?). It's not that I'm bad at cooking, or even that I don't like it, assuming it's relatively cheap, quick, and painless. Cooking just isn't a passion of mine; it's more a means to a delicious end.

All of which is why I love this recipe: Blackened Chicken and Cilantro-Lime Quinoa.

I found it on Pinterest (obvi) and tried it that same night - but a vegetarian version, and using a couple of the commenters' adaptations. You can see the original recipe via the above link, but here's my take on it. WIN.

Black Bean & Cilantro-Lime Quinoa
1 can cream of mushroom soup (I used Amy's Organic)
1 cup quinoa
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. onion powder
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 Tbsp. cilantro, chopped
Juice and zest of half a lime
1 cup black beans, rinsed
Shredded cheddar cheese, to taste

Avocado Cream Sauce
Flesh of one avocado
3 Tbsp. Greek yogurt
Hefty splash of lime juice

Oh-so-easy to prepare, even for  a cooking dilettante such as myself:

  1. Heat the cream of mushroom soup until simmering. Stir in quinoa; cover and simmer on low for ~15 minutes, until quinoa has absorbed the liquid. (I stirred occasionally.)
  2. Meanwhile, combine garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne, cilantro, and lime juice and zest in a medium bowl. Mix in beans.
  3. Combine cooked quinoa with spice/bean mixture. Top with cheese and Avocado Cream Sauce.
  4. (Avocado Cream Sauce: Puree ingredients in food processor, or Magic Bullet if you're lazy like me.)

I'll take a picture next time I make it, which will be as soon as I get my ass to the store for more cream of mushroom soup. Full disclosure? I had never actually tried cream of mushroom soup before. So. Freaking. Delicious. At least, prepared like this.

And for that special someone in your life (maybe yourself?) whose meal can't possibly be complete without meat? Here's a pic of the original chicken-infested version from Sarcastic Cooking, where I found the recipe:

Seriously. I made Homer donut noises all over the place.


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