Shape Shifting Words and Other Moving Truths

Same Shape as Always

Have you ever fixated on a simple word until it’s no longer recognizable? The word desk, for example, is a four-letter word that means “a table, frame, or case with a sloping or horizontal surface especially for WRITING and reading and often with drawers, compartments, and pigeonholes,” so says Merriam Webster. Roll around the word desk for a while, considering its three consonants, and the single vowel that makes it pronounceable, and it will elude you, gentle reader, like some sci-fi shape shifter only masquerading as a desk. Soon you will question your own sanity and wonder whether you invented that word, or misunderstood it all these years, and it was never really a desk at all, but some other thing. Like a sked. Or maybe a keds (ah, somebody already took that one). But you catch my drift.

My beautiful writing desk has no drawers, compartments, or pigeonholes—my antique bill-paying desk fits that description to a tee, and now sits in a preordained spot in our gleaming new kitchen. Instead my writing desk is sleek and modern, with a clear glass top and nickel-colored legs that arc up from the ground gracefully to meet it. For six years it was my director’s desk in the office at Knoxville Ballet School. Then it was loaded onto a moving van and set before a big picture window in my Vermont cottage across the road from Lake Morey: that was a magical and terrifying year, and a lifestyle I could not sustain. But for the next move to a loft apartment in the central part of the state the writing desk was pronounced Too Bulky: David-the-Chef and I took it apart and carefully placed it in the garage below the loft. Thence to an Arlington, Vermont storage unit when we finally combined our two households in 2015.

But in our new home a beautiful room awaits that desk, with pale yellow walls and big windows overlooking the back yard and the river beyond it, one corner of the room awash with sunlight on days we’re lucky. That corner looks like it was made for my big, glass desk. You can always hem and haw about the placement of a chair and ottoman here, or a bookcase there, but some furniture informs you unequivocally where it belongs, and the writing desk has spoken.

In fact I should be writing this post from that sunny perch, actually a tad overcast today. But the shape-shifting desk is missing its hardware. And in the intervening years since it was last moved, we can’t for the life of us remember where we put it. Other hardware—curtain hardware, for example—we found, exactly where it was supposed to be, inside a bag, inside a box. Right there. But in more than a week of hauling, schlepping, and unpacking, there is no desk hardware. It is specialized hardware for a special desk, not something you can run down to the Home Depot and pick up along with the trash bags and light bulbs you need. Last night I lamented to DTC that maybe the glass desk will end up in the tag sale with all the other things we’re tag sale-ing next spring, because it has no hardware. The writing desk is useless without its hardware, so I am still writing with my laptop balanced upon my knees.

One day last week leaving work I had a similar moment to the word contemplating moment, where I did not recognize a gauge on my car’s dash board: it was the visual equivalent of the shape-shifting word. I kept staring at the gauge and thinking, wait—have you always been right there? In that spot? I thought about this for several miles, several solid minutes, even turning down the radio at one point, unable to reconcile this stupid thing in my mind. I waited and waited for something to change, for some toggle switch stuck in the wrong position inside my noodle to finally flip, and then everything would seem as it should. The switch never flipped, and I finally relented to my own silliness, and retrained my brain to recognize the gauge in this new place where it’s been all along. I believe I grew some new neural pathways in that exercise. The only explanation for this I can muster is the monumental upsetting of everything that happens when you move: nothing is where it should be, nothing is as it seems, and life’s routines are shaken in general. Alas, there are miles of new neural pathways to grow yet.

Yesterday Scout tripped the alarm when we were away from the house getting more boxes of things at the rental. I disarmed the system from my phone before central monitoring was alerted, thus averting the arrival of the cavalry and an invocation of false alarm fees. Days before that the installer assured me Scout did not weigh enough for the motion detector to care, not to worry. He was wrong. Motion detected at 1:56 pm, said the app on my phone. Alarm tripped! I was in transit for trip number two of the day back over to the rental, so back I went to check on things. I could imagine Scout tripping the alarm when he hopped onto the sofa. Or perhaps hopping off the sofa to growl at the postman, a thing he did on Friday. Another item for the week: call the alarm company—little-ish Labs can convince the motion detector they are big dawgs.

Meanwhile, Scout seems unimpressed by the move, and in fact alternates between moments of indulgent relaxation on the sofa or the human bed, and sheer exuberance exploring the breadth and scope of his new back yard. More lessons to learn from a dog.

Chef and Boxes on Thanksgiving Day

On Thanksgiving Day we pushed up our sleeves and worked like crazy from the dawn’s first light until we collapsed into bed late. A vacation day during a big move is simply too valuable to do things like watch parades and football games and cook huge meals or entertain friends and family. Those things will wait. Instead we had a simple dinner prepared by the chef, of seared salmon, rice, and caramelized Brussels sprouts, and I opened a lovely bottle of wine from a case our CPA gave us as a housewarming gift, bless her. We ate hungrily, mostly quietly, sneaking Scout a succulent piece or two of fish after he finished the crisped salmon skin the chef threw into his dinner bowl. Then we watched the pilot episode of Twin Peaks, a favorite of mine the chef has never seen, and marveled at how much the world has changed since that David Lynch creation, which seemed so stylized and revolutionary at the time. Now it seems ordinary, maybe because I already know who killed Laura Palmer, or maybe in my mind’s eye I made it into something it was not, like the gauge on my car’s dash board.

Last night I reminded my David-the-Chef not to look too closely at the configuration of clothing in the upstairs closet, or the placement of pots and pans in the kitchen: it’s all a work in progress, I quipped, and will no doubt change and change again—shift shapes—in the coming weeks.

Keep that in mind next time you go into the bathroom, he said. Uh-oh, I thought.

Instead, this is what I found:

Everybody needs ‘em a little ballet in the bawthroom. Such a loving and thoughtful chef. Has anybody seen my desk hardware?

Hole in That Theory: B & W Challenge Day 7

Birch Bark with Woodpecker Holes 1
Holy Birch Bark, Robin

Birds around here fall silent in winter, but this summer and fall the woods around this little cottage have resonated with so much birdsong at times that we’ve raised a fist skyward: trying to sleep, here—can you please keep it down? A parliament of owls lives in our trees. That’s what you call a group of owls—a parliament. The sound of an owl in suburban Knoxville, Tennessee, was rare and enchanting. But in this Vermont forest they awaken a light sleeper in the night, making it difficult sometimes to fall asleep again before the early morning alarm sounds.

On the drive down our steep mountain road one morning last week I disturbed a bunch of crows who were sauntering around in the road like they owned it. You call that a murder of crows. Murder is what I’d like to do to a few owls who are interfering with REM cycles in this house.

I picked up that piece of birch bark out in the yard a few weeks ago because it was so spectacular: somebody was hard at work, for a while. I love how methodical and tidy the holes are, in neat rows evenly spaced. We have woodpeckers here, too—teeny ones and big ones. The maple that smooshed our cars a couple years back held a nest of woodpecker babies deep inside its trunk, who cried and cried when the tree came down. We could hear them, but could not see them. The mama was nearby and distraught. The next day we found a dead baby on the ground by the downed tree, probably abandoned by a critter looking for an easy meal who perhaps though better of it for some reason. Or maybe bald baby woodpeckers are an acquired taste. Nature sure can be cruel.

Meanwhile my own baby—my twenty-something manchild—arrived on my doorstep somewhat unexpectedly last Tuesday. He’s hanging out with us for a while, helping us pack, perhaps helping us move, too. We’ll see. House closing day is only a week and a half away, and then the big work begins. It’s an exciting and terrifying time for us. For my part, I’m thinking about 1936, the year the house we’re buying was built. Those were tough times, but the worst of the Great Depression was over and the American economy was beginning to recover: the ‘waste not, want not’ values of my grandparents—and of so many others of their generation—resonate with me even now.

Who built our house? Who bought it? Was it a family? Did they have a dog? Had they suffered through hard times? How did they make ends meet? I know only that somebody thought to conceal a cutting board under the kitchen counter—it slides out and shows beautiful signs of many years of use. And close to that is a drawer made just for bread, with a sliding metal lid that’s perforated in an artful starburst pattern. Once upon a time I think we cared a tad more about aesthetics in ordinary objects, like bread boxes. And street lamps, and toasters, and bridges. I think all of that matters. And I love that the people who re-made our house with modern comforts and conveniences saw fit to keep some of the things that matter.

The bird or birds who made the holes in the found birch bark were probably more concerned with finding their next meal than with art. But there is most definitely art in their industry. The twenty-something helped me puzzle through a problem with my Nikon, and made a few pictures of his own. I like this one he shot, in full color: to me it shows a perfect, tiny landscape and tells the story of so much that happened to this tree, which surely provided shelter to more than a single family in its history. Soon we’ll start making our own thumbprint on the new-old house, putting our own holes in the walls, if you will. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Birch Bark with Woodpecker Holes 2


Spring is about renewal, right?


It all started with a shower curtain. Well, actually a shower curtain mishap a few weeks ago, which got me thinking about replacing the shower curtain rings. Thence to the liner–we really could use a new liner. One thought led to another and I soon found myself wondering, What’s a groovy, designer shower curtain go for these days? And do the nice ones ever go on sale?

Turns out they do. I found one on a groovy, designer website for $4.99 and free shipping. It was heavy cotton canvas with bold, white-on-white stripes–and shocking lime green ones, too. (The product description read, “Vivid Shower Curtain.” Oh yeah, it’s definitely vivid.) On the web page, it looked phenomenal, of course. The model bathroom was all zen and white and had a teakwood steppy-outie thing, which it turns out was not on sale, and cost a damn sight more than I’d pay for a cotton dhurrie bathmat. I have stacks and stacks of those. Anywho. The shocking lime green was maybe the only color in the otherwise all-white zen bathroom, with the possible exception of those modern containers of fresh, green grass shoots strategically placed here and there. (How do people keep those things looking fresh all the time? Or keep their cats from destroying them?)

So the problem with this sleek, modern, zen shower curtain with the shocking lime green stripes was the shocking purple bathroom in our rental house (landlord’s choice, not ours). Of course, the maroon and gold curtain did not exactly work next to the purple, either, as you can see in the photo. The obvious solution: repaint (and update) the bathroom. To match the $4.99 shower curtain. We had a brand new gallon of eggshell finish ivory paint in the basement that was a freebie. How long could it take to throw that on the walls of the small bathroom in our rental house? I know, right? Maybe a couple of hours, tops.

I was left to my own devices this weekend with Handsome Chef Boyfriend at an out-of-town hockey tourney with his teenager, so I had the perfect chance to do this two-hour job without anybody under my feet asking to use the bathroom. (Yes, there is only one bathroom here…to be shared by four humans.) I got up early yesterday, thinking I’d do the bathroom project for the first half of the day, then a bunch of other chores, and then today I’d have all this time to maybe go to church, and write, and, and….


About a half hour into taping, HCB called; how’s it going, Rembrandt? he wanted to know. I’ve only just started taping, I said, but once I get this done it shouldn’t be long at all. (Oh, and to my credit: Friday after work I stopped at the Home Despot for supplies. Friday night I spray-painted the baseboard heater, which was rusty and had already been prepped for paint a few days ago, because I knew there would be overspray and I wanted that part done before I put paint on the walls. It was messy, but it turned out great. See? There was forethought and planning to this project. Yeah, I got this.)

Turns out that taping a bathroom takes longer than an hour. I’m not kidding. There were all kinds of little fixtures and things I had to tape around. In a perfect world I’d have taken them off the walls. But I did not have a screwdriver, except for a weenie one on my Swiss Army knife. (My real tools are still at the loft, and I did not want to keep haranguing HCB with annoying texts asking where things were.) So when I finally finished putting blue tape on everything, I was more than anxious to crack open the paint can.


Erm, not so fast. First, I could not get the lid off the paint can. I know how to do it–I’ve done it scores of times, I’ve undertaken many, many painting projects in my lifetime. Once I even worked alongside a contractor who was remodeling our home (in the last chapter of my life) and said he wanted to hire me. Mad painting skillz, here. I assumed my Swiss Army knife could handle that paint can lid; I was wrong. The lid behaved like cheap aluminum foil and the rim simply unfurled in every spot where I tried to pry it open. By the time I had worked my way around it I had done to the paint can something I think is equivalent to stripping a screw–I was running out of room to try. (And also by this time I was sweating, a lot, and cursing out loud, and pretty much having a grown-up meltdown.) Finally, finally, by some miracle, I got the lid off, although it was nearly bent in half. I would worry about that later; nothing was going to stop this project from happening now.

There were some other unforeseen problems.

Have I mentioned the purple walls? Turns out that ivory does not cover purple well. At all. So when I first started doing the edges with the little 99-cent sponge brush, it looked terrible. Really terrible. Like a deranged person or a toddler had gotten ahold of the paint supplies. I had this awful feeling that I was now in over my head, but I did not want to create some huge painting problem that HCB would later have to fix–I really, really wanted to do this quickly–and well–and have everybody return home to a fresh, new bathroom. And there had been some mockery about the $4.99 shower curtain: this project simply could not fail. The issue was not so much the shower curtain design–there was at least some consensus that the curtain itself really is lovely. Just that the idea of painting an entire room to match a cheap shower curtain is maybe a bit over the top.

Several hours (and a couple of coats) later, the bathroom began to look mainly ivory, although it was clear I’d need to apply one more coat, possibly more on the edges. Finally. I’d taken no breaks and my back and calves were aching; my painting elbow was painfully inflamed; and my chronic foot injury was screaming. I decided to zip out to the store for a bottle of wine. This turned out to be maybe the only good decision of the day, which had started with a cayenne pepper mishap. (Don’t ask.) While I was in the store HCB texted me for a progress report; still at it, I said. We should’ve started with primer, he said. Too late for that.

I finished late, about the time HCB called to say goodnight, maybe nine or ten hours in. I was pulling off tape while we talked, which sadly was also pulling off some of the paint where I had to apply many coats to cover the purple. Not to worry, he said, he had an edging tool and he’d deal with those spots later. Good man, HCB.


I removed the landlord’s art from the walls, to be stored away until we find new digs. I replaced it with some of my own art I’ve missed seeing for a while. Moving is hard on your stuff. I’ve damaged some art and frames in each of the three moves I’ve undertaken in the last three years; the wall is really the safest place for it. I confess this is now a ballet-themed bathroom, and I am not sure how well that will go over. This is the Angel Corella corner, the photo taken during his years with ABT (I know, he’s all blurry–take my word for it).


And this is the David Hallberg corner (also ABT–and the Bolshoi!–currently a principal dancer). That photo was made by an amazing artist and friend, Matt Murphy, who danced for a few years with ABT himself before a complete professional reinvention as a photographer (he did my headshot a few years ago on a teacher training trek to NYC). I think about that every time I see the photo, and draw inspiration from it.


And this is the Alicia Alonso corner, here seen with an unknown male dancer. She spent most of her career dancing blind. I also find this hugely inspiring about her.

Bye bye, purple. This morning as I was surveying my work, I had one last thought: the bathroom needs a new curtain. I brought a lot of pretty curtains with me from my life in Tennessee, and many I have not yet had occasion to use. So here is the final piece of punctuation on my bathroom project:


I like it, in spite of yesterday’s reality check. Our bathroom has been successfully renewed: it is clean and fresh and bright, even though it is not really truly ours. The gang will be arriving here any moment now. Hope they like it, too.

Yeah, ’cause I am finished with my painting project. Finished.

Happy springtime, gentle readers.