A Basement Dungeon Getaway

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Written  in January 2014.

Someday when I retire, I’m going to flee for part of every winter and head to a sandy beach. I’m going to sit and tan my wrinkled skin, feet in the sand amid turquoise waters, a book in one hand and a drink with an tiny umbrella in the other.

That longing for sun and sand happens to me every year, especially when I see all sorts of decent Minnesotans fleeing southward to sun in the dead of winter. My brother’s family just got back from an island hopping cruise in the Caribbean. A friend on facebook just posted that she was heading off to “paradise” with her husband.

Right now, though, we’re pretty much staying put right here. The pay I get from staying at home with kids is the intangible kind which pays in the long run, but doesn’t really work for buying plane tickets.

And really, who needs a sandy beach when you’ve got a basement dungeon full of 98-year-old spider webs? Last night, that’s just where Jarred and I spent a romantic evening.

Normally, on a Sunday night after the kids go to bed, a grand night is watching a movie on the couch and still getting to bed at a decent time. Last night, my big plan consisted of cleaning up the kitchen and then just heading straight to bed. But my husband kindly invited me down to the basement, where he planned to saw into water pipes to work on the boiler that’s been a persistent problem this winter.

I was elated.

Our basement is standard old farmhouse basement fare: It’s best feature is a cement floor. It also sports limestone brick walls, dim lighting, long strands of cob webs, a creepy back room containing an old tank, and a bonus outhouse-like “bathroom” stall with a hole in the floor where a toilet used to be. Bugs and spiders thrive year-round in our basement sanctuary.

Usually, my use of the basement consists of making a bee line to grab a paint can and darting back up stairs as fast as possible. Or sometimes, I dart downstairs with a flash light in hand, go to the “control center” in the dungeon, stand on the wood block step, and flip whatever circuit breaker blew and then dart back upstairs again.

In my mental plans, I want to clean up the basement and arrange it into less of a storage hodge podge. When I go down there, my main thought, though, is just to get back upstairs as soon as possible.

I did agree to go downstairs last night because I was asked to moved anything on the floor that shouldn’t sit in two inches of water, on the off chance that the pipe sawing and repair turned a little ugly.

I couldn’t think of any valuable and water soluble items off hand, but I did know it shouldn’t all get wet down there.

The first thing I did when I went downstairs to help was slip on my boots.  And spill hundreds of parts.

In the process of adjusting my boot, I knocked over and spilled Jarred’s container of hundreds of neatly sorted solderless connectors.

In non-technical terms, solderless connectors are blue, yellow, and red little plastic thingeys about the size of a noodle. They roll really nicely across a cement floor. I spent the first ten minutes of my “helping” picking those thingeys up and resorting them.

By the way, I did an excellent job sorting and no dead bugs accidentally made their way into the compartments.

I then directed my efforts toward moving things around in the basement, which doesn’t involve any plumbing or soldering. I came across my boxes of Christmas plates, the white china ones with holly leaves that have been abandoned for the last few years.

After shoving my boxes of Christmas plates around, knowing I still had no space for them in the kitchen, I had a Eureka moment: the basement cabinets.

Down in the basement are a set of the original wooden kitchen cupboards, almost 100 years old. Right now they look a little worse for the wear after sitting lonely in a damp basement for 35 years or so, but with glass doors on top and original hardware, I really like them. And behind the latches, the glass-doored cabinets stay relatively bug-free.

While Jarred fired up the Sawzall and cut some pipes, I unpacked my Christmas china and put it in the cabinets. My packing material of choice was newspaper (actually, the St. Charles Press) dated 2010. I remembered that when I packed those plates, I was pregnant with my little girl who is now almost three. At the time, we had our little log house for sale in Montana and we planned on buying a place in Osseo, Wisconsin.

Later we sold that house, the Osseo deal didn’t work, we rented a house for a year, and finally moved to our house in MN, where the plates sat in the basement for almost two years. It was like opening a Christmas plate time capsule of years gone by.

And somehow, the basement now seems a little less like a dungeon with nice plates on display behind glass cabinet doors. Or maybe a nicer dungeon at the very least.

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By the end of the evening we had unpacked Christmas china and a boiler that no longer sent the hot water down the drain instead of into our pipes to heat our house. In the process, the basement never flooded, not even a teeny bit.

While those vacations on sunny beaches are the kind where people wish they’d never end, the very best part of our basement dungeon getaway was the get away from the basement when the project was done. No, I didn’t need seven days and six nights to feel like I’d had my fill. And, there’s no need to “ooh” and “ah” over basement dungeon getaway photos. However, you might say “eew” and “eh…”

The silver lining in a night spent in the basement: plates finally unpacked after years spent in boxes.

The real silver lining is a boiler repair, but that’s not very pretty. Instead, just imagine the children’s book with Mike Mulligan in the basement of the new town hall looking happy and satisfied while Mary Anne the boiler pleasantly keeps the meetings warm. It’s like that.

The silver lining in a night spent in the basement: plates finally unpacked after years spent in boxes.  The real silver lining is a boiler repair, but that's not very pretty.  Instead, just imagine the children's book with Mike Mulligan in the basement of the new town hall looking happy and satisfied while Mary Anne the boiler pleasantly keeps the meetings warm.  It's like that.

Whether your getaway is on the beach or in the basement, wishing you warmth and coziness as the Polar Vortex once again heads our way… Stay warm, everyone!

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Greetings from Frostbite Farm, MN‏

Written January 2014.

Something about a -50 windchill on this Monday morning makes all other thoughts that don’t concern cold and survival just evaporate.

When we got up this morning, something wasn’t working properly with our heat. That means the upstairs is currently 48 degrees, and downstairs the thermostat reads a balmy 58 degrees. My husband figured out the problem, and the house is getting warmer again, but it’s a slow process.

In the mean time, I layered up the kids and wrapped them up in blankets, and at the moment, they are very content sitting and watching movies. We have a wall-mounted fan heater in the kitchen, and currently, the dog and the two young kids are vying for the cozy warm space right against that heater. Somehow, the dog is winning.

My two-year-old and our dog, hanging out in their favorite cozy place by the heater.

My two-year-old and our dog, hanging out in their favorite cozy place by the heater.

In the kitchen, the crock pot is cooking a chicken, venison steaks are thawing for lunch, a pot of beans simmer on the back stove, and I turned the oven on to make it warm enough for bread to rise. We are a long way from any danger of freezing, but something in that visceral cavewoman part of my head sees the cold outside and starts thinking I better start cooking, so we don’t just all freeze or starve to death. I know logically that we are indeed not freezing to death, but that doesn’t matter.

I just have to keep cooking anyway.

Last night before I went to bed, I thought, “It’s going to be cold, I better put some beans in a pot to soak overnight, so they can cook in the morning.”

And then I realized where all of this is coming from. In my head are the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter that I read to my kids earlier this fall. Most specifically, the October Blizzard chapter stands out, when they lived in a one-room tar paper claim shanty out on the open prairie.

While I didn’t realize it last night, that feeling like I better put some beans out to soak overnight with oncoming cold came straight from Caroline Ingalls in the blizzard chapter. ” ‘I’m glad I put beans to soak last night,’ said Ma. . . .Now and then she spooned up a few beans and blew on them. When their skins split and curled, she drained the soda water from the kettle and filled it again with hot water. She put in the bit of fat pork. ‘There’s nothing like good hot bean soup on a cold day,’ said Pa.”

I agree with Pa. If I could talk to him, I’d give him a good old Minnesotan “You betcha.” Our two-year-old didn’t really touch her pancake for breakfast, but she ate three warm, steamy servings of pinto beans doused in butter, salt, pepper, and cheese. Beans are cold weather food. You betcha.

On this blustery day, my mind drifts to the stories of extreme cold and hardship from the Ingalls family, “She put more wood in the stove and broke the ice in the water pail to fill the teakettle. The water pail was less than half-full. They must be sparing of water for nobody could get to the well in that storm. But the snow on the floor was clean. Laura scooped it into the washbasin and set it on the stove to melt, for washing in.”

There’s nothing like a little Laura Ingalls to add some perspective to hardship. Our pipes upstairs froze overnight, but all in all, it’s not so bad. We still have heat and running water downstairs.

This morning I’m frustrated that our dishwasher isn’t working because one of its water lines froze up, which means washing the mound of dirty dishes by hand. I really hate washing dishes. That is nothing, though, compared to waking up in a shanty with snow on the floor, let alone looking at that snow and thinking, “Oh good, now I can have water for washing.” No, life is pretty cushy by that comparison.

However, I actually did break ice in the water pail this morning. Granted, the water pail was in the unheated shed where the chickens live, and it’s the same thing we’ve been doing since the temperature went below freezing.

In another chapter of the same book, Pa tells his girls to stay in bed until he scoops the snow pile off of the top of their quilts. As for us, I dressed my kids in layers, but their day of “winter hardship” includes hanging out on a couch with cuddly blankets, holding my smart phone. On my phone they’re watching a movie on Netflix, essentially holding a little personal TV right in the palm of their hands. But wait, my husband also has a smart phone, so sometimes they have two different movies playing at once. And sometimes my older son then turns on our laptop and plays a game on that.

I think I’d be happier if it was the electronic devices that froze up on cold days.

On the positive side of this cold day, my kids sufficiently warmed up enough to decide they wanted snow ice cream. They went outside and collected a bowl of clean snow. Then while I worked in the other room, my seven-year-old and six-year-old worked in the kitchen mixing snow, cream, sugar, and vanilla together until it tasted like ice cream.

I was impressed. They made something that tasted like ice cream with no help from me, didn’t make a colossal mess in the kitchen, and did it all while keeping peace with a very opinionated two-year-old who desperately wanted to add in her own personal touch to the final product. That’s no small feat.

Maybe tonight we’ll make an apple pie for supper and top it with a little snow ice cream. A little extra heat in the house from the oven, smell of baking apples and cinnamon…that sounds like a perfectly good way to end a perfectly frigid day. While it’s not beans, I think Pa Ingalls would approve.

New Year’s UnResolutions

Sure New Year’s was a few months ago, but as you may notice, none of my resolutions include posting my columns in a timely manner.  Maybe next year for that one.

Written Jan 2, 2014

Happy 2014! With every new year, as soon as the kids stop blowing those noise makers in my ears, I start hearing people talk about the “R” word.

Resolutions.

By definition, “resolution” means firmness and determination to take a course of action. But as soon as you tack on the words “New Year’s” in front of resolution, it all becomes a joke, as in “Oh ha ha…yes, of course you are going to work out more this year…for about two weeks…” Aren’t New Year’s Resolutions those plans that you make and then just completely discard by Valentine’s Day?

So this year, I’m making some un-resolutions. (And no, that is not technically a word…yet.) I hate to say I’m resolute, because well, plans change, and things come up. And when it comes to unresolved, I’m quite good at that. I have plenty of unresolved projects in my life. In the last month alone, I’ve created an astonishing number of unresolved projects all over the house while Christmas took a priority.

Theoretically, when the holidays end, I’ll have all sorts of time to start fresh and tackle a few projects in the new year. Here are some of my Wintertime Unresolutions:

Paint the Kitchen Cabinets
The first time I walked through this house, I thought “If I bought this place, I’d paint the kitchen cabinets white right away.” We’re sneaking up on two years in this house, so I think I’m finally ready to take on that “right away” project.

I actually did start painting the cabinets about a month after moving in, starting the project at about 11 PM, when I finally had some quiet time. Obviously, I was way overtired if I thought I should drag out the paint to start a home improvement project two hours past my bedtime. I did paint for an hour or so before bagging the project for months on end.

This past spring, I primed a few more cabinets one afternoon. But when that winter snow finally melted (at the end of May, I believe), all the indoor projects ended and all attention went to outdoor projects. Make hay while the sun shines…or paint the porch, in my case.

Currently, when people look at my cabinets with about 1/4 covered in the streaky primer coat they tentatively ask, “Is that how you are going to keep them?” Um, no. I just thought it’d be nice to really drag out the ugly transition stage for a really long time.

Currently, my cabinets are a classy mix of half streaky paint and half dark wood.  Be it resolved that the cabinets will actually get painted this year.

Currently, my cabinets are a classy mix of streaky primer and dark wood. Be it resolved that the cabinets will actually get painted this year.

With a frozen world outside and my youngest kiddo sneaking up on three, that seems like the ideal time to tackle that kitchen.

Paint the Girls’ Room
When I moved in, I also thought, “I’ll paint the girls room ASAP.” And of course, you can guess what’s happened. The girls’ favorite colors are blue and purple, but the current walls are orange, brown, and dark green sponge painting…pretty much the opposite of those favorite colors. For an added touch, the room also sports a wall paper border that is partially missing due to an industrious baby who liked to help out with home improvement while stuck in her crib. Apparently, she didn’t want the border, either.

When I get that kitchen done, the long-neglected girls’ room is next on the list.

Read Three Books
In the course of the year, I fairly easily read 500 books. Sounds impressive, right? And of course, many of those books are the classics. Classics, as in The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Harry the Dirty Dog, Green Eggs and Ham, Goodnight Moon…you get the picture. When it comes to adult literary selections, though, I’m really lacking.

I hate to say this, but in some ways, majoring in English partially killed my desire to read. I regularly cranked through 100-200 pages of intensive reading a night. Remembering all details, characters and plots while making inferences and identifying underlying themes burned me out for quite some time. Just when I really started liking reading for enjoyment again is about the time that babies arrived on the scene. And no surprise, sleep deprivation and increased work load aren’t really conducive to reading novels.

My modest goal this year is to read three books. (I won’t say “adult books” because that leads people to thinking that I shop for my books in that run-down store on the wrong side of the tracks.)

Three books in a year seems like a laughable amount when I’d read that much in a week in college or in the summer during high school. However, three books is a vast improvement to the half of a book that I read on my own this year. How embarrassing.

I found some new reading inspiration, though, on the latest trip to Montana. I brought home a small stack of books from Grandma Grace’s collection, and seeing them makes me want to sit down and curl up with a good book at night. And best of all, I won’t rack up any library fines.

A new little stack of books from my husband's Grandma Grace is the inspiration for reading books for myself again.

A new little stack of books from my husband’s Grandma Grace is the inspiration for reading books for myself again.

Looking at my list, I realize my un-resolutions are pretty minimal. That is the point. In my head are easily another 20 big projects that I’d like to take on in 2014, but for now, I’m starting fairly simply. If life taught me anything in 2013, it’s that things don’t always go as planned. So I’m starting with just paint and books.

Throw four young kids into that mix, and that seems like plenty of opportunities for un-resolutions for the start of the year.

Happy New Year, everyone!