Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Houston

The subject matter here is a sensitive one, and my intent in publishing these words and pictures is not to fish for praise for my few hours of work. It is to capture a small part of the experience that my Texas neighbors are going through and to motivate anyone who can spare a day in the next couple weeks to get out there and help some family tear out their drywall.

I am sensitive to the right to privacy of the flood victims, and have tried not to show any distinguishing features, like addresses, license plates, or faces. If I have missed anything, please let me know.


On Saturday night, Matt, Mason and I drove to a Houston suburb and slept on the floor of a high school gym. The next morning we had a short church service in the school's auditorium, and then drove to a flood-damaged area to be part of a cleanup crew in a neighborhood lined with huge trees and beautiful homes. We were told the water had just finished receding the day before, and at the house we were assigned to, Mr. and Mrs. H were just getting back in after evacuating days earlier. Cars were crowded along the streets, leaving room for only one direction of traffic at a time, and the noise of demolition rang in the air.

The emptied houses looked as if they had just vomited all of their guts onto the lawn.

In the coverage of a flood and its aftermath, we often hear homes described as "a total loss". Do you know what that means? Even if you understand logically that everything in the house is ruined, seeing it in person is something that takes your breath away. Because it's not just a bunch of fresh rainwater that fills the houses; it's creek overflow and possibly even sewer backup. Here's how I explained it to my nine year old, who was too young to come along and help.

Alec: So, what were you guys actually doing?
Sarah: We were mucking out a house.
Alec: What does that mean?
Sarah: You know when we went to that swimming hole with Ramon, and there was that spot off to the side where the water was shallow and it was stinky and gross?
Alec: Ew, yes. I know exactly what you're talking about.
Sarah: That's muck. Now imagine that our whole house was filled with mucky water, up to about the top of Mason's head. Then it sits for a while and all our belongings float around in it, and then when the water recedes, our soggy, smelly stuff is left behind in a big jumble. Removing all that from the house is called "mucking it out".
Alec: Wow.
There's the water line on the garage door.

Pause and take a moment to imagine your house as a total loss. Like, actually visualize your own home after that brown water has wrecked every single one of your possessions that you didn't carry out when the water got up to your knees and you realized you were going to have to leave. Mr. and Mrs. H told us that they carried their young children out and then the family rode on someone's boat to a higher section of the neighborhood. Their kids thought it was a fun ride.

Back at the house, we were encouraged to wear face masks, and so we got ours on and helped Mason adjust his. We brought things out to the front yard and grouped them in categories: kid toys, furniture, electronics. After just a minute, Mason said to me, "Mom, I need a stronger mask. I can still smell the smell." I had to explain to him that the mask is to keep particles like dust and mold out, but it can't block the smell.

The homeowners were remarkably calm, considering the circumstances, though it's likely they were hesitant to express their deepest emotions to a bunch of strangers. Mrs. H went from pile to pile, snapping photos for insurance purposes, and Mr. H quietly carried load after load onto the front lawn. I tried to imagine what I would be like on the first morning I returned to my devastated home and began inventorying all the losses. I'm pretty sure I would be a sobbing, emotional mess.

At one point, I opened a large kitchen drawer and found it full to the brim with water. All the other drawers were full as well. Apparently the kitchen remodel they had done recently included some very high quality, water-tight drawers, because not a drop had leaked out. We ended up drilling holes in them to drain them, followed by a team effort to sweep out the new pile of water that ended up rising on the kitchen floor.


Diapers: super absorbent, and heavy when full

 So many ruined books

This warped crackle pattern was little bit of beauty among the ruins 

 Someone down the street appeared to be rescuing a huge baseball card collection.

After pulling out a soggy box of china, Matt put Mason in charge of unpacking and stacking it. He took the job seriously, but occasionally the foul air would distract him. At one point he exclaimed, "Man, I hate hurricanes! They ruin everything's beautiful smell. I bet without the hurricane, this china would smell fresh and nice."
A minute later, our friend on the crew who was sorting through the garage said, "The first thing I'm gonna do when I get home is clean my house." Mason replied, "The first thing I'm gonna do when I get home is take a big whiff of the nice air!"

And now to the main point.

Do you have a day to spare in the near future? Are you within a reasonable driving distance to Houston? You can volunteer to help a family literally save their home. If the house isn't cleared and dried out in the early few weeks after a flood, it won't be salvageable. Time is of the essence, so please consider joining a crew of volunteers as soon as possible. There are tons of people working in Houston and along the Texas coast, so you can join the Mormon Helping Hands effort like we did, or find another group doing similar work. Do you have teenagers? Bring them along! We were told that ages 12 and up could attend, provided they are mature enough to understand and follow the safety requirements. Details are here.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Accidental retro weekend

Half of our family went on an out of town trip this weekend, while half of us stayed behind. I was in the stay behind group, and as I scrolled through my phone yesterday, reviewing the weekend, I realized it was full of awesome retro things.

I took two of the kids to our favorite candy shop, where they were well stocked with both Bleeps and Tart N Tinys. Here's all I've got left:

Apparently in 1996 they made a Tart N Tinys mini connect four game! 

Down the street from the candy shop was a gift shop. Even though I had two little boys with me, I was able to pop in and spend a few minutes browsing. Luckily the shop had quirky and irreverent things with Ninja Turtles, Star Wars, and the like to keep them interested. Here's what I loved, pincushions made with old teacups and other vintage goodies:


We went to Target, where I spotted this unbelievable unicorn lamp:

On Saturday we completed this 1000 piece puzzle full of retro games:

And finally, another heartbreaker to add to the "things I desperately wanted to buy at a thrift shop" list:
Whoa. Those are the gold lamé ruffles of my Jem fever dreams.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The ones that got away

Here are a few things that I have had to pass by as I've been shopping at thrift and antique stores, things I wanted to buy but couldn't.

First up, this pinball machine, not because I particularly love pinball, but because the machine is just gorgeous.

This claw machine was in the back yard of an antique store in a small Texas town. I couldn't help but think how awesome it would be for my kids to have their own claw machine to lose on over and over again, but then actually get to keep their wasted money.


I'm a total sucker for needlework framed as wall art.
Too expensive.

Beautiful but kinda moldy.

Curse you, Goodwill auction! This was out of town, and I wasn't there on auction day.

An overhead projector! I found it at a thrift shop when I was visiting home last fall, and sadly, it wouldn't fit in my suitcase. But how fun would it be to pretend to be my 7th grade math teacher (though perhaps without her tendency to stick the cap end of the marker into her eye socket whenever she was getting a migraine)?

And finally, here's my great white whale, the one that broke my heart:
It's a display cabinet with shelves and glass doors and lighting inside. This was also at a Goodwill near my parents' house, and if I couldn't get the overhead projector back to Austin, I sure couldn't get this thing either.
But it was priced at ten dollars. TEN DOLLARS, you guys. For the mid-century cabinet of my dreams. (I say mid-century, though there was not date on it. I suppose it could be '70s or even '80s, but my definition of mid-century is pretty broad.)
I hovered near it and made big puppy dog eyes at my mom, hoping that she would say, "Well, just go ahead and buy it and you can keep it in the garage until you can figure out how to get it to Texas." Her reaction was more like, "Yep, that's a cabinet. Ready to go?" She's a heartless woman.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Day 31: Snapshot

Today's the last day of our 31 day journaling challenge! The assignment for today is another snapshot. I suggested on day 1 that you write about what you are currently doing. Ideally, I'd like to write one of these snapshots about once a month, but in practice it's more like a couple times a year.

Choose one of the following angles, or come up with your own:

-A gratitude list. Write about the things you are thankful for right now.

-Kid profiles. Write about what each kid is into at the moment, funny phrases they use, favorite books, shows, foods, activities, etc.

-Best and worst: what things are making you happy right now, and what is making you unhappy?

-Day in the life: what an average day looks like right now.

-Slices of joy: even if you are in a rough spot right now, what are the small things that lift your spirits?
Public art is always a slice of joy for me.
I saw this mosaic at Deep Eddy pool a couple weeks ago. Can you spot the little dinosaur?

It was a 106 degree weekend here in Austin, and I have a kid with an injury that prevents us from going to the pool. The atmosphere in my house is reflecting that restless, sweaty, grumpy, trapped-in-the-house, late summer feeling. I'm going to rely on slices of joy to make it through the week, for example, those few moments in the evening when teeth have been (finally, probably inadequately) brushed and we sit down together to read a few pages of Harry Potter.

I hope you've had fun reading along and writing some of your own entries. I can absolutely promise you that a year from now, or ten years from now, when you or your kids are reading your journal, you will be so glad you took the time to write down your thoughts and memories.

Day 30: Parents

For day 30, let's write about our parents. You could:

-describe the ways in which you are similar to and different from each of them
-write about their best qualities
-interview them about their childhood experiences
-write about how the world has changed in their lifetimes
-record your favorite things to do with your parents
-tell about obstacles they have overcome in their lives
I am fortunate to have great parents who love and support me, and I recognize that this is not the case for everyone. If this is a difficult topic for you, feel free to write about your pet or your best friend or someone else who has been a supportive figure in your life. But you might find some catharsis in writing about your difficult experiences and complex emotions. Journals don't always have to be about the good stuff.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Day 29: Expectation vs reality

At book club the other night, my friend mentioned that she has known what she wanted her life to be like since her late teens, and so far it has all gone according to the plan. Her marriage (to the guy she fell for at age 15!), college, kids, etc. have all played out as she anticipated.

I replied that I have had the opposite of that. If I had written out a detailed life plan as a young adult, it would bear almost no resemblance to what my reality has been these past couple decades.
My college experience, career path, marriage, kids, the place I live...all those and more are quite different, in good ways and bad, from what I expected them to be.

What about you? When you graduated high school and headed into adult life, what did you think was ahead of you? How many of your predictions came true? Are there things that haven't happened yet that you are still working toward? Are there things that you wanted or expected that you are glad you didn't get?

You could also use this topic to tell a detailed story about a specific experience. When I agreed to a cross-country ride share to get myself home from college one summer, I had no idea what a ridiculous saga it would turn into. Late in the afternoon, hours later than we'd planned, I loaded my stuff into a suburban packed with several other people and their stuff and thought, "Well, this probably won't be the most fun ride ever, but at least tomorrow I'll be home!" Five minutes later the driver pulled into another apartment complex and informed us that we would be towing a junker car behind us (which was itself packed with junk) so that his brother could fix it up and sell it back in Illinois. So, we've got an old suburban, full of twenty year olds and their luggage, towing another car through the mountains, setting out just as night is about to fall. That journey was exactly as fun as you might expect it to be.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Day 28: Food, part 2

Today let's write about food that you eat away from home.

-What are your current favorite restaurants for eating in and taking to-go? What were they when you were younger?

-Are there places that you always visit when you are in particular cities or regions?

When I go home to the Chicago suburbs, I always plan for a Giordano's pizza and a couple cheeseburgers at Portillo's. Once in a while I am lucky enough to get someone who knows that "extra pickles" doesn't mean "three pickles instead of two". It means "as many pickles as you can pile on".
Yes please.

-Do you have specific foods that you eat on road trips?

When I was a kid, road trips meant Life cereal eaten from a Solo cup for breakfast, a cooler full of pop and bagel sandwich ingredients, Pringles and Bugles to snack on, and maybe a stop for Frostys at Wendy's.

-You could make a "best in class" list, detailing where you get your favorite hamburger, salad, taco, doughnut, etc. I have a friend doing an extensive survey of Austin doughnut shops, which sounds pretty amazing. I'll bet my kids would like to contribute to that research project.