Skip to content

It’s a tupelo, honey.

We got a tree.

tupelo

I can hear the naysayers mumbling, “Where I come from, we call that a twig, not a tree.”

But, as they say, the best time to plant a tree is fifty years ago, and the second best time is now.

After ridding our side yard of the “decorative” stump that loomed over the lawn, we began a protracted search for a replacement tree.  As I do, I developed a long list of mandatory criteria that no tree could ever meet. It needed to live a long time, it needed to look good year round (but especially in the fall), it should be large, but not too large, and it needed to be happy in the heat of central North Carolina summers. We considered and rejected nearly every sort of tree commonly available at the local nursery: crabapple (too messy), maple (too common), cherry (too ephemeral), hawthorn (too thorny), dogwood (too slow-growing), redbud (too short-lived), oak (too big).

At an impasse, we decided to defer our selection until spring, giving us time to brainstorm new options. But, a chance encounter with one of our neighbors, an amateur tree buff, resulted in an unexpectedly perfect suggestion: a tupelo tree. Now, as far as I knew, Tupelo was just a town in Mississippi. Turns out it’s a type of tree too, alternately known as a black gum. And, in case you’re wondering, tupelo honey is honey made by bees collecting nectar from tupelo trees. As I read more about the tree, the more of my requirements it met.

It’s native, growing naturally from Canada to Mexico.

It’s big, but not too big, maxing out at 60 – 80 feet tall and 25 – 35 feet wide.

It has a tidy growth habit with a straight trunk and branches that emerge at ninety degrees from it.

It’s drought-tolerant once established, and can tolerate a range of soil types.

It’s long-lived, averaging 250 years, but specimens 600 years or older have been identified.

And, best of all, tupelos have spectacular bright red fall color, similar to a red maple.

The tree might not look like much now, but in a few decades, I’ m confident our tupelo will be a familiar fixture in our corner of Hillsborough.

What a difference a ray makes

At long last, after a lazy summer and a slow fall, I’ve managed to find some honest-to-God momentum on our kitchen project. Last weekend it was time for one of the most transformative changes yet, the addition of a window in the west wall facing the backyard.  Other than bathrooms, the kitchen-to-be was the only place in the house that didn’t get light from more than one direction. So, after discovering old termite damage in the wall during demolition, we decided to remove the affected siding and framing and replace it with a window.

Here’s what we started with:

before window installation

You can see the termite tunnels across the back of the siding, and the ghost of a diagonal brace that I literally swept away when it crumbled to the touch.  This portion of the kitchen is hand-hewn post and beam construction, like the main portion of the house.  I suspect that it was a separate structure, perhaps a kitchen house, that was dragged to the site and incorporated as a portion of the north wing of the Ordinary House.  It appears to be a similar vintage too, dating to the mid-to-late 1700s.

As I’ve made clear in the past, there’s absolutely nothing plumb or level in our house. The post on the left side of the picture above was once plumb, presumably.  Now, however, it’s got so much lean to it that I had to make large tapered shims that went from 2 1/2″ wide down to nothing over the course of 5′-0″ in order to create a plumb opening.

I ordered a wood double-hung window from a local supplier. Since this is likely to be the only window we add to this house, I splurged on a double-hung from one of my favorite window manufacturers, Loewen. Hailing from Canada, Loewen builds beautiful windows with straight grain Douglas Fir. They have nice historically accurate details: tall bottom rails, skinny muntins, and an option for a thick exterior sill. I also ordered the window with preinstalled casings to match the adjacent windows.

The window arrived several weeks ago, and I waited for a good opportunity to stick it in. When the weather report for the weekend looked favorable, I called in reinforcements in the form of my uncle, an experienced and talented carpenter. We began early in the morning by cutting the hole for the window.  It was a nerve-wracking moment knowing that the house would be wide open to the elements until the window was in place.

window during

And despite the wonkiness of the house, it only took about 6 hours of measuring, cutting, shimming, leveling and screwing to finesse the window into place. Because the siding of the house sits directly on the studs, and not on sheathing, we had to pay extra attention to waterproofing details and achieving a tight fit. In the end, we were left with this: a beautiful window that looks very much at home, almost as if it has been there all along.

window after

window after outside

The vibe in the room has been completely altered. The visual connection to the backyard and the additional light make it a far more pleasant place to be. And now I spend a lot of time staring out a portion of the wall that I spent many months avoiding.

after window 2

Happy Halloween 2014

With a few minutes to go before 8 o’ clock, we’ve already been visited by two groups of trick-or-treaters. One more and we’ll set a new Halloween record for the Ordinary House. Last year’s meager showing confirmed what we learned in 2012: we’re a low-yield, off-the-beaten-path street, and our house is bypassed by all the ghouls, ghosts, and Elsas wandering in search of a sugar high. We’re no less prepared though, with plenty of candy on hand and a fat jack-o-lantern glowing on the porch. After a pop culture themed pumpkin last Halloween, this year we opted for a more cultured, high brow design. I call it the Mona Lantern:

mona lisa pumpkin

I thought is was a pretty good likeness of Leonardo’s chef d’oeuvre until a trick-or-treater asked, “Is that Jesus?”

Oh well. Happy Halloween.

Marking the spot

Permit me one more sad dad post and I’ll return this blog to its regular schedule of updates (and apologies for lack of updates) on the progress of projects at the Ordinary House.

We spread my dad’s ashes this spring and summer in various places that were meaningful to him. We wanted to have one place we could return to visit, and it was important to me that the presence of his remains be marked in a permanent way. I conjured up a series of overwrought grave markers, heavily laden with symbolism before realizing that simplest solution was probably the best in this case.

I retrieved a piece of leftover Carrara marble from our shed, once a toilet partition at the Wolfpack Club in Raleigh. When my dad renovated that building several years ago, he helped me salvage the stone slabs which I turned into beautiful kitchen countertops at our house in Chapel Hill.  True story, and awesome conversation starter.

chapel hill kitchen

With nothing more than a pencil, an old ball-peen hammer (my dad’s), and a stone chisel that I ordered on the Interwebs, I set to work tracing out the letters F-R-A-N-K on the stone. I started chipping away at the slab with the chisel, tentatively at first, and with increasing force as I got the hang of how the marble split.  The serifs in the ‘F’ were a bit ragged, but the letter looked respectable so I carried on.

grave marker tools

By the time I got to ‘K’ two days later I was pretty proud of how things turned out.  The serifs were crisp and the edges of the letters clean. I stamped dad’s full name and dates in an aluminum bar and attached it to the stone as a finishing touch. I think he would have loved it.

marker placement

The marker and the ashes sit in a peaceful clearing of mountain laurel on my uncle’s land in the mountains of southwest Virginia, not far from where my dad was born.

frank highley

My uncle reports that the marker has been shifted to a different position every time he’s visited it.  We figure either a bear has been rummaging around or else my dad, ever the teaser, is messing with us one last time.

Destumpification

When we took ownership of the Ordinary House, among other things, we inherited a very impressive stump. A remnant of a huge elm tree, the stump was a full ten feet tall and topped by a bushy vine which seemed to be the only thing keeping it from rotting to pieces. I’m told that this pairing was intentional yard ornament.  Knowing this, I’m willing to consider that it might have looked good once, but more recently it looked like H-E-double hockey sticks. Worse, the stump was situated directly in the line of sight of cars paused at the stop sign across the street. Everybody who’s driven by our house in recent years was probably as perplexed as we were about this peculiar vegetative arrangement. Not to mention the stump was directly outside the window of our kitchen-to-be.

elm stump

This year when Weezie asked me what I wanted for my birthday the answer was obvious: make that damn stump go away. Several weeks ago a local tree service made quick work of its removal.  There’s a clear view of the east side of the house for the first time in decades.

The unfortunate outcome of cutting down a tall stump is that you’re left with a short stump. But a quick call to the stump grinding man made sure that all evidence of the old elm tree was removed once and for all. It’s one of those easy changes that makes an outsize impact and leaves you wondering why you didn’t do it earlier.

ground stump

The corner of the yard deserves an ornamental tree, so our next challenge will be to make sure we get the right one.  Any suggestions?

Doing it for Dad

For little boys, dads are superheroes. They’re big and strong, know how to drive trucks, and can kill snakes with shovels. They teach their sons how to ride bikes, whistle with their fingers, and start camp fires. They laugh at fart jokes, even if mom rolls her eyes and sighs.   As a young boy, your dad is the promise of what you will become when you’re a man.

As little boys grow into teenagers and their hormones rage, they begin to think of themselves as the superheroes of the family. Dad is demoted to the hopelessly uncool guy whose entire existence is tailored to the production of maximum embarrassment for his son. When he mows the lawn in dress socks pulled to his knees, tells you how your mom was smokin’ hot in front of your friends, or blasts the Doobie Brothers with the windows rolled down, the teenage boy wishes (prays) that he could disappear into thin air.

But if all goes well, as a teenage boy becomes a man, he begins to realize once again that dads are heroes. Though they’re no longer as strong or as fast as their sons, they’re perpetually wiser.  It becomes obvious that a dad’s presence, guidance, and unflagging devotion to his son’s success is hugely responsible for who he becomes as a man.

I lost my dad, my hero, on May 24th. Suddenly, I find myself living a parallel life to the one I always imagined, one in which I would watch both my parents reach old age. Though I find solace in the fact that he’s at peace after such an agonizing year, I’d give anything to have him back, even for a day. Grief breeds regret, and I find myself wishing I’d asked him more about his life, told him more about mine, or simply spent more time with him when I had the chance.

My dad loved the Ordinary House. Its quirky charms fascinated him, and he was always anxious to come check out my latest project. He was particularly excited about the kitchen, and after his surgery made seeing the room’s completion one of his recovery goals. I still can’t process the fact that I’ll never again have the chance to share my handiwork with him. Dad was an engineer and a builder with exceedingly high standards for craftsmanship, and there are few thing in the world that made me happier than hearing his approval of my work. His praise instilled me with the confidence to take on ever more complex and demanding DIY projects, first on my starter house in Chapel Hill and now at the Ordinary House. I can state as fact that I would not be capable or confident enough to take on this project if it hadn’t been for him. I will honor the skills he nurtured in me by continuing to do every project in a way I know would have made him proud.

A few weeks before Dad died, he asked me to come get his “cancer car”, the Porsche Boxster that he bought in November as a distraction from his failing health. Though he couldn’t tell you the day or time, he was lucid enough to worry about the fact that his new toy wasn’t being driven. I had plans to visit my dad later on the day he died and I was going to tell him: “You better start feeling good soon, because I’m not giving the Porsche back until you beat me at an arm wrestling match.” That would’ve made him smile.

I like to think he knows I had this challenge in mind and that he’s out there somewhere with a grin on his face and a barbell in his hand, working his way back into superhero shape, ready to wrestle my fist to the table.

I love you, Dad. You were a great father, and I miss you terribly.

walking uphill

 

Five reasons to reconsider that all-inclusive vacation you’re planning

Weezie and I like to travel and we’ve managed a foreign vacation each year that we’ve been together. Until this year, our vacations were highbrow European tours that saturated us with language, culture and architecture. This year we were after something completely different, a vacation that was lower stress, required fewer decisions, and resulted in less jet lag. At the recommendation of a friend, we decided to try an all-inclusive beachside resort in the Dominican Republic, Excellence Punta Cana.

excellence punta cana

Our most stressful decision each day was “beach or pool?” (the answer was always “beach”). I’m a reluctant consumer of luxury, so it took a few days to really get the hang of all-inclusive pampering. Before leaving, I wasn’t really sure of what to expect. So, if you’re considering an all-inclusive vacation in your future, here are a few reasons you might want to reconsider:

You don’t drink.

Because when you get right down to it, for most folks, “all-inclusive” translates to: “I’ve prepaid for 500 drinks this week and I’ll be damned if I leave this place and haven’t had 501.” Barely 30 seconds elapsed from the time we arrived at the resort until we had champagne glasses thrust into our hands. And by day three, it didn’t seem strange to see people sipping cocktails out of coconuts at 8:30 in the morning. Given the daily restocks of the in-room mini-bar, the ten bars and endless drinks at meals, it’s kind of a miracle that the place hasn’t been burned down yet. Even the poolside wait staff plays along:

Waiter: “Would you like another drink, sir?”

Me: “No thanks, I’m fine for now.”

Waiter: “What, are you working tomorrow?”

Me: “Good point. Another mai-tai for me and pina colada for the missus.”

coconut drink

You suffer from middle class guilt.

95% of the other vacationers at the resort were, like us, American, white, and solidly middle-class. The Dominican staff is mainly dark-skinned, of Dominican or Haitian descent, and, presumably, poor. The class distinctions are overt. You’re left wondering what the staff thinks of Americans based on what they observe at the resort. I’ll bet “loud”, “large”, and “entitled” are among their conclusions. Given this, the they were remarkably good-natured and helpful, and we left with very positive impressions of the people of the Dominican Republic.

dominican beach

Bros.

You know the type: aggressively masculine, misogynistic, frequently drunk and determined to let you know it. Formerly isolated to the frat house, somehow bro culture has achieved cultural acceptability in mainstream society. The bro is in his natural habitat at an all-inclusive resort: there’s beach, booze, babes and most importantly, lots of other bros. The most “bro” moment of the week was when a group of said bros started a tribal chant urging the wait staff to bring them a pizza at the pool. Pure class.

palm tree beach

You’re on a diet.

By the second or third day at the resort, we realized that you didn’t have to eat three courses at every meal. Portions were epic and sometimes desserts or appetizers showed up even when you didn’t order them. Mountains of bacon at the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet set the tone each day, and 24-7 room service meant that food was never more than a phone call away.

dominican flower

Tipping makes you uncomfortable.

Turns out there are two very different points-of-view with regard to tipping at all-inclusive resorts. The first is that you should take the phrase “all-inclusive” at face value: you paid for everything, including gratuities, before you arrived and you don’t owe a penny more. The second approach is, “What’s another hundred bucks over the course of the week? The staff works hard, and it’ll benefit them more than it will me.” I started out in the first camp, but my guilty conscience quickly forced me into the second after witnessing several people leaving tips after meals. Since you don’t pay for anything at the resort, there’s no basis for determining the proper amount to tip. We settled on $1-$5 each time someone helped us out, depending on their helpfulness and attitude.

palapa

Would we vacation this way again? Maybe someday, but we’d go in the winter and take friends. For now, we’re satisfied to cross “go to an all-inclusive resort” off our bucket list and look forward to our next opportunity to travel abroad.

p.s. – For those of you who have requested more people photos on the blog, the reason they appear so infrequently is because this is what happens when we try to take a romantic selfie:

bad kiss

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 65 other followers