Sunday, December 29, 2013

An Open Christmas Letter about Kitchens

Usually, I enclose with my Christmas cards a letter that is intended to be a parody of that humble literary form, the family newsletter.  Nothing humble about that literary form, other than its standing in literature, where it huddles in the cold and rain, shoulder to shoulder with the obscure blog.  And since I am an obscure blogger, faithfully indulging my every rumination, this year's holiday round robin seemed redundant.

So let's talk about kitchens.  I'm on my third.

The first kitchen, a square room big enough to include a high-chair, (Josh was a baby), small table and four chairs was in Middleborough, Mass.

The house was built in 1906, and, like most grand homes of the period, the kitchen was not a room in which the owners were intended to spend time.  A call button on the floor in the dining room testified to this:  with it, the lady of the house could summon the maid or butler with an imperceptible shift of her foot.

[Believe it or not, the image above is "Smedley Maid Illustration, 1906".  What is it about 1906?!*]

Of course, by the time Phil and I bought 35 Peirce St., (e before i, yes), if there was a maid and butler in residence, they were vestigial spirits whose presence was manifest only in the form of imagined comments and the occasionally overheard footfall on the steps to their former rooms on the third floor.

"What are you doing?" the maid asked.

"Painting the kitchen."

"I can see that.  What I mean is, why?  And why aren't you painting it white?"

"I am painting it because it is my kitchen to paint.  And I am painting it Tuscan Vista because I want it to feel like an Italian kitchen."

I could plainly see the maid cover her mouth to keep from laughing.

"What on earth are you doing, now?"

"I am scratching at the second layer of paint to give it transparency and to create the illusion of antiquity."

The maid was doubled over, trying not to pee herself.  Finally, she straightened up and walked right through the wall that I had been scratching and sponging and tearing at with artistic intent.

We pulled up the dirty old yellow 1970's linoleum floor and Phil laid down slate tiles in an artful pattern.

The butler's ghost stood framed in the doorway, watching.

"You neglected to put an appropriate amount of that chemical on the slate to keep the grout from sticking on the surface," he said.

But Phil couldn't hear him.

"You're being a little too liberal, young man, with that grout."

But Phil couldn't hear him.

As a result, Phil spent many hours of back-breaking labor scraping off the excess grout with a wire brush.

In the end, the kitchen was a mishmash of cherry cabinetry, tile counter tops, slate floors, Tuscan vistas, New England lace curtains, and whatever appliances and furniture had either come with the house or been donated to us by relatives.

We had managed to spend more than we should have on discrete elements, yet the room never had any aesthetic focus.  The maid giggled every time she passed through.  The butler shook his head and tsk-tsked.

We liked it.

Second kitchen.  Different house, different state, but built in the same year: 1906.  Oregon, Wisconsin.

This house was not nearly as grand as Middleborough, but it had handsome arts-and-crafts woodwork--in the form of oak pillars, headers, paneling, and a beveled mirror on the coat closet door--typical of the Victorian and slightly post-Victorian homes in that neighborhood.  It was as if everyone in that day had hired the same tradesman to do the woodwork in their homes.  

Again, the kitchen was barely an afterthought.  Long and thin, due to the traffic patterns it was limited to being half a galley kitchen.  There could only be appliances, sink, or counter space on one of its two long sides, and both short sides were points of entry or egress.

There was a built-in cabinet in the dining room that backed up to the other long side of the kitchen.  It protruded into the kitchen about half a foot and had been covered up with wainscoting.  I thought, at one time, it was probably a smarter design; the drawers may have been accessible from both the dining room and the kitchen, for convenience.  But in our time, there was nothing useful about the arrangement from the perspective of the kitchen.

The ghost of the tradesman who had installed the cabinet and all of the handsome woodwork in town sometimes glared at me from across the room, like he knew what I was thinking.

"You're not thinking about taking down that built-in with the stained-glass doors that I built, are you?"

"No," I said, for the first few years we lived there.  "We love your cabinet.  We love the stained-glass doors.  Don't worry."

But when my dad passed away in 2009, I needed something to think about other than the fact that my dad had passed away, (a fact which took up enormous amounts of time and energy and emotional reserves to grasp); and a very wonderful awful idea then occurred to me.

"You're not," said the tradesman.

"I am.  There's no way around it.  Can you suggest a way?  I see none."

That cabinet had to go.

And go it did.  And with it, that wicked wainscoted wall that en-robed it.  It was replaced by a peninsula, which inserted itself into the middle of things, cleared its throat, and said, Dammit, I am a kitchen!  A kitchen, I tell you!  Take notice!

We spent too much money on that kitchen.  We could have done without soap stone.  We could have done without nearly-commercial grade appliances (which nevertheless required constant maintenance of an overpriced warranty plan to cover their inevitable and expensive failures; a plan which fell millimeters short of being called what it was: protection money).  We could have done without stainless steel, farmer's sinks and subway tiles.

But we couldn't have done without the designer who came up with the plan--that brilliant, wonderful, awful plan--which exploded that skinny kitchen and blew it right into the living room--so that I could watch television and talk to humans while preparing the roast beast.

We could have spent a lot less.  Our elbows were cold on the stone counter.  But we enjoyed it, nonetheless.  To hell with ghost carpenters.

Kitchen number three.  This is a small country kitchen on our lovely old farm with eighties cabinetry and a nineties counter that bridges to the family room without actually letting you pass through.  You may pass through food, but there's no way to get into or out of the kitchen except to walk the long way around and enter via the dining room.  You may look at the family room from the kitchen, but you may not enter it except as a projectile flying over the counter.

In exchange, we have a half bath off the family room.  It's a devil's bargain.

The more serious problem with  the kitchen was the general sense that it was the lowest-priority room for the previous owners, and perhaps for the owners before them and before them going back 100 years.

The original house is about 100 years old, but it is dwarfed and engulfed by more recent additions.  I suspect that the original house was no more than 800 square feet, and we are now 3,000.  If there are any ghosts, they are truly lost souls, passing through walls they did not remember being there before.

And so we have no idea how old the kitchen is, but we know that there was only one layer of wall paper, with little tears here and there at the seams.  The paper was never bad, it was always beige and drab.  The view out the window compensated for a multitude of sins and seems to have sent all previous occupants off into reveries such that they let things go on the opaque surfaces and focused their attention exclusively out the window.

But it bothered me.  The overall beige country kitchen thing began to wear on my nerves.

At first, I simply installed a charming oak harvest table that had been in someone else's family for generations. (Sometimes I gaze upon that table and drift off into someone else's childhood memories.)

But the table, like me, couldn't overcome the aesthetic sink hole that was our kitchen, where I spent so much of my time, looking out the window onto gorgeous vistas like a prairie dog peeking out of a hole.

Have you read THE YELLOW WALLPAPER by Charlotte Perkins?

That paper had to go.

And so I spent a week or more soaking and peeling and pulling off every inch of that paper until there were only two square inches of it left, intentionally, behind the stove, as a reminder.

Did I mention that the Formica counter was the color of gray?

And the cupboards below were so much worse than the cupboards above.  There were places where the wood was just contact paper that you could peel like an orange.

I painted those cabinets.  I painted them pea soup green.  It was two days before I realized, after someone pointed it out, that they were the same color as my cabinets in my previous house, the one with the soapstone counters.  I painted one coat and a second and a third and even a fourth coat.  And then I purchased hardware, but it was wrong, so I went back and returned it and brought home the right hardware.

The result was trans-formative.  There is purple in the kitchen, now, and red.  Somehow, you don't even notice that the formica counter is gray.

We removed an over-sized floor-to-ceiling cabinet that contained only a broom and a dust pan.

We removed a refrigerator that did not fit into its cubby, but instead jutted out into the kitchen an additional four inches like a big drooling slumped-over fellow in the seat next to you in economy class. We just happened to have another refrigerator in the basement, one size smaller.  It fits perfectly into its chair and reads alertly from its Kindle without attempting conversation.

[Beth Remmes, a devoted reader, asked me to insert before and after pictures, so I did.]

We did not need to ship a giant slab of stone from Brazil to Wisconsin to have cold elbows.

We will remove two layers of linoleum from the floor, but we will replace it with...beautiful, red, yellow-flecked, commercial-grade... linoleum!   I am incredibly psyched.  It's going to be gorgeous, and, at $100, it's going to be genius!

So that's it.  I spent money on paint and brushes and linoleum.  And hardware.   I went to the hardware store every day for about two weeks, so I'm sure I spent a couple hundred, easy.  But it's done.  We didn't have to take out a loan.

Phil and Josh (less so Josh) and the oak harvest table and I love it.  We sit together and look out the window, and I think, You're lovely, table, too; and the table says, I am redolent in memories, but this is a particularly good one.

Merry Christmas!

* In Wisconsin, I bought a Kranich and Bach on Craigslist just like this one.  Built in 1906.  Spooky.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Social Commentary Comment

 Brace yourself.  Social Commentary is coming.

As a society, we take less time now for some things than we used to even twenty years ago.
For example, remember psychoanalysis?

When I was a kid, everyone who went to a psychiatrist was in psychoanalysis.

Or, if it wasn't Freudian analysis, it was Jungian analysis.

Empirical studies now suggest that psychoanalysis, while not exactly a sham, was little more than an interesting  experience.  Painful and somewhat elucidating, maybe, but ineffective for dealing with seriously inconvenient symptoms of mental illness.

Back in the day, if psychoanalysis didn't work and you had inconvenient symptoms, like clinical depression, the next step was electrolysis.

No, that's wrong.  What was it?  Oh, right: electro-shock therapy.

Electro-shock therapy actually yielded results, the worst of which was significant loss of short-term memory; the best of which was a veritable rebooting of the addled brain, a fresh start, clear of recollection and the vagaries of mood...relief that was by and large temporary.

If electro-shock therapy didn't do the trick, then a lobotomy was still an option.  Better a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

Being gay or transgendered was considered an illness even as recently as when I was in high school. Adverse conditioning was considered a valid approach to curing it.

To recap, even in the relatively brief framework of my lifetime, psychiatry has been at once high-highfalutin' and medieval.

Nowadays, no one is in psychoanalysis--which is too bad, because it was an interesting subjective experience, if little else.  But today, the idea of spending 50 minutes lying on a couch and free associating, while a psychiatrist sits outside your field of vision (lest he distract you from stumbling toward your next epiphany) taking notes (so he can later look up the symbolism of your dream imagery in his dream translation dictionary) seems pretty patently absurd.

Why?  Because a psychiatrist gets paid way more for one 50-minute hour than an MSW.  Today, hardly anyone who can still hold their head upright talks to a psychiatrist for more than twenty minutes...certainly not five times a week! (Did I not mention that one saw one's psychoanalyst five times a week?  Can you imagine?!)

When my friend's child had mental health issues, that child saw a psychiatrist for twenty minutes.   Sometimes a resident psychiatrist-in-training would practice asking questions for that 20-minute appointment.   The child was nice.  The parent was nice.  The professionals were nice.  Medicine was dispensed.

At one point, it was thought that the child might benefit from talking to an MSW who specialized in kids with these issues.  The MSW was always late and exhibited disturbing symptoms of OCD.   Eventually, the parent became annoyed with the MSW for always being late, (did she not know this was a grave breach of trust?); and for scolding her child for playing with the wrong toy in the wrong way at the wrong time.  The last straw was when the MSW got down on her hands and knees to scrub the water that the child had accidentally spilled on the carpet (half a tiny Dixie cup), scrubbing and scrubbing while trying to maintain the thread of discussion despite her evident rage.

Had the child's therapist and psychiatrist consulted with one another about the child?  Did one process inform the other? The parent saw no evidence of this.

As the child grew older, the parent he saw the same congenial and bright psychiatrist for many years, and yet he did not know the child particularly well at all.

And YET, the child was lucky to have even this much access to mental health care--because clearly, as evidenced by the notorious acts of troubled souls who do not have access to mental health care, (who languish on waiting lists for years), even a twice-annual twenty-minute encounter with a psychiatrist is a class privilege.

Many others don't have access to the medication they need; which, for those of us more fortunate, is procured by an un-elucidating practice of taking medication after medication, in various dosages, until the primary symptoms are alleviated and the side effects are not intolerable.

Another area in which society today takes a similarly prescriptive approach is education.

We are all so busy, most of us are working full or part-time while also managing families and households; when our kids say that school is fine, we're inclined to need to believe them.  We may not know that our kid is struggling with learning, or focusing, or bullying, or a developing sense of alienation.

We are probably all a bit laissez-faire, (a nice word for benignly neglectful), in the area of homework supervision.   How many of us know what our child's homework is?  How many of us sit down with our child as they do their homework?

I do.  Sometimes.

I have been a a pro-active parent and a passive (laissez-faire) parent.  I prefer and default to the later, but circumstances usually insist that I become the former.  I do, and then I slip, and then I do again.

My kid goes to a very good public school.  But I think that one person, however amazing a teacher he or she is, can't effectively teach 21 kids.

I have found, when I've volunteered in my son's school, that I am needed.  Maybe I am only needed for twenty minutes, but for those twenty minutes I am there for kids who need me.

I wish I could do it every day--go and volunteer in Josh's school--but I can't.  I have my freelance work to do.  I have other stuff to do.

And YET...

And yet, when I was doing it, I had the feeling that there was nothing more important that I could possibly have done with my time.  Nothing else was as important.

Still, life today doesn't accommodate that kind of altruism.  Or maybe it's just me.  Is it me?   I know lots of moms who volunteer at their kids' schools.  But it's like a lot of things along those lines: Volunteering at the food pantry, volunteering to feed the homeless, volunteering to read to kids with cancer....

When you become involved, you risk arriving at the conclusion that the need is endless.  We all have to come to terms with that fact in our own way.

Public education is, perhaps surprisingly, like that.  The ongoing need is so great, it's daunting.  The need is built into the structure of the thing.  One teacher, 21 kids.  It doesn't work.  The kids are all different; some of them are painfully disadvantaged in any number of ways:  by a dysfunctional home life, by poverty, by aptitude, by ADHD, by autism....

The teachers are young and bright and strong.  I am amazed by their ability to discuss the specific details and issues attendant to each of the learners in their charge.

The endless salvo of standardized tests, which grade not only the child, but the school, and the school district, and the state, and the country... We are competing against South Korea and Vietnam and China on these tests.  Poland has risen among the ranks, a potential usurper.

Even children who don't test well--who very specifically do not test well, but who will be judged by their performance on these tests--are encouraged to take them, because the worst thing that could happen--the WORST THING--would be for the school to have to factor in a 0.

The school psychologist, maybe, tells you this.

Your child's psychiatrist, when you mention anxiety, lights up.  They're doing a study on anxiety.  Would your kid like to participate?  Oh, but then you couldn't have the medication.

Here he pauses, and you know that he is measuring not only his own words but your reception of what he has just said, and what he might say next.   In his calculus, you are too sophisticated not to realize that he is no longer sounding like your own child's best advocate.

It is easy not to be a child's best advocate when you don't really know that child.

This is how I would tie all of this together.  I would say that in today's society we are losing insight.  Yes, psychoanalysis as a practice was self-indulgent, maybe, and not particularly effective for dealing with obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, clinical depression, bipolar disorder, etc.

And YET, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.  Today, it is possible for a child to receive what is considered to be very good mental health care--and nonetheless, somehow, INSIGHT, that old chestnut, that once gold standard of psychology, is missing from practice.

Caveat:  As ever, a good MSW is admirably capable of navigating your average neurotic through the rocky shoals of life.

Back to social commentary:  My point is that where mental health requires a marriage of insight and medication, we find that the two have been amicably divorced for some time, and that they share joint custody over the dominion, in a scenario whereby the one leaves us at a certain meeting point, and the other picks us up, and the two of them don't really talk like they used to.  And of course, being estranged, why would they?

And so, we live in a time when the very structure of our educational system is still essentially broken, because one person cannot effectively teach 21 children.  And the schools try to address this by fiddling with the pedagogy in wildly imaginative ways, reinventing the wheel to be bigger or smaller (but always more or less round) every few years.  And the government tries to address it by imposing these ridiculous tests, which is a very quick way of getting a very superficial impression of how our broken system compares to other countries' broken systems.

And we, at home, are tired, because our computers allow us to do so much more than anyone ever used to have to do.  We are eager to be diverted by a hundred diversions, like making supper and shopping for groceries and doing the laundry and cleaning the house and ferrying kids to games.  Or maybe we have a second job, in which case, God help us.

What if we had twice as many teachers?

What if the talk-therapists and the prescribe-doctors were required to work together as part of an integrated program oriented around a healthy marriage of insight and science?

What if we all pursued insight again--not with crazy navel-gazing indulgence--but just enough to shed light on what's broken?