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Up in Smoke: A Renovation Nightmare

After a couple of years careening back and forth between considerations about where to live, how to live and what we want to do with the next 50 years of our lives, my husband, Dave, and I finally committed ourselves to a big renovation project. It included an expanded living space, hardwood floors, new doors and windows, a new kitchen, new heating and cooling…the whole nauseating enchilada. Exactly four months ago, we broke ground, planning to be back in our home in time to host Thanksgiving in our newly-expanded dining room. But that was before the fire. Allow me to back up a bit. The decision to renovate was not an easy one. When we bought this house several years ago, the home inspector looked at its crawl space full of decaying joists, its attic full of black mold and the varmint hole as wide as a dachshund dug under the kitchen floorboards and shook his head and said, “Well, I can see why the price is so low. But listen. Do not invest any …

Almost Paradise: My “Perfect” Small Town Wasn’t So Perfect

The author (second from the left, waving to the camera) and her Girl Scout troop. (Photo courtesy of Susan Ito) When I was growing up in the 70s, the kids in my New Jersey suburb ran unfettered through interconnected yards and played until the fireflies came out. At dinnertime, some were called home by cowbell or whistle; my mother stood on our back porch and walloped an iron Japanese gong that reverberated through the neighborhood. I rode my bike with the gold-speckled banana seat and high handlebars to the town pool; we’d go there of our own volition, without parents to drive or supervise us. This was freedom: to take our dollar to the snack bar and sit on plastic chairs, dripping pool water, eating baskets full of French fries spattered in ketchup. To jump in the deep end and play Marco Polo until our fingers wrinkled. Our neighborhood was, in so many ways, idyllic. My one-block long street was unpaved until I was 10, and I remember the gooey, sharp tang of fresh asphalt …

As a Motherless Child, I Was Raised by My Neighborhood

I was a child of the 70s, negotiating an evolving place in society for both my gender and my race. I was born Negro, eventually deemed Black and eventually accepted the term African American. The small South Philadelphia enclave I landed in clung stubbornly to its past, trying against all odds to assure its particular brand of denizens that all would be ok. We were assured by listening to the same music, getting baptized in Grandma’s lifelong church or hanging on corners where doo-woppers harmonized. As a girl, I would sit on my front steps as the summer days were cooled by the constant release of fire hydrant water — human-made fountains of refreshment that streamed on screaming kids and grateful adults. Cold winters were made warm by pots of food from neighbors, followed by gossipy phone calls between friends. But I was born an outsider; a permanent visitor to my ‘hood. I felt different. My arrival into this world came during a tug of war between my estranged parents. My mother, long distrustful of a …

Yes, You Can Be Creative in the Suburbs

Everybody knows the suburbs kill creativity. At eighteen when I was running away from them, I absolutely knew it to be the truth. When I first moved to the suburbs, I was twelve. For months, the whole family headed out after supper once or twice a week to watch a bare lot transform into a concrete basement, then a skeleton of wood, then a house with rooms and windows. It was built exactly like the model, only with all of my mother’s specifications. She chose dark green sculpted carpet and gold-threaded linoleum and green appliances, all the rage in the seventies. All through the spring, we peered through the windows, marveled at the shutters and the enormous, dead-empty backyard. The anticipation was nearly unbearable. We moved in June, right after school let out. In our old house, my sister and I shared a tiny room at the back of the house, barely large enough for our full-size bed and the dresser we shared. In the new house, I had a room of my own. My …

Nightmare On Dream Street: When Your House Falls Down

The home that brought Annette’s neighborhood to a dead stop — collapsed. (Photo courtesy of Annette Earling) After 23 years of living on a street that I loved — and after swearing that I would never be frightened or intimidated into leaving — I fled my neighborhood in fear for my life and the life of my family. A month later, the house that was the focus of my fear collapsed in the middle of the night, trapping everyone on our end of the block in their homes as electric wires sparked over piles of splintered plywood. Nice job, city of Philadelphia. My story — essentially one of governmental ennui — begins about two and half years ago when a lovely young couple bought a property on our quiet, dead-end street in the center of the fifth largest city in the U.S. Honestly, you couldn’t find a better street in any town. We’re a half-block from Broad Street and some of the greatest cultural institutions in the world. We have five of Zagat’s top ten …

I Left My New York Apartment For Life on a Boat

Victoria and her husband on the Scallywag (Photo: David Freid ) Three weeks ago, I sailed away from New York City. I cast off the lines from our 37-foot sloop and left New York harbor for the East River, along with my husband and dog. In that moment, and without much ceremony, we were no longer New Yorkers. The moment we left the dock, we became full-time sailors with no homeport to call us back. This wasn’t a longtime dream. We’re not lifelong boaters. Nor did we come from wealth or retire early on some startup exit. My husband, Jon, and I are simply wanderers. We spent years wanting something else. This is our else. Before moving to New York two years ago, Jon and I met through our love of travel. After a couple of years of dating, we each began working without an office, for a total of about five years, sometimes running a business together, sometimes working separately. This wasn’t gig economy work but rather leadership positions for traditional companies that were …

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Ode to the Yellow Couch and Other Thoughts on Napping

The yellow couch. (Photo courtesy of Amy Barr) I’m thinking about buying a new couch. The one we have has served us well for a decade or so, but the fabric is faded and the stuffing is mostly dead. Here’s the problem: When I mentioned my plan to my family, they pitched a collective fit. “Noooo,” they whined. “We love the yellow couch. It’s the nap spot.” This couch is not particularly long or deep. Napping on it requires bending your knees or propping your feet up on an arm. Yet, when I brought up the possibility of replacing it, you would’ve thought I suggested murdering Grandma. As far as nap spots go, the yellow couch isn’t my top choice. It’s in a high traffic, sometimes noisy location. You’re on display to anyone traveling from kitchen to bathroom, and, depending on which end you rest your head, your ears could be next to a giant speaker. But my husband and sons love it, so for now I’ve capitulated. The yellow couch stays. Apparently people are …

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Cluttered Apartment, Clear Mind

Most people pare down when they move. Not me — I just move my stuff to an entirely new place. The bright side to my separation was that it decreased a different kind of clutter, the kind that lived in my brain. The kind that questioned me every day: “Will today be the day that he foregoes late night TV and comes to bed with you?” or “Will today be the day that you grow a pair and tell him you can’t go one more day without being touched?” Seven years is too long to live in a comatose marriage. I tried envisioning my future if I stayed in this marriage and my future as a single mom. I could see the former very clearly — it was more of the same. The latter, although fuzzy in its composition, showed a riskier but much more rewarding path. I did all the analyzing I could possibly do until I finally felt strong enough to make the decision. I walked out of my old claustrophobia-inducing house and …

The Young & The Cordless: The Story of Our Robot Maid

(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight.com) The dawn of the internet, the mobile phone, the widescreen TV, and the Apple watch are just a few of the technological advances I’ve seen in my lifetime, but nothing has stirred my futuristic soul quite as much as the release of the iRobot Roomba in 2002. As a child, my favorite cartoon was “The Jetsons,” and for decades I dreamed of owning my own domestic droid like Rosie, the family’s Jane-of-all-trades metallic maid. The real-life Roomba was simplistic compared to Rosie, resembling a large Frisbee on wheels, but despite its humble appearance, the Roomba’s introduction sparked the world’s love affair with autonomous robotic vacuum cleaners. My wife, Sophia, and I were two of the inaugural owners of a Roomba due to a chance encounter with an iRobot salesman at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 2001. It took just one look at this new wheeled wonder-product, and we were hooked. Cleaning the house had been causing tension in our marriage, and one of our least favorite tasks was …

A Green Thumb: Tips From a Gardening Virgin

(Photos: Courtesy Amy Barr) Did you ever plant radish seeds in Dixie cups back in grade school? Then set the cups on a sunny windowsill until the seedlings emerged? Oh, the excitement of seeing the sprouts push their tiny green heads up through the soil followed by the disappointment of watching those scraggly stems wither and die a few days later. That pretty much summed up my experience with vegetable gardening until just a few summers ago, when my husband and I decided to take a hoe to a patch of grass at our upstate house and try our hands at growing our own. Gardening seems so simple: You plant, you tend, you harvest. But my early experience as a grade-schooler taught me at least one thing about raising veggies: It’s not as easy as it looks. There are endless considerations that can make or break a garden, such as soil composition, weather, irrigation and critters. Just as influential and potentially defeating are human factors, like one spouse haranguing the other to weed, weed, weed! …