Monday, May 17, 2021

Ask Aunt Dorcas: Boundaries for a Woman at Work

 Dear Aunt Dorcas,

What are some good guidelines for interacting with men in the workplace? I work for an electric and rental business, and so my interactions are primarily male. I enjoy what I do, but at the same time, I think/worry about crossing professional boundaries.

This is in the context of mostly married men. I grew up without a lot of male interactions, so I feel like I’m navigating new territory in some ways. Some ways that I’ve tried to think about this in the past: I try not to say anything that I would not say if his wife was standing right there, especially if we are talking about my personal life.

I am a very outgoing, cheerful person. This seems to add an extra challenge. In turn, people seem to feel safe with me. Just today, I had a conversation one on one and later I wondered if it was okay for him to tell me that.

What about messaging outside of work? Is it okay if its casual? For example, if someone sends me a message like, “You wanna come join us for supper tonight?” or “I appreciate your cheerful personality in the front office.”

Do we cross boundaries if the messages get too personal as in, "I think I miss you when I’m gone," or "I don’t wanna play favorites at work, but girl! You’re pretty awesome!"

Can I ever trust my gut? This feels okay/this doesn’t feel okay? I’m sure that there are things and situations that vary. But seems like there are some pretty standard things to keep in mind. From your repertoire of wisdom, what would you say to me? Where does blessing each other as people come into play? Does Jesus' life in the New Testament give us any insight? He certainly wasn’t afraid of women!

--Katie

 

Dear Katie—

I showed your question to some of my adult children who have more experience in the workplace than I do. Our son Ben said, “Instead of answering her question, you need to clarify the context. I don’t know what she’s asking, which means she probably doesn’t know what she’s asking.”

I’m guessing you’ve been embarrassed, accused, or otherwise burned by personal experiences you can’t share publicly. You are naturally friendly and engaging, but you know that a woman being too friendly with men at work can get complicated and end badly.

Reading between the lines, I think you are a caring person who can be fully trusted.

You know your heart and intentions, but you also know others can only see your actions.

The obvious question is your first one—" What are some good guidelines for interacting with men in the workplace?” But other questions are implied: “Are my words going to be misconstrued? Is my behavior appropriate? If someone thinks I’m flirting, does that automatically mean I am? Am I responsible if someone texts me inappropriately? Where, exactly, is that invisible line that has loads of trouble waiting on the other side?

As a housewife, I can’t answer you as someone who’s been in the work world. However, I can share my experience as a writer, an observer, and a wife and mom of people in the work force.

I meet and hear from both men and women. I’ve had many conversations with male readers, and I accept facebook friend requests and messages from men. My husband is free to read all those messages. I’ve learned to quickly sniff out who is a nice, interested reader as opposed to what my children irreverently call a SOOM—Slightly Obsessed Old Man.

Those are the ones who shake my hand a little too long and gush a little too much at book signings. Or they send a nice message about an article, and then the next message says my husband is such a lucky man. Out you go, Sir.

I also share your trait of being someone that people confide in, which carries its own rewards and dangers. Again, experience has helped me discern what’s ok and what’s not. I’m not able to give needy people lots of my time, unfortunately, and no man gets very far telling me about his troubled marriage.

I created my current boundaries gradually after learning that I can’t be all things to all readers and that certain words give instant clues that a man is a SOOM.

You asked if you can trust your gut. My answer is yes. That’s what I do, but my gut has been informed by long experience, input from others, and a commitment to Jesus and my marriage.

Your dilemma comes from a number of factors, I think.

1.     You’re naturally a bubbly, caring person, and people confide in you.

2.     The rules at work don’t seem to be clearly defined.

3.     You worry that your intentions will be misconstrued and your words taken wrong.

4.     You feel responsible for how you’re perceived and how others respond to you.

5.     Your work life seems to overlap with your life outside of work. For example, an employee invites you over for dinner, and people text you outside of work.

The first boundary to draw here is around your own heart. Only you can know what your motives and intentions are. You can define your goals in your work relationships, evaluate messages and conversations, ask for help, and know if your conscience is clear. You have the power to adjust and change.

Then, I feel you need to consult a source outside of yourself for defining expectations at your workplace. If your boss can’t be troubled with this, talk to friends in similar situations or look up sources online. A list of rules at similar workplaces might clarify things for you.

My kids with jobs out in the big world said that their policy is to not mix work life and personal life at all. However, this can get fuzzy if you’ve gotten to know people so well that conversation is easy and you know about their babies, political views, family crises, and so on. Also, if you go to the same church, or an employee is married to your cousin, a list of rules makes less sense.

Here’s where we hit that strange swamp of intentions and perceptions. You are obviously responsible for your intentions, but are you responsible for how they take your words?

On the one hand, we have the people who like to tease and joke annoyingly and hurtfully. When you finally confront them, they say, “Hey, I was just joshin’ ya. I didn’t mean anything by it!” We don’t care about their intentions. We just want them to take responsibility for how they come across.

But then there’s the guy who sent you the [inappropriate] text that you’re so awesome. If you confront him, I would bet money he’ll insist you flirted that morning by offering him a cup of coffee, and how was he supposed to know you didn’t mean a whole lot of other things by doing that?

You both know your intentions were honorable, and it isn't wrong to offer a cup of coffee. That's what really matters here.

I’m guessing you’re Mennonite, although I don’t know for sure, and I want to insert here that in Mennonite male-female relationships, women have borne far too large a burden for how both men and women interpret their words and actions. A friendly girl who likes to talk to the guys is often accused of flirting. That was the case when I was young, limiting my skills in having normal talks with guys. My youngest daughter informs me that that standard still applies.

At best, this makes for awkward conversations fraught with self-consciousness. At worst, it makes women responsible for men’s sins. Some of us find conversations with non-Mennonite men easier, more comfortable, and less stressful.

So, you need to be aware of the culture you’re in and how you’re coming across, and adjust accordingly, but you can’t change someone’s heart. Someone with an evil heart will interpret anything you do or say through their own lens.

Finally, give yourself grace. Maybe you were needlessly nervous or you shared too freely. You can learn from your mistakes and do it differently next time. You mentioned Jesus and his relationship to women. If your heart is guided by Jesus and accumulated wisdom, you’ll be able to read a situation and respond appropriately. Eventually, you won’t need to rely on a list of rules or on feedback from others. You’ll be the blessing you want to be, both in the workplace and outside of it.

That’s what I think. I wish you all the best.

Aunt Dorcas

PS—I shopped your question around to my kids to get a variety of perspectives. Here are some of those conversations.

JENNY

Our daughter Jenny is about to graduate from college with a degree in mathematics. Originally, her major was engineering, so she’s been in male-dominated classes for years. She’s also done lots of formal and informal tutoring. When she and Amy were both at Linn-Benton Community College, Amy said she’d sometimes walk across campus and see a picnic table full of nerdy engineering majors, with Jenny teaching them how to do their physics homework.

“So,” I asked her, “How did you navigate good boundaries in this setting?”

She said, “One benefit I had is that none of the guys felt like options. Me being ‘religious’ and them being non-religious created a barrier. I’d never talk about personal stuff or crushes like I would with girls.”

“I didn’t agonize about if the stuff they told me was too personal. What they tell me isn’t my problem unless it’s something I’d rather not know, then I’d let them know I was uncomfortable.”

“I often ended up in an informal tutoring role. We’d work on homework together. Often I’d figure things out and explain them to everyone else. Apparently I was notorious for not just giving out the answer. My friend Brian was talking to another friend about me and said, ‘Yeah, you can ask Jenny for help, but she’ll still make you work for it.’”

“There were a couple of times I felt uncomfortable with how close they seemed to feel to me. I never felt like it was my fault. I just tried to avoid them for a while, not in a rude way, but just intentionally not being where I knew they’d be.”

I asked, “Do you feel like Mennonite culture makes heavy weather of girls talking to guys?”

Jenny said, “When I talk to a Mennonite guy, there’s this thing in the back of my mind—ooooh are you being flirtatious?? I even make the same judgment about other Mennonite girls when they like to talk to guys.”

“Overall, it’s fine to be friends with guys and talk about things, but don’t get emotionally invested, and the deepest matters of the heart you should discuss with close female friends.”

BEN

Ben is a grad student studying combustion at Oregon State University. I asked him about relating to women at work/school.

“There’s not that many women in my field. I guess there’s one woman in my lab. I don’t get that personal with the people I work with. Some of them do stuff together outside of work, but I have more outside friends so I don’t as much.”

I asked, “Did female students make you uncomfortable?”

Ben said, “No. We’d mostly talk about school related stuff, maybe have a discussion on how we all solved #5.”

PHOEBE and MATT:

Matt is our oldest son. He used to work for the Navy and now works for NASA. Phoebe is our daughter-in-law and has worked in a variety of settings, including jobs in Washington, DC. They focused more on situations that make you uncomfortable. Phoebe emailed the following:

A lot of the boundaries one might set in the workplace have to do with personal comfort levels, not absolute right and wrong. Personally, I’ve leaned toward sharing minimal personal information at work. I can say, “ I’m not comfortable sharing that.” Or “I don’t share that kind of information at work.” I can also change the subject. That goes for men and women.

It’s difficult to set hard and fast rules. To me, it seems like quantity and frequency of information shared might matter more than content.

There are also professional, rather than moral factors to consider. Depending on her role in her workplace, chatting about personal things (like weekend plans, kids, pets, etc) with coworkers/clients could be seen as appropriate or even as relationship-building. In others it might seem distracting and irrelevant.

I think phrases like:

“Wow! That sounds so difficult.” “It seems like you’re handling that well.” “Thank you for helping me with X.” can be used safely with pretty much anyone. But if someone is complaining or venting, some phrases I’ve found helpful are:

“Well, I should get back to working on X.”

“Have you mentioned that to (the person they’re complaining about)?”

“Well, I’m on my way to the (printer, restroom, etc.). See you later.”

Monotone “Hmm” and “Oh” are also good conversation-enders.

If you’re comfortable being more direct and it’s an ongoing situation, you might try: “I’m uncomfortable with the amount of time we’re spending talking about X.”

Or “Let’s not talk about this.”

If she feels uncomfortable with something someone else is saying/doing she should feel free to trust herself and bring her concerns to the attention of the person, or someone who supervises them (or her). If the other person has good intentions, they will want to act in a way that makes her comfortable.

Matt points out here that people being creepy will usually do so in a plausibly deniable way.

“Oh, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“It was just a compliment.”

“You’re taking it the wrong way.”

“I’m just being friendly.”

If you feel uncomfortable, it’s ok not to believe the person and to report, avoid, or distance from them even if they claim good intentions.

It is also ok to make rules like, “I don’t share my personal phone number at work.” Or “I don’t privately message coworkers/clients about non-work information.” And it is ok for these rules to apply to some people and not others.

I had a conversation about this with Matt and took down the following thoughts of his (since he’s driving).

Matt recommends that the writer think about how she would act toward a man in her workplace that she likes. Does she treat him in a way/talk to him in a way/let him talk to her in ways that feel ok because he’s attractive, but wouldn’t otherwise? That could give other guys in the office ideas about what is ok/not ok with her.

Matt also thinks it’s important for women to understand that men have an almost innate desire for attention from an attractive woman. If you suspect he is unconsciously seeking attention, do not respond in kind. If you receive a long heartfelt message about how much he misses you when you’re not at work, your maximum response should be, “Thanks.” Assume he’s a SOOM.

In Matt’s observation, men who have healthy relationships with their wives are less likely to interact inappropriately with other women. If he is complaining about or “joking” about his wife publicly, or in private messages, that is a major red flag.

Your boss, if he is a man, may not be very sympathetic to a report that another man is behaving inappropriately toward you. Your experience is so far from anything he’s experienced that it might be very difficult for him to understand and sympathize. Even if he is well-intentioned, he may not intervene in the way you’d hope for because he has no concept of how the situation feels to you or is affecting you.

If you bring it up and that is the case, you might consider whether you can bring the situation up with (depending on the workplace structure) his wife, or another woman who can help get through to him.

Aunt Dorcas has four children with degrees from Oregon State University.
The fifth, Jenny, graduates in a few weeks.
Here she poses with Emily in 2017.

Sunday, May 02, 2021

Ask Aunt Dorcas--The Pushy Woman

Dear Aunt Dorcas,

What advice would you give for this situation?

Recently we bought a home and my husband remodeled it. It’s a beautiful house, and we love to open our home to people. We are always hosting and we enjoy it very much.

However, there are certain people from our church that seem to want to be invited just to see the house so they can later talk about it. When we are around these people they talk a lot about how much people's cars or houses cost, and whether women are good housekeepers or not, and how they keep up the outside.

They have been finding excuses to stop by the house, so my husband goes out to the car to talk to them. But they are very pushy and they'll be in the house before we know it. I just don't know how long we can avoid them.

It’s mostly one woman I'll call Mary (a widow) and her son and two daughters who are in their 20s and living at home.

Soon after we moved here, we were driving home from a funeral and someone followed us all the way. We drove in our driveway and so did the car behind us. It turned out to be Mary. She wanted to see where we were living.

Since then she's been dropping off different items for my husband to fix. He does construction so she brings things like broken flower boxes or kitchen chairs. Or she says she wants advice for how to redo her kitchen or what kind of wood she needs for raised beds.

When my husband says he doesn't have time to repair stuff she pushes it on him anyway. She will call and ask, where are you? I need to bring you something. She even asked her son to call him on Christmas Eve asking if he could fix a crack in her enamel roaster!

I feel like she is controlling my husband. He has many times tried to politely decline but was pushed into it anyway. 

My husband knows how much I don't like it. We have talked a lot about it, but we don't know what to do about it. We have a very communicative relationship and happy marriage.

My husband has wondered if she was a burden we had to bear and we need to learn to be humble and kind to her. He is a very humble man and she knows it.

She has a number of grown children. The ones at home are just as nosy as she is but her son from out of the area told us one time he doesn’t want us to invite them in or do things for them. But she STILL pushed my husband into coming over and spraying out the ditches by their place last fall.

Sorry this is so long. I mainly wanted advice about having them in my home. I want to be loving, kind, and hospitable. Do I humble myself and invite them or do I protect myself and my home from more pain and gossip? 

How do I respond to nosy people when they ask to see my home? 

--Wendy

 

Dear Wendy—

I think this is essentially a boundary problem.

Some of us bristle at that word, assuming that setting boundaries is the same as fighting for our rights rather than being unselfish and giving. 

That’s not what it means, and I’ll try to explain. I was introduced to these ideas by Henry Cloud and John Townsend’s books. I’m sure I won’t explain their concepts adequately so I encourage you to read Boundaries for yourself.

When God made humans, it was important to Him that they make choices. He wanted us to freely choose to love and serve Him. He gave each of us jurisdiction over certain things. We own them, make decisions about them, and have responsibility for them.

These things include our:

Bodies

Possessions

Time

Homes

Emotions

Affections

Choices

Responses

Consequences

And, most of all, our hearts. God wants our faith and love to be freely given. He does not force or coerce us.

Others are responsible for their own bodies, possessions, etc. They are not responsible for yours, nor you for theirs.

There are lines, or boundaries, around each of these things. Many of them are related to privacy and identity. You get to say yes or no in each of these areas.

If someone crosses a line without your permission, your feelings naturally range from annoyance to resentment to shock to utter devastation. 

If you feel that you don’t have the liberty to say “No,” then your “Yes,” will come with resentment. For example, we’ve all had the enthusiastic friend who talks us into teaching Vacation Bible School or baking 25 dozen cookies for the bake sale when we’re suffering from chronic fatigue and struggling to keep up at home.

So we take on the assignment out of guilt, but we resent every minute we spend on it. It was not a freely given Yes because we didn’t feel that saying No was an option. We unwisely let someone else decide how to spend our time and energy.

If we were sinned against and are struggling to forgive, and we admit this in a Bible study group, and then get pressured into saying we forgive them, our boundaries are trampled. God wants forgiveness to be freely given from your heart. It should be your decision, between you and God. Others can support you, but the forgiveness isn't their decision.

Did you ever invite a guest for a meal and then they wandered upstairs uninvited? It feels bad because they’re crossing privacy boundaries in your house. You might feel the same way if someone tells you that you shouldn’t feel what you’re feeling. You own those feelings, and it isn’t their responsibility to make you feel something different.

If you’ve ever had someone peeking in your windows at night or breaking into your house, you know the awful feeling of violation that comes with it. Your house is your safe, private place. Someone crossed those ownership lines without your permission.

Probably the most devastating example is when physical and sexual boundaries are violated, and someone exposes and uses your body by force or manipulation. Even “small” violations are shocking and horrible, like a strange man putting his arm around you and saying something sleazy.

In contrast, your husband was invited to be intimate with you because of his love and commitment. It was your choice to say Yes and share your body with him. If he puts his arm around you, it is a safe and positive experience. He belongs there.

The New Testament has lots of commands to be unselfish, sacrificial, and giving. It can feel like those commands take away our choices, and we are powerless against people taking advantage of us.

My impression is that your husband is in this category, a nice, humble Christian man who sees this situation as a burden to bear, giving him no real options.

I feel those commands, such as the one to also give up your cloak if your coat is taken, recognize that you have jurisdiction over your possessions. It matters to you because it was yours. It was wrong for the other person to take it.

However, if something is taken by force, maybe giving something extra actually returns some power to you. You are not a helpless victim. You can still make choices.

I don’t feel that these commands of Christ mean that no matter what anyone else tells you to do or give, you have to do it. 

Maybe you’re someone who feels that no matter what someone—especially family or church—tells you to do, that is the will of God for you. If so, you’re going to be yanked around like a ship on the high seas, driven of the wind and tossed, because you’re going to get conflicting and opposite instruction for just about every decision you ever make.

Many people don’t understand what is their business and what isn’t. It’s amazing how many people want to make decisions for you, even if you’re a functioning adult, and feel they have the right to dictate your life. You need to be clear before God about His calling to you. It probably won't look like other people think it should.

So many life lessons can be learned from Pride and Prejudice. Our example this time is that queen of boundary crossing, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She commands Lizzy to send word to her parents and stay for two more weeks, and then to be sure to take the Bromley post to get home. Lizzy, being wise and healthy, mostly ignores her. However, Lady Catherine also tells Maria Lucas the right and only way to pack gowns in a trunk, and Maria goes into a complete tizzy, repacking all her gowns before they leave in the morning. Lizzy whispers, “Lady Catherine will never know!” and poor Maria is all confused, feeling that whatever Lady Catherine says, you have to do, even if it’s none of her business.

Unfortunately, it's never easy to push back against these line-crossers. It's awkward, embarrassing, and difficult. Often, it's much easier in the short term to give in to the Lady Catherines, because they are so intimidating. Usually, they know very well how much you want to be nice, and they take advantage of that. Your energetic bake-saling friend knows very well how hard it is for you to say no. The neighbor making inappropriate jokes knows you hate to make a fuss. And Mary knows that stopping her will take more strength than you and your husband have had so far, plus probably a big scene besides, which you desperately want to avoid.

Ultimately, your decisions are God’s gift to you--your little kingdom, so to speak. Work, marriage, college, what to plant north of the house, and who should or shouldn't be a guest in your home. You can get insights, but God wants you to rule wisely in your little jurisdiction and learn from the consequences of your choices, because those are also yours to own.

You and your husband own money and possessions. God has given you the responsibility for what you own. You get to decide. God would like you to tithe, take care of your family, lend freely, help others in the church, help the poor, and so on, but He wants your decisions to come freely from a heart of faith, trust, and responsibility. No one else can tell you exactly how those numbers ought to come out. He doesn’t want your giving to be coerced.

That brings us, at last, back to your specific situation, Ms. Wendy.

The boundaries of your home are being violated, or you feel they soon will be. Your home should be your safe place, where you get to decide when to open the door, and to whom. You are quite sure that Mary and her family will find a way inside against your wishes. It brings you anxiety, dread, and a sense of violation.

Your husband should be protecting you, just as he should protect you from the violation of a neighbor peeking in your bedroom window or a stranger stroking your back and making sleazy comments. I would suggest discussing it with him in these terms, because the resulting emotions are similar to what you're feeling now.

You are also acutely aware that your husband is being pressured and guilted into helping this woman. She is deciding for him how he spends his time, and he continues to spray ditches even against the wishes of her one son. He will likely soon bring them into the house. He apparently doesn’t see that her behavior is completely bizarre, unhealthy, and creepy.

Here is the tough thing about boundaries: your husband has to decide for himself how he will spend his time and how much he will let these people dictate his choices.

You cannot decide for him. He is the only one with that power.

Thankfully, you are not powerless. You are able to communicate with your husband and explain how you feel. You can pray hard, as I’m sure you already have.

You can do the coat and cloak thing, if you wish, deciding to invite them in and not only serve them a meal but take them all around the house, opening closets and medicine cupboards.

You can set boundaries. If you don’t feel they should come into your home, then decide what will happen if they do. Explain this to your husband, so it’s clear.

And you can ask for help. I feel your marriage could use a good session with a counselor to explore why your husband prioritizes pacifying Mary over protecting you. Also, how he can get the support to say no to such inappropriate requests from such a pushy person. You also need to learn how to be united in addressing this problem. A counselor can help you see just how messed up the situation is. You are not imagining things or over-reacting.

The non-crazy son should be consulted, I think. Maybe he can push for a mental health evaluation. Mary's pastor, which is also yours, should be informed and asked for assistance. Consider talking to law enforcement. Getting a restraining order is completely outside the pale for Mennonites, but I feel this woman’s behavior is sliding toward criminal and/or insane if she is obsessed enough to follow people home from a funeral.

Even though I’m happy to dish out my perspective and advice, this is yours to live and deal with. You own it--an unwelcome gift I’m sure. If you do nothing, which may be easier in the moment, that is your decision, and there will be consequences. If you do something, which could become really ugly in the short term, there will also be consequences.

You have what it takes to figure it out, and I wish you much wisdom.

That’s what I think.

Aunt Dorcas

Aunt Dorcas enjoying an iced coffee in San Diego.


Tuesday, April 27, 2021

The Bathroom Remodel--Part 3--The Results

 I am not naturally gifted in decorating, nor am I good at making decisions. Remodeling involves a terrifying number of decisions, all of which involve the outlay of dollars and the installation of fixtures difficult to change or replace.

I figured midtones in neutral colors were the safest bet, so I was agonizing over paint and vinyl colors. Did medium gray go with medium taupe and tan?

Finally my daughters got involved. Amy told me I want either really dark or really light, not midtones. And she was right. That's what I wanted. It was so nice to have someone inform me.

That made the decisions easy. Light marble countertop. Dark fixtures. A combination for the floor.

We really like the results.

The flooring is vinyl with the look of tile. I don't like the cold feel of tile underfoot, plus the weight of it would make me nervous about accelerating the rate of the bathroom falling off the rest of the house, no matter how much the carpenters in my life assure me that won't happen.

We planned to make a tiled shower area and set a clawfoot tub inside. That way if we ever needed a handicapped shower, it would be relatively easy to switch. However, we've enjoyed that walk-in shower so much that I don't know if we'll ever install the tub we bought.

Pretty sure the real decorators remember to close the toilet seat before they shoot pictures.
This was after the tile was in but before the floor was finished.

We kept the mirror but added a frame.



Choosing a shower curtain used up a lot more mental energy than the decision deserved. One day I washed all my veils and Emily told me she heard that short, lacy, black shower curtains are really in style now.

I thought this shower curtain coordinated well with the dark/light look.


I chose dark bronzed fixtures. 

Paul got a can of spray paint and painted all the fixtures like light switch plates and registers.






Great-grandma Anna would be proud of this ceiling, I think.



We are happy with our new bathroom and hope it lasts until our children or maybe grandchildren decide to remodel someday.

No, we aren't 100% finished.
But the bathroom is functional and we can finish these things when we're ready.

Monday, April 26, 2021

The Bathroom Remodel, Part Two--The Messy Middle

When you start tearing into an old house, you never know what you'll find.

Here are a few stories I posted on Facebook as they happened:


I was called into the bathroom to approve a few particulars about the tub and shower arrangement. Paul and the Carpenters frowned, pointed, measured, and looked to me for approval. But I was distracted by something else. "Why can I see daylight through that gap in the corner?" I said.

They all looked. "What?" "Wait." "You're right."

It appeared that the bathroom, which used to be the back porch, was falling off the rest of the house.

Much more measuring was done, and crawling under the house, and trying to jack up a wall.

Apparently it happened when Paul's dad moved the house here 40 years ago. The foundation is solid, so we are unlikely to keep tilting further every time we fill the bathtub. That was the band's conclusion. I hope they're right.




They braced the one wall, just in case, so if there was any more shifting the tile wouldn't be cracking in every direction.
I'm learning it's good to speak up with what I think and see, even if I officially don't know anything about remodeling.

Then there was the episode where we decided to restore the ceiling to its original glory.


“That ceiling is a bit of a surprise,” said the carpenter.

He said it quietly, like it was no big deal.

First he had pried off just a bit of drywall around the light and exposed the old beadboard underneath, and we had decided to return to the original ceiling. Then he hacked off big chunks of drywall. After that, he made his calm observation, like you might say, "We need to pick up another bag of grout." Or like Daniel Kropf, Paul's great-grandpa, probably said to Anna in 1911, "Yah, we had just enough boards to finish the back porch ceiling, and we didn't have to make another trip to town for more."

Anna, I'm guessing, nodded and smiled like a good wife fully confident in her husband's skills and judgment. The next day she walked through the house, admiring the progress. Her husband was obviously all about practicality and efficiency, hence the steep stairs and the utterly utilitarian floor plan--a square house divided into square quarters. At least he had indulged her with that bay window in the living room.

Then Anna bustled into the back porch where she would put her wash machine. Good, good. Plenty of room for the washer, the galvanized schwank tub for rinsing, and all the baskets.

She looked up.

"Daniel! Wass in die Welt?!"

A third of the ceiling was covered in bead board like the kitchen, a third in plain boards like the bathroom, and the final third in leftover siding boards from the outside of the house.

"Ach, Anna, it doesn't matter, does it? Look, this way we could use up all the leftovers and they all came out even!”

Anna sighed. It was only the back porch, after all. Visitors would never come out there. And she really was grateful for her efficient husband and her new house.

Maybe, a long way into the future, her great-grandson's wife would think it was just the latest and greatest thing, after the back porch had been a bathroom for many years.

Well, no, probably not. But Anna had bigger fish to fry than worrying about mismatched ceilings. So she bustled off to peel potatoes for supper for Daniel and their ten children.

--

I decided I have a limit to my quest for authenticity in this house. The ceiling will get covered in reproduction beadboard after we clean up 50 years of bug droppings. It will run crosswise to maximize efficiency and avoid waste, since Paul carries the practical genes of his great-grandfather.

Meanwhile, the bathroom progresses bit by bit. Everything is a terrible mess, but the new shower area gives me hope. It looks like a line from Edelweiss--"small and white, clean and bright."

The quiet carpenter does excellent work.




The mess of the whole project was overwhelming at times, as was the stress of having extra people in the house day after day. Sometimes Jenny and I escaped into the pantry for a bit of privacy, sipping tea and whispering among brooms and Crock Pots.



When we finally reached the point where we could start painting, it felt like we might actually reach the end of this project, and we had a hand in its outcome.



Dozens of details--faucets, latches, light switch covers, and more still needed to be worked on, but the end was in sight.

Next post: the results.


Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Bathroom Remodel, Part One

 Twenty years ago, when we moved into this house, we felt something had to be done. The only way into the tiny downstairs bathroom was through Paul's parents' bedroom. Anne had curtained off a little passage with chenille bedspreads, but it still made us uncomfortable.

At that time, the bathroom was at one end of the back porch. The rest of the porch was a laundry area. We decided to turn the whole thing into a bathroom.

We took out the clawfoot tub and replaced it with a fiberglass tub and shower combo. We now realize this was stupid. The smartest thing we added was a pocket door to separate the tub and toilet area from the sinks and mirror area that we added in the former laundry area.

Before: looking reasonably good if you're not up close

It served us well. On many many school mornings the bathroom buzzed with activity as I braided the girls' hair, everyone brushed their teeth, and people pounded on the pocket door, waiting for their turn. I changed diapers on the long counter between the sinks and washed and bandaged wounds. Water balloons were filled there, and cats got baths. 

The bathroom was exhausted. Mold crept across the corners, and we suspected the floor was rotting under the linoleum near the shower. Worst, one side of the room had settled just enough to make it impossible to latch or lock the doors. Our family trusted each other to knock and holler, but it was disconcerting for guests.

As with our office redo, it was good that we plunged in without knowing how much work it was going to be. And it still isn't 100% finished.

My friend Twila, who is married to Paul's cousin Brian, said she's not posting pictures of her new kitchen until it's completely done. I decided not to follow her example, since there might be hard water spots on the new tile by the time the last towel bar is up.

Before

Before
We decided to keep the layout of the bathroom and also the cabinets. They had been custom built and had good solid bones. However, the varnish was wearing off, leaving dull areas, especially on the doors.

"Why don't we keep them just like they are but make them darker?" I suggested.

Paul didn't think that could be done without sanding off all the original finish, a very complicated undertaking.

I was dubious.

He asked the carpenter, who agreed with him. It really wasn't possible. It wouldn't work to paint them, either, because the grain would show through.

I called a professional cabinet refurbisher in Eugene. He also said the original finish would need to be sanded down completely and quoted me a price that would have paid for a whole new custom-built arrangement.

"Humph," I said.

I contacted my friend JoAnne from Texas, who sent me to Pinterest. "I know it's been done," she said.

Yessssss. Paul was willing to try. I think that since his accident and learning to do all the things he "shouldn't" be able to do, he's more willing to find a way around obstacles.

We bought cans of stain at Jerry's, the home-improvement store where an employee had the audacity to tell me he doesn't like Pinterest.

I thought but did not say: Too bad for you.

Paul decided to experiment on the inside of the doors. He took off the doors and the drawer fronts despite his bum arm and began to slather stain on the back of a door as per instructions.

The website had told us to put on multi layers of stain, which created a dark, opaque finish with the wood grain showing through. It looked ok but not beautiful.




Paul tried a different stain on the back of a different door, and I saw that a single layer, spread on and then wiped off after a few minutes, was exactly the look I wanted.

He perfected the process on the back of some drawers, then administered the same treatment to all the drawers, doors, and frames. 

First, he or Steven sanded them lightly.

Then, he brushed on the stain. He tried to follow the grain of the wood. Then he wiped it off.

We found that he had to be really careful with the initial application, because any attempt to touch it up soaked and peeled off some of the first application.

Also, the doors didn't stain as nicely as the drawers, because of all the areas where the varnish had worn off. We decided we would say they look "distressed."

Kevin the carpenter added the final clear coat.

Overall, we're really pleased with the result. I am very happy that I kept believing it could be done despite all the knowledgeable men who insisted it couldn't.



The end result, with exactly the dark shade I wanted.
This was before the new counter was on and after the new floor was in,
which is kind of jumping to the end of the chapter.

To avoid overloading subscribers' email feeds with photos, I'll do a second post with the rest of the bathroom.