Monday, October 29, 2007

One Tiny Stamp

This weekend found me once again working with our town symphony orchestra’s Family Concert. It is a full-scale professional production that delights, if but once a year, the little tyke set in this picture-perfect New England town of ours. Year after year, we fly in the best talent who, along with our professional symphony, present top-rated performances to ensure that the rich heritage of classical music infiltrates the spirits of our favorite little citizens.

It is a precious gem of a thing, bringing a classical music concert to our toddlers and young people. One gift of which I am most proud to be a small part of. Art and music education is my personal soapbox, so I want to make sure that I do everything in my lifetime to ensure that the power of the arts continue for the generations to follow. That by planting a shade tree under which I will never sit, others will have the opportunities to feast upon the same joy that I was gifted as a child. That a love of fine music—and great art—will become a part of them, just as it has me all of these many years later.

But service—volunteerism—comes with a price. In my own case, I had spent the entire previous week out-of-state on a business trip. I returned home Friday night exhausted, without my bearings, to an (almost) finished kitchen renovation that still left a couple dozen unpacked boxes of kitchen stuff on my living room floor. Suitcases to unpack, books to organize, and four loads of laundry to sift though and deal with. On top of that, three of my husband’s longtime friends (and some of my favorite people in the world) were flying in for a weekend reunion. Both of our sons had away football games; our daughter had tennis practice. And my role in the Family Concert required an all-day commitment to everyone who was making this wonderful gift possible. Life felt insanely busy this weekend.

I went into overdrive. I had no choice. Needed walking space for houseguests. Clean towels and underwear. Food. Transportation for our own kids.

Service comes with a price. Sacrifices to families and to jobs. To spouses and to personal exercise routines. We need to acknowledge the sacrifices, knowing full well that when we volunteer to work in areas in which we feel passion, we feel that the sacrifices are worth it. We place a priority on those areas in which we feel led to serve. We know that we are helping others, and that without our efforts, the job may not get done at all, let alone get done well. And these things are, indeed, necessary for communities to function at their best.

But we need to be sure, as we simultaneously raise this next generation of sons and daughters for excellence, that our passion for service is appropriately placed. That as we’re all doing stuff outside of hearth and home that we’re ignited from within. Do a soul check. You know what I mean. Your gut matches your head. For as you enter into the whirlwind of everything that’s required for service, you need to feel that this is exactly where you’re supposed to be in this place and time of your life.

I felt that way this weekend, even though I am exhausted by it tonight. It wasn’t just enjoying the glorious music of Vivaldi, or seeing the dozens of little ones up on stage afterwards at our annual “petting zoo” meeting the musicians and touching their instruments. It was that inner exhilaration that made me believe that I left a tiny stamp in the footprint of my life that I stand for something larger than myself. That art and music will live on in at least a few children long after I die, because I invested in them when I could.

I hope you feel inspired to do something large. But that if you believe this isn’t the time in your life, that you will feel conviction to instead spend that time with your spouse and kids. That your tiny stamp will be done right inside the four walls of your home. And that, one day, you’ll have more time to go outside those walls. If even just a little bit.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Kitchen Renovation Diet

If you thought you “heard everything” when the South Beach Diet rolled out from underneath the sea, just embark on a major kitchen renovation and you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

Now, when I first started talking about The Kitchen Renovation Diet to my girlfriends, one of them asked if we were on a diet because the renovation cost so much money that we couldn’t afford to buy the food we had always bought previously.

“No,” I responded, somewhere around week three into the mess. “We’re on a diet because we have no water, no electricity, no sink, no fridge, no nothing…kinda hard to eat right when you’ve lost your kitchen!”

But here I stand at week fifteen (and someone told me the rule is that you’re supposed to stop counting after week eight…) and the truth is: we are on a Kitchen Renovation Diet because the renovation cost so much more money than we had planned that we cannot afford to buy the food we had always bought previously!

It is practically impossible to stay on budget during a major kitchen renovation. Because not only do you want to do more stuff “while we’re at it,” but a top-to-bottom renovation follows “the-hip-bone’s-connected-to-the-leg-bone” model, which is, it’s all connected and you just don’t know how or where to stop. The kitchen is connected to the hallway…so you re-paint and re-decorate the hallway, perhaps purchasing a new table or mirror or lamps or art along the way; the hallways’ connected to the powder room…so you re-paint and re-tile the powder room, getting all new fixtures and faucets, tile and toilet; and the powder room’s connected to the family room…so you double-check that frayed sofa and decide that now is, indeed, the time to re-upholster ”while we’re at it.” And on and on it goes.

Time to go on the Kitchen Renovation Diet.

OK. So you have no sink? Ripped up and out of sight? Water turned off? Pretty hard to make that morning cup o’ joe. Electricity cut off? Stove donated to the junk pile? Can’t even heat up a can of soup. Pots and pans in boxes? Now, you can’t really whip up a gourmet meal for two, can you? Sheetrock going up? So everything’s covered in white powder two inches thick. Floors sanded and stained and polyurethaned? Not allowed to walk on your own floors for three days! What’s a kitchen renovator to do? And just where, exactly, does the diet come in?

Look at the renovation as an adventure. And indulge in exotic foods. For the first few weeks into our own renovation, I enjoyed Finn crisp crackers spread with Greek caviar for my evening’s meal. Available almost exclusively at gourmet shops and places like Whole Foods, this delectable little treat wasn’t even on my radar until my friend, Hattie, turned me on to it. Turns out: it’s the perfect, exotic, organic treat for the KR Diet. You will need a cooler or spare fridge, though, because once opened, the caviar needs to stay cold. Also try artichoke and red pepper spread. Extremely inexpensive alternatives to what you probably ate most nights prior to your renovation.

Start drinking your coffee black. Yuck. I always loved mine with a splash of milk. But the KR Diet is serious business and it puts an immediate halt to double espressos with steamed milk and extra foam with shots of caramel and chocolate. No way to froth the cream, my dear. No way to keep all of that sugary junk fresh. And no way to afford those daily trips to Starbucks to purchase the four dollar drink. Try making black coffee…if you have an electrical outlet intact, that is, for the old-fashioned coffee maker. I’ve been making my coffee on my bathroom counter for the last nearly five months. Urgh. And getting used to the low calorie and low maintenance factor of black coffee while I’m at it.

Grill your veggies. No worries about deep frying, because you don’t have a stove on which to do so nor can you find that frying pan. But hopefully you have a grill sitting on your patio which you can fire up to your heart’s content. Great for doing dinner al fresco. Ditto for grilling meats, poultry and fish. Surely you planned the bulk of your renovation during the warmer months…….

Make cocktail parties and after-work get-togethers your official dinner plans. Of course, you will be eating out more than ever while you’re under intense renovation. And, in time, you will be so disgusted with either the quality of the food or the quantity of money leaving your bank account that you will put a nix to it before too long. You’ll be artfully engaged in “if I eat out tonight at this wonderful restaurant I cannot afford the oil-rubbed bronze faucets in the bathrooms” game. So get in the habit of using every possible social invitation for food as your loading zone for a meal. Know that it’s temporary, enjoy it for what it is, and appreciate every bite.

Start reading labels and look for foods that give you the biggest bang for your buck. You cannot afford to be a slacker about this. The crackers you eat need to give you the added nourishment that you’re now not getting from that morning high fiber cereal with milk; the chips you grab for game time need to provide those same unrefined carbs that you used to derive from whole grain bread on your favorite sandwich. Make every calorie count for something. Every ounce of protein or gram of carbohydrate needs to add significantly to your overall health and well-being.

Keep enough bananas on hand to feed the monkeys. Yes: nature’s perfect food is even more perfect during a major kitchen renovation. Requiring neither refrigeration nor preparation, they remain the breakfast of choice and the pre-exercise snack, before-bedtime snack and during-Monday-night football-snack for the deprived kitchen renovator, too. Make enough grocery store runs so that you are never without.

Stash dark chocolate bars. I had a major meltdown last Thursday night. Just couldn’t take it anymore. My pots and pans had been on my living room floor (covered in drywall dust) for almost five months; my dining room table is still covered with china, odds-and-ends glasses and dog food; my dishes are still being washed in the laundry room sink; and my kitchen doesn’t even yet look like a kitchen. No cabinetry nor appliances. I got choked up and whigged out and had, well, a serious KR meltdown. The next day, my husband came home with four super-sized dark chocolate bars. Exactly the prescription help I needed. Your nerves will likely take a serious beating during a major renovation. Keep plenty of chocolate in the house. Or any other food mood-lifter of choice. And remember that ice cream doesn’t generally work when you have neither fridge nor freezer…

Finally, keep your sights focused on the final outcome. It is sure to be what you had hoped for. Delays are inevitable (it always takes longer to get that weathered copper garbage disposal drain than you figured it would), budgets are notoriously under-estimated (did you seriously have any idea how expensive industrial-strength appliances are?) and construction workers are only human (my own master carpenter made a big “oops” on the length of my countertops). Remind yourself how fortunate you are to indulge in the luxury of a renovation. An up-to-date, beautiful kitchen is a wonderful thing to behold, indeed.

And to think that you can enjoy it…thinner!

Monday, October 01, 2007

Inspired by Brilliance

This weekend found me out-of-state for a long-overdue, albeit brief, visit to my sister and an all-day walk through the 2007 “Parade of Homes” in Raleigh, North Carolina. It marked the official launch of the Alexander Julian Collection in the new Julian Village of Fuquay-Varina, and I wanted to be there to check out his latest project. Julian is an icon of American design. I’ve followed his work for years and was not about to miss this. It was full-court press: he arrived in a stretch limo and kicked off an afternoon of festivities to a cheering crowd of fellow admirers. A glorious celebration! And a well-deserved jewel to add to his already-glistening crown.

Julian is a pro. And his latest designer homes, built by a premier construction team with a reputation for perfection, prove it. Here are 7 things I loved:

• Quality of materials. Quality ranks second only to the “location-location-location” maxim. Location and price will always be the driving forces in any home-buying decision. But as available land in decent locations becomes increasingly difficult to obtain, the decision needs to ultimately factor in this notion of buying quality over square footage; strength of materials over fleeting good looks; and attention to detail over lack of creativity. The Julian Collection figured out a way to deliver a high quality product at a reasonable price point. With the good looks you’d expect from this design genius. Julian delivered with stone countertops, oil-rubbed bronze faucets, porcelain sinks and tiled showers and bath tubs. No cheating or skimping on the good stuff.

• Emphasis on the “creativity premium.” “Creativity” is fast becoming the buzzword for this new era in business. And in life. The older I get and the more I look around, I notice the lack of creativity applied to simple facets of everyday living with utter dismay and deep-seated twangs of discouragement. My heart leapt when I realized that creativity was embraced at every turn in the Julian homes: two-toned paint on moldings, embellishments on woodwork, interesting twists in lighting, wonderful finishes on door hinges and door locks. Julian just did his thing and made sure that the construction team executed it on cue.

• Generous usage of updated hardware and finishes. Because brass is “out” and weathered copper and oil-rubbed bronze are “in,” both were used in abundance in bathrooms, the kitchen and in areas generally ignored by home builders and owners alike: every door in the house received oil-rubbed bronze hinges and knobs. A simple detail. But one that made a statement and added to the drama.

• Fearless use of color. It’s Julian’s trademark, after all. He is America’s master colorist. And he used it with reckless abandon throughout each room in the model homes. Cherry pinks, burnt oranges, bold teals, eggplant and celadon. It was as if Julian plunked himself into a box of Crayolas and colored to his heart’s content. Each model showcased something like 22 different colors. A far cry from anything most of us could ever dream of.

• Open floor plans. Natural sunlight floods living spaces: entry ways, bedrooms, bathrooms and hallways are wonderfully bright. A feeling of openness gives way to freshness and roominess. It added enormously to the “breathability” factor.

• Bells and whistles in the kitchens. The island in one model houses a full-sized oven. Counters are stone. Faucets and sinks are gorgeous. Floors glisten. Cabinetry is well-finished and smartly designed. The kitchen got the premium interior real estate that it deserves.

• Well-designed exteriors. With gorgeous color combinations that the average earthling would never consider using. But Julian shines here. With eggplant and sage green juxtaposed on the exterior shingles. Trimmed in white. Perfect proportions. Extensive brackets and generous moldings. Wraparound porches. Arts and crafts style windows. The right angles. Rooflines. Designed with the skilled eye of a pro who has devoted his entire lifetime executing perfect proportions. The houses reflect the real deal.

Julian’s philosophy of life can be summed up by the quote silk screened onto the back of the t-shirts which he autographed at the Grand Opening:

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans. Aim high in hope and work remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die. But long after we are gone will be a living thing. Asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watch word be order and your beacon beauty.” D.H.Burnham

Find a brilliant person whose life—or life work—inspires you. Follow him—or her. And move forward in the inspiration. Imparting something of your own genius along the way.