Earlier today I went up in the attic to sort out the mess of insulation that was up there when we purchased our house. I’m not sure why I didn’t do it sooner, but it’s really been a game of one thing at a time working on our house. First this, then that, someday I’ll get to that. Our gas/electric bill has been higher than usual the last two months. For central Texas, it’s been chilly. Lots of our plantings were hit hard.
The outer walls of our house are uninsulated, except for my sons room, which I insulated when the walls were opened up. His room was originally a porch that was walled in at some point, probably in the fifties or sixties. When I tore out the painted 1/4” plywood paneling throughout the house, the framing in his room was exposed, allowing access to the cavities between the studs.
All the other walls in the house have ship lap, which I didn’t want to remove. It’s beautiful old wood, and provides a lot of strength to walls that were framed on 24” centers. You can punch holes and blow insulation in behind it, but it wasn’t in the budget for us while I was working on the house for the four months before we moved in. Those four months were tough, physically and psychologically.
The attic insulation was like a lot of things about our house, probably done by someone with limited knowledge and less motivation. What’s up there is an assortment of odds and ends, random widths and thicknesses, probably acquired second hand. It was mostly strewn in piles as though someone gave up before long up there, and reported back that the job was done down below. Or maybe the owner did it himself. There were so many crazy things done to this house during it’s lifetime, that leaving insulation unresolved seems a minor transgression. Who painted all the windows shut? Why would anyone run a circular saw across the original floor boards while cutting stock? Did someone really need to use asphalt glue to stick 1/2” subfloor down to the hardwood floors before the linoleum tiles went in? Where was the subfloor gonna go? It was screwed down! Even today I discovered that the attic fan installed in the gable vent was never wired up. Whoever installed it got as far as stripping the wires and then gave up or forgot what they were doing.
People have asked me what the worst part of renovating was, like which job was hardest. The drywall was tough to do alone. Just slow. Sanding the ceiling burned my shoulders up. And the tiling was tough on my knees. The kitchen tiles were big 1/2” thick 12” x 24” mothers. After a couple days of doing that floor, first installing the durock panels, then laying the tiles out, setting them, grouting, my knees were throbbing. Using the big rented edger machine on the hardwood floors was rough as well. It’s a powerful tool to run in a kneeling position, the huge motor jamming against your muscles as you try to control it.
But the fear was the worst part. Even though I worked in construction for over a decade, this was our first house and I’d never done much of the gritty stuff involved with a full renovation. There were lots of firsts for me. First time doing plumbing. First time moving gas lines. Wiring electrical, hooking up appliances, rebuilding windows, hanging doors, building a shed. Doing anything alone for the first time is scary. In the past I was always in a group, helping, leading, there was always somebody else around.
I went in the attic a lot during those first four months. Bracing the springy ceiling off the roof, moving light fixtures, replacing wiring. I got used to scurrying up there almost every day for one reason or another. It ain’t pretty up there. Plenty animals have lived there and I was glad to not find any current tenants there today.
Even on a cool day attics are uncomfortable and once you’re covered in fiberglass insulation, rat turds everywhere, you’re just not that stoked. Respect to guys that do insulation for a living because it’s a tough gig. By the time I was done cutting and fitting all the random bats in between the joists, it didn’t look all that bad up there, like a respectable attic. Fixing the unseen elements in a home, like the attic insulation is a part of the whole. There’s a sense of calm with a home that’s cared for and maintained properly.
In the year since we moved in I’ve mostly worked on smaller projects that improve the house, hanging new ceiling fans, installing air conditioners through the exterior walls, refacing the bathroom vanity, building closet systems, making curtain rod holders and hanging our curtains from them, building custom mirror frames, tiling backsplashes. I keep going, one task after the last. It’s gratifying work. When my wife comes home and I’ve completed something that makes our life here nicer, she’s happy and grateful. She’s an exceptional person and appreciates simple luxuries, like a new sink or a pot rack. It feels good, and it’s nice to add our personal style to the home we love. A friend of ours commented that our house is a real gesamtkunstwerk, which means that every element is a crafted piece of the whole, all the parts considered and personal, a home full of appurtenances and intention. I hope I’ve earned the compliment.
I usually pick my son, Raf, up from school on the bike. There’s no rush in the afternoons. I figure we might as well take our time. In the morning, it’s the opposite, we’re always running late, so we drive. Even if we weren’t running late, which we always are, the bike seems dangerous in the morning, with everyone half asleep and late themselves.
Picking him up on the bike is fun. I like it and he likes it. Even people we ride by like it, waving to us as we pass. He used to ride in one of those plastic seats over the rear wheel, but he keeps growing, and lately he looked crammed in back there, his knees up high, rubbing up against my seat. So I bought a second hand trailer that pulls along behind my bike. The weight is different, and there’s much more resistance on uphill climbs, but he seems happier back there, with more room to spread out, and a new vantage.
Georgia, our chihuahua, usually sits up front in a large basket over the front wheel. I stick a towel in there so it’s more comfortable. She loves it, sitting at attention, face forward the whole time, the wind pulling at her short black hair. She’s only jumped out once when a squirrel darted out across the sidewalk in front of us. We were coming back from a long ride and I was zoned out. I never even reached to stop her. She jumped out of pure instinct. Go time.
Her chin hit first and then she flipped forwards over and over, slamming and flailing, her muscular body expanding and contracting with each revolution. The squirrel was up a tree before she stopped rolling. After we got home she mostly laid around for a day afterwards, and she walked slowly, like every part of was sore to hell. Her chin is still hairless in the spot where she first came down.
My sons classmates love Georgia. Many of them know her by name and rush to pet and kiss her. Perched in the basket, she sits at an ideal height to give them a good mouth licking. Kids love it, and who can blame them.
We look like quite a site coming down the road. Kid in the back, dog in the front, dork in the middle. You can see why people wave.
We cross the river coming home and there are nice paths that run along it. We cruise along the paths when the weather is nice, which it usually is, stopping at playgrounds and parks to hang out, eat snacks, mess around. It’s usually pretty deserted so I let Georgia off leash. She’s older now so I can trust her in most situations. The squirrel slam was pretty out of the ordinary. When she was young everything that moved was like the squirrel, calling her to action. She’s easier now, chilled out, but she can still haul ass if necessary.
One path we ride on goes out towards the west side of the city, under highways, past the stockyards. People live over there but there’s not much action on the newly paved path, which is up high on the side of the wide creek bed. The path is part of the urban renewal era, an effort to reconnect the fractured inner city. It used to be the washout for the city’s wealthier residents up north, a place to send everything unwanted. The houses that back up to the creek look poor, lots of cobbled together additions and junk in the yards. The creek still isn’t much to look at but it’s growing in wild again.
I chose this past to ride on the other day after picking Raf up from school. There aren’t any parks out that way, but sometimes it’s nice to just ride. He was tired instantly I so I let him lie down in the trailer while Georgia ran along side. He slept while Georgia and I dawdled stopping to check things out. We met some nice blonde pitbulls lying behind a fence, resting in the sun. Someone kept them there to guard a stoneyard. In the yard two men were calmly moving a slab with a forklift, one man gesturing and the other steering. The pits watched us relaxedly.
I turned back once Georgia looked tired, but I let her keep running alongside since it’s about as happy as she gets. It’s nice to watch a dog do their thing, especially if they’re your dog. At home she sleeps so much, I forget how punchy she is, springing through puddles, catching up, pissing on stuff. I’m happy to watch her.
Around a gentle bend in the path we saw a mama dog and her three pups just on the other side of the creek. The family of dogs all looked feral and the mom barked at us viciously in a way that I didn’t recognize. She was wild and the pups were wild and I was glad they were unwilling to cross the stream to assert themselves. We passed on.
When we made it back to the where the creek joins the main river, Raf was still asleep. A mother and daughter were out on the rocks in the river, enjoying the sun. I propped the bike up on a trash can and sat down next to it on a bench. I had a tennis ball in my bag so I gave it a quick toss down the sidewalk. Georgia’s got speed. She caught up with it easily but bumped it clumsily down the concrete embankment into the water. For the next few minutes I worked awkwardly to get the ball back, trying this and that. The only sticks around were short, and the embankment dropped off a foot above the water so it was hard to get close to the surface. Nothing much to do about it, but I kept trying anyway, as Georgia was getting more and more agitated. She’s jumped in after balls before but I wouldn’t saw she’s a terrific swimmer and there is no easy way back out of the water at that spot. Eventually the little girl came over to help. She looked to be about ten, a happy hispanic girl with dark eyes and a pink and white t-shirt that read Totally! At first she tried the same things I’d tried, paddling the ball backwards, flagging it with the too short stick, but she tired of the game quickly. The ball kept floating there in the middle of the river.
“Mom,” she yelled. “I’m gonna jump in!”
Her mom laughed, “You’re gonna be cold!”
“I’m gonna jump in!” she yelled again.
I didn’t think she would do it as it was winter and the water was cold and it was just a ball and Georgia’s just a dog, but then she did it, a head first dive into to dark water. She got the ball quickly, but looked cold swimming back, her breath rapid and shallow, and I was afraid for a moment I’d have to go in also but she was in control. When she got back to the embankment she gave Georgia the ball from down there in the water and I grabbed both her hands and pulled her up all in one motion onto the concrete. I thanked her but it was clear she’d done it for Georgia and not me.
The girl went back over to her mom across the rocks but returned shortly to play fetch with Georgia. I was glad it was a warm day and that the cold hadn’t meant much to her. As she played with Georgia I watched her mom, if it was her mom, out of the corner of my eye. She was my age. Dark hair. Sunglasses. Her feet were in the water but she didn’t watch them. She didn’t watch her daughter either, if it was her daughter. She mostly watched downstream toward where the river opened up beyond the rocks. She started to cry, and then to weep. I felt self conscious, watching her so I went to check on Raf. He slept easily there in the trailer, his head propped up on my sweatshirt, his legs tucked up against his chest. When he woke he was upset, wanting to be held.
We bought a house! The papers are signed and we are now homeowners. We finally settled on a little house near Mission Concepcion, just south of Southtown, San Antonio’s semi-official arts district. The house is a two bedroom/one bath on a pier and beam foundation. It was originally a one bedroom with the front door opening directly into the bedroom. At some point the side porch was walled in turning in into a two bedroom and a front door to the living area was added. There’s an additional room off the back with a concrete foundation/floor, not sure what we’ll do with it, maybe turn it into an office or studio. The house was built in the 1920s, super sturdy construction, but has been poorly renovated in some areas, and barely maintained in others. Luckily the flippers didn’t get to it first, so the price was low, only $85,000, and there’s no funky, caulky, Lowes renovation stuff to deal with. I would describe the condition of the house as beat up rental. Lots of laminate floor layers and painted shut windows.
So what’s magical about the house? Everything…the outside is painted pink, or lavender with green and beige trim, the kind of color combination I’d be too unimaginative to think up myself but looks so right. There are lots of shade trees, mostly pecans, a crape myrtle, some elms, lots of plantings. The view from the front yard is of a handsome public golf course across the street, pastoral rolling hills and well kept trees… it’s breezy, it seems like the breeziest spot in San Antonio, perhaps because it’s on a slight rise from the golf course area, which is in the cooler flood plain along the river. What else, it’s small, easy to work on, it’s cheap, it’s on a full lot. It’s about a mile from the main arts area, less to the river, close to restaurants, a library, bike trails. The interstate is close, but not too close. There’s a small grotto in the back yard that looks to be plumbed for a tiny waterfall. Hard wood floors safely protected under linoleum, ship lap interior walls. The alley behind the house is paved (the only paved residential alley I’ve seen in SA). Big back yard. Room for a garden, workshop, deck… and it’s cheap, cheap, cheap.
I doubt there are many major cities left in America where you can buy a livable house on a 7000 square foot lot this close to downtown for $85000. San Antonio remains unique, maybe the heat keeps it cheap. But property values are on the rise. Our neighborhood hasn’t been gentrified yet, but it looks like the wave of development centered around downtown will pass through the area within the next five years. Luckily our house was priced just out of investor range or it would have been scooped up. There are a few flips for sale in the neighborhood and more being worked on. Most of the neighbors are older hispanics. Retired. Relaxed.
The plan is to renovate for the next month or so and then move in. I’m gutting some rooms. Redoing the bathroom, reconfiguring the kitchen, refinishing floors. I’ve been waiting a long time to be able to renovate my own house. My wife and I looked into buying in Richmond, VA and then in Santa Fe, but anything we could afford would have put us too far out from the areas in those cities that we loved. This time it felt right so we went for it. Besides not having many friends in the area, the location is great, away from the super high stress, high congestion North Side of San Antonio. South Side is almost empty by comparison. It’s gets rural real quick. Open spaces. Mellow roads. Mellow people. Feeling good.
When I started out in cabinetry, I was twenty five years old and I couldn’t use a tape measure. I could barely read one. I certainly couldn’t use one. I hadn’t grown up with tools. I made a few things in college but it was all art related, so I usually made a mess of the whole thing on purpose. Over a decade after getting started, I’m still building. It’s my music. It’s where I can see things organized. Laying out. Setting up. Running tools. I love it and it defines me.
For many reasons, building remains a romantic trade. It’s real. It’s physical. Someone needs it. I meet a lot of guys who make more money than I do, don’t abuse their bodies, don’t have to work in the heat and cold, are rarely in physical danger, but appear wistful when I relate my experience in the trades. I always tell them I paid a heavy price. And it’s true.
A great number of harsh experiences went into my sense of wholeness through building. From day one, the experience of messing up alone is just awful. Horrible. I’ve screwed up in so many ways, on so many occasions, uncountable, infinite. On my first day, on my first task, I miss-drilled a finished formica ply edge shelf for a shoe store. I had entered adulthood and couldn’t read sixteenths.
In construction, most lessons learned, come real time on the job, motors screeching, dust flying, blades ripping. I remember once trying to shorten a cabinet door with a hand planer on site, running the power plane from inside out, exploding the end grain on the doors edge and ruing the door. You always remember the first time.
Even more frustrating, you’re never too old to relearn a simple lesson. I knew early on not to put my left hand in the path of my right hand’s travel while operating a cutting tool, but it didn’t stop me from stabbing myself recently with a cutknife while aggresively trying to cut shims from behind a nine foot tall cabinet. You get on a ladder, it’s late in the day, you forget the lesson. With tools, especially power tools, you have to play by the rules. I’ve only hurt myself badly a few times but there’s always next time.
The psychological anguish of screwing up didn’t go away till a few years ago when I was finally self confident enough to accept mistakes as part of the human condition, and not a direct reflection of my worth. It remains aggravating, ruining material, wasting time, looking foolish, but I now see that moment when I discover an inevitable mistake as crucial. Can I keep my cool? Everybody’s cool when the going’s smooth, but only the bad dude is cool when things blow up. If you want to be the man, you gotta get out of trouble with whatever you have on hand. Even if it’s not your fault. Before someone sees it. If you can’t stay calm, you can’t figure it out. Or maybe you can’t get out of it and you have to admit it. There’s just no fixing it and you have to admit you ruined something and everyone knows it. And you gotta let it go and go back to work again tomorrow.
Obviously, such a spiritually advanced attitude toward building sounds great. Everybody wants to be calm. If you freak out, everybody will remember the timber of your voice when you got pissy, how you blamed someone else, how you weren’t cool. Everybody wants to see mistakes as challenges and problems as tests, but in the real world, people lose their heads. When I started out, I had no cool at all. I was an angry, nervous, irritable kid. A year or two in I cut some box parts wrong and punched a table. It took five minutes to fix the parts, and six weeks in a cast to fix my hand. My little brother watched me do it, which seems only just, since he was witness to many of my peevish outbursts growing up. I haven’t thrown a tool or punched anything since, and I’ve cut a lot of parts wrong in that time.
As a city kid who watched too much tv, never went camping or fishing or hunting or fixed a car or did much of anything but art and skateboarding, I was really in for it when I got hired on in a redneck shop in backwoods New England. You want to feel like a dumbass, get hired as a cabinetmaker in an old school shop in an old school mill town in Rhode Island when you’ve never built off architects plans before. Nobody talked to me for the first three months. I was on my own with my own bench, and I had never even milled from rough sawn lumber before. The boss, a terrifying choleric Irish brute, would only talk to me for a few minutes a day, tell me to build this or that, and then disappear, his yellow van squealing wheels as he sped off to site meetings. Once he was gone, I would have to sheepishly ask the other cabinetmakers, how to do this or that, where this thing was, how do you use the straight line rip saw? Eventually they realized I didn’t know shit. Actually they probably realized that right away, but eventually they realized I wasn’t going to pretend I knew something when I didn’t, and they started to explain a few things about cabinetry. Sort of. I don’t know if anybody ever explained anything to specifically, that’s not how building culture works.
Guys who can build rarely talk about building. It would be awkward. Usually they want to talk about women, or sports or just chit chat nothing stuff, but they rarely talk about actual building. They mostly complain. I imagine in Europe they might still have trade guilds where you can learn cabinetmaking in an organized, civilized fashion, but in America, it’s a free for all. Shop to shop, it’s whatever works. Whatever does the job. Nobody talks about why or what if, that’s just how we do it here. It didn’t take long before I realized I would never wind up apprenticed to an old master, widdling away in the woods somewhere, him demonstrating to me piece by piece how to build a reproduction high boy. There were one or two guys along the way who were good at explaining, and I owe them a lot, but mostly I had to make the connections myself. Every time I did something, I thought about it. If I messed something up, why? If it worked, why? I thought about building constantly. It wasn’t enough to just know how to do everything, I had to recognize why it worked or didn’t. The why is translatable. Eventually I realized that my success as a builder would be determined not by my ability as a student, but by my capacity as a teacher.
Luckily the shop in Rhode Island was still set up in the ancient manner. All the cabinetmakers had their own bench, their own job. You lay it out, you list it, you cut it, you mill it, you build it, you finish it, you install it. Maybe you get a helper, but it’s your job. You are responsible. You’re on the hook. For a great many reasons, this style of shop, the original style, has largely disappeared. CAD software eliminated the necessity for layout and hand written cut lists. The fastest guy on the fastest saw can’t touch the CNC machine. In order to keep up with the pace of CAD software and CNC technology, you really just need a bunch of low skilled workers on repetitive operations, building boxes, assembling. Throw one of them in the spray booth and you’ve got the modern shop. Most competitive shops order their doors from a door shop. One less skilled operation. The only difficult part left is the install. No robot is installing cabinets. But you’ve cut down significantly on skilled labor, and you’re pushing high end custom cabinetry out at a good clip.
The original shop was slow. Laying out by hand. Listing by hand. It’s a slow process. I still remember seeing a guy laying out for the first time on a layout stick, using a combination square to mark out lines for all the cabinet pieces, drawing himself a full scale map showing every piece of material that would make up a kitchen, in context, with everything to scale so that you could pull a tape on any segment of the layout and know exactly what dimension a part should be cut at. It was beautiful. I had been building cabinets for three years at that point, and had never witnessed more planning that a sketch. I’d seen countless projects go wrong because of mixed up numbers, “bad math.” There’s no math in a layout. Not in the sense that parts have been turned into numerical equivalents. In a full scale layout, the part IS its numerical equivalent, and all the parts TOTAL the overall dimension desired, since the overall dimension is the first mark drawn.
In the modern shop, CAD software can easily accomplish the task of laying out. Cutlists are simply generated, and complex construction features can be saved and reused, over and over. The better you are with the program, the more time you save, and the more predictable the results will be. There’s no turning back. All the same, no computer rendering will ever feel as secure as a to scale layout. And no one needs an expensive program to make one. All you need is a stick of wood and some wits. Learning the how to and why of layout changed my whole relationship to building. It taught me selfsufficiency and calm. Once I’ve carefully laid a project out, I can relax. I know it’s right. The guy who scribbled all his calculations out on a piece of paper will never know until it’s too late whether he switched a number, or forgot a unit. The cabinetmaker knows it’s right. When things are right, it’s not luck. When things are wrong, he knows why.
Other lessons learned in that shop were of the rougher variety. Having the boss call me an idiot in front of everyone for not knowing something obvious, ruining prize stock because I couldn’t read 100ths of an inch on the planer, realizing I was trapped in a noble but thankless trade. I left after a year, worked in a bronze foundry, two tiny wood shops, moved on. My wife and I moved to Austin. I built furniture and worked in a down and out commercial shop. The foreman, the meanest human I’ve ever met, taught me more things, practical stuff, laminate work, more redneck logic, try not to get old. We moved back to Virginia, more cabinetry, mostly installing. Had a kid. Moved to Santa Fe. Welded for a year.
Building eventually became my sanctuary and my burden. Like the old schoolers I met along the way, I wound up a cabinetmaker because I never new I could be an engineer or an architect. With the self-confidence of a trade learned, comes the sadness of a future assured. Luckily I do still enjoy it, the logic and harmony of building keep me engaged, and material manipulation will always be gratifying. I like big machines, simple jigs. I like rules and the clarity they produce, the logical underpinnings that never change. Understanding functional practices of building taught me respect for a world other men lived and died creating. Knowing why and how a saw cuts gives me power over it. When I turn on a table saw, I am unafraid, but I had to catch a kickback in the gut to learn how the thing worked, or to learn how I work it. I don’t ever want to get hit with a kick back again, but I wouldn’t give that first one back either. The sound it made, as it skipped onto the blade and shot toward me, a giant plywood frisbee slamming into the soft flesh above my groin, tearing through my shorts. After it hit me I had to run/skip to the bathroom. The need to go was as strong as the need to cry. The kickback had knocked the shit out of me. And I thought it was just something people said.
this handrail was the first project I built after I started welding. the curve of the stucco wall was irregular so we had to modify the rail several times. after welding and grinding on it for an extended period, I tried to pick it up like you’d pick up any piece of pipe. the entire surface of my hand was scorched. I burnt myself a bunch of times this same way in the beginning, but never quite as badly. for some reason the “it’s hot even though it doesn’t look hot” lesson was a tough one for me to remember.
While going about my daily operations this morning, I started to think about a generalized design philosophy related to three P’s. Maybe I’ll call it 3DP.
The 3 P’s of D are as follows:
If one can’t conceive of an idea alone, nothing is to be gained otherwise through design. These days, people want to have a design meeting before anyone has investigated the situation alone. The false idea that iterations are sure markers of progress, has run so far out of control, that the new model for designing includes the initial team meeting as an iterative roundtable, instead of an opportunity to share personal motivations.
Design must be progressive. Anything that starts from a place of homage, will not only never live up to the well intentioned hopes that the past is recoverable, but will always reek with the sense of loss that comes from witnessing our inability to free the mechanics and structures of the past from the politics and physicality of their conception. Design must be charged with the newness and frankness of needs reborn.
As our main form of nonlinguistic communication, design must always be pointed outward, towards each other in celebration of our grand mysterious relationship. Save your quiet murmurings for the darkness of night, dreams are no place to dwell together. Design is the language of daylight and the shared meal, the clear path we must walk together, amongst the realities of the fresh world.
This has been my go-to bread lately, mainly because it’s forgiving in terms of rise times and ratios, and has a heartiness that works great for morning toast, a little salt, little butter, little coffee, perfect. It’s essentially a multigrain bread based loosely off Peter Rhinehart’s Anadama Bread Recipe. Rhinehart is expert at fully explaining all the steps and purposes within his bread recipes. I experimented a lot in the past year with his book “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice,” and had decent results converting his recipes for high altitude conditions while we were living in Santa Fe. Now that I’m back at sea level, recipes don’t need adjustment, but I have found that rise times want to be more exact on most bread formulas. Since I’m usually doing something while doing something else (I hate the term multi-tasking and don’t believe it’s even possible), a more forgiving recipe is ideal. Plus this is the kind of bread where you can throw whatever you’ve got around in. Herbs, raisins, tahini, random flours, who cares. Just watch the water content if you’re adding and subtracting. The only way to really screw it up seems to be by adding too much wetness, which I did a few times when I added sprouted grains that were too soggy. Try to dry whatever it is you want to add, herbs, olives, garlic, etc., and maybe switch the molasses for a quarter cup of honey if you’re going savory. Good luck and enjoy.
Breakfast Bread Recipe
1 cup coarse ground cornmeal
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup flax seed
1 1/2 cups water
2 cups bread flower
2 tsp instant yeast
3/4 cup water
2 cups whole wheat flower
1 cup rye flower
1 1/2 tsp coarse salt
6 tbs molasses
2 tbs butter
1/2 cup raw pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds
Prepare your soaker the day/night before you’re going to bake. Just mix it up and cover it on the counter.
The next day combine the soaker with other ingredients to make Dough 1. Let it sit for ninety minutes covered on the counter.
Add the rest of the ingredients to Dough 1, thus making Dough 2. Mix it around in the bowl, using your hand as a paddle, then just pour the whole mess onto the counter.
Start kneading. By hand. I know everybody wants a reason to use their dumb stand mixer, but don’t be fooled, if you let a machine do your mixing, you’re missing out on the best part of bread baking, even better than eating. Our lives are plastic. Do not pass over your chance to experience creation.
Knead for around five minutes until it’s got a little spring. If it’s too dry and doesn’t stick well to itself, add a little water. If it’s too wet and tacky, add a little flour, doesn’t matter which kind. Let it rest for a minute while you wash the dishes and clean up a bit. After you’ve cleaned the ingredient bowl, throw a little olive oil in there. Go back to kneading. I doubt you could over knead this bread if you tried, so don’t stress about whether it’s done or not. Eventually the dough should tell you, “You’re done, I don’t need your help anymore.” Once it tells you, roll it in the olive oil, and leave it covered in the bowl for around ninety minutes. It should double in size.
Remove the dough from the bowl and cut it into smaller pieces. You should always give a little bread away to somebody you appreciate, so maybe cut it in half and then one half in half again. I usually just pull and tuck the pieces into boule shapes and set them on baking sheets, but you can also tuck the pieces into thick log shapes and bake them in loaf pans, just make sure you oil and dust the metal with corn meal so the bread will pull away easily. You can also dust/rub some cornmeal onto the surface of the bread for that rustic look. Let the bread proof for around an hour.
I usually don’t score the top of this bread since it doesn’t spring enough for the look to be quite right. Stick it in the oven at 350 for twenty minutes. Rotate the bread and let it go for anther twenty. Ovens are all different so keep an eye on everything towards the end. The smaller breads gotta come out before the big boys. Boules are easier to check for doneness. Just thump the bottom with your finger. It should thump and not thimp.
Let the bread sit out on the counter for at least an hour before slicing. It’s still baking during that time, so don’t play yourself and cut into it early. Whatever is left over should be sliced and frozen.
These pictures are of artwork by local children here in San Antonio. The show was at the mall, hung on temporary walls. Tons of kids, families, snacks. My nieces had pieces in the show. There were also musical performances by very composed teenagers. The drawings are good. While I was taking photos of the art, I thought that one could probably have a significant career just copying what was on display that night. A silly idea.
This mural is the latest installment in an ongoing collaborative project with me old friend Drew Liverman. Drew and I have been working collaboratively for well over a decade now, and have been working under the duo title Young Sons for a few years now. This is our third mural. It was painted over the course of a week last month on the outside of a dilapidated commercial space in downtown Austin, TX, 8th and Congress to be exact. The mural will be up for around a year. The building, a leaky old concrete box, is supposed to be torn down and replaced with something a lot taller. In the meantime, Nelsen Partners, the rad dad owner/developers of the site, have been cool enough to let Co-Lab Projects use the building as an interim gallery space while their new spot up north is being built out. Ours was the first show to go up in Co-Lab’s interim space, mostly newer work Drew and I have been making in the last year, collagey stuff, kind of throw back junk funk.
Painting the mural was good. It’s always good to do it different. We never wound up deciding on anything to work off, so we just went no plan, no plot, no ideas, one mark after the last. The only clear objective was to do something subversive, something non-muralish. In the end, starting a 120 by 20 foot mural without a plan was plenty subversive. Everybody thinks artists should put themselves in trouble, but very few actually attempt it anymore, especially in public. Showing up every morning to confront this wall, this monster day after day, without a pictorial scheme to fall back on, it was some weird shit, a dangerous space, the city disappearing below us, as we floated to and fro on the roving man lift, our hands crusted over with glue and color, rolling, tearing, pasting. It took at least four days to see any logic in the thing at all. An entire day was spent just rubbing and dripping the wall, a steady drizzle aiding, even forcing our hand. Hopefully, some of the struggles and discoveries of making the thing are relatable to passerby, the rushers by, the officers of offices, the pubic public. We actually had great interactions with onlookers, how could you not, it’s Austin. Everybody’s happy to be there.
So as I mentioned before, my family and I recently moved from Santa Fe to San Antonio to be closer to her family. Her parents live here as well as her sister and her sister’s family. It’s been a very intense period as we search out a home here in the area. This will potentially be our first time buying a home, a process I was unfamiliar with up until a few weeks ago.
Currently we’re staying with my wife’s parents, which is an affordable way of initiating our lives here, but they live on the opposite side of the city from my wife’s work, so commutes have been long, easily two hours round trip. In Santa Fe both our jobs and my son’s day care were in biking distance. Hopefully we can lessen our commute a good deal with a well planned home purchase, but it’s a big city, so car commutes are probably going to be unavoidable. So far we’ve been interested in three properties out of the hundreds we’ve looked at online, driven by, and viewed with realtors. Speaking of realtors, we’re on our second. She’s great. We’re on our second or perhaps third lender. I don’t want to call it a den of thieves, but it’s unclear whom one can trust. And then they have to call you back.
The first property we were interested in… actually I’ll come back around to that one since it’s the part I’m interested in writing about here. The second property we liked was a tiny two bedroom on the outskirts of the outskirts of the city center tucked along train tracks that form a greenbelt, snaking through the inner suburbs. The neighborhood is called Los Angeles Heights, though I doubt the people who live there call it that. The area isn’t very walkable, barely bikeable, but at least it is an actual city style neighborhood with entrances and exits in all directions, and not an outerloop planned community with one way in and out, which no one dares pass through on foot. This area would take some effort to walk out of, but one wouldn’t look entirely crazy doing it. In my mind the house, or the street the house was on was the exact meridian dividing the zone within which and and without which I can see myself living. Anywhere beyond this line and you are in the nethers, so far from downtown that you are undoubtedly driving to everything.
The house was ok. Not great. Not entirely ugly, but rough. Half the exterior was covered in yellow asbestos shingles. The small slab in the back yard, listed on the realty web site as a desirable patio, was so broken with the shifting forces of time, that it would have to be jackhammered out. An unattached garage in the back yard had apparently never been maintenanced, and now the roof shingles were buckled into blackened fritos, a few here, a few there. Water had long since infiltrated the space inside, possibly ruining the roof trusses. The site had questionable drainage, an antique water heater, and outdoor washer dryer hook ups. There were plenty problems. But it did have charm. Unfortunately, it was cheap. We put in a full offer the day after the house went on the market. They already had four offers, most likely one of them cash from an investor. The house will probably come back on the market in a few months for twice the asking price, all the charm removed, huge appliances crammed into the tiny kitchen, horizontal bands of glass tile running around the bathroom. Or maybe some other young family who wanted to fix an old house up bought the property. Maybe.
The third house we liked was in a wonderful old hispanic neighborhood on the near north west side of the city. The location was perfect, just far enough from the interstate to the east that it was out of earshot, but close enough to be accessible. The street was ideal, it was short and had a T at one end, thus limiting through traffic. The other end of the street ran into a road big enough to have restaurants, but small enough not to have chains, at least not yet. Two blocks away on foot is Woodlawn lake, possibly the single nicest public amenity in all of San Antonio. The lake is like a miracle. On the hottest day, one can sit leaning against the ancient cypress trees that stretch along the shore and feel entirely comfortable in jeans. Basketball and tennis courts, playgrounds, ducks, geese, soft shell turtles, there’s even a public dance studio. For us at least the location was perfect.
The house was handsome. There were nice mature pecan trees in the front and back, shading it from the scorching Texas sun. It was built in 1940, in the old style. The windows were original, poorly kept, the exact variety I had in all my old apartments in Richmond, VA. None of the sashes were connected to the weights by rope any longer, essentially making them inoperable. An absurd addition had been added in the 80s. While the original house was still relatively true, the addition was a twisted, leaning dumpy piece of shit. A bizarre flip had been done to the house recently, dark brown paint on the floors, thick cheap carpet over the sagging floors, and an awkwardly cheap fancy kitchen remodel. But the floors were original. And the ceilings were high. There were two outbuildings, almost 500 square feet of studio space. And that location.
We put in an offer. We lowballed them 20 grand considering all the work that still needed to be done to the place, but they only came down four. I didn’t know what to do. We needed a place. I signed a contract.
During the option period my realtor was cool enough to arrange a meeting at the house with a foundation contractor. The contractor was cool cat. He made jokes in broken English. He was funny. He said the house was a piece of shit. The floor was three inches out of level and there was no crawlspace access. It was a pieces of shit. I knew it was a piece of shit. Every time I went back to look at it I saw something else wrong, things that should have been addressed. In the rush job to paint the place the flippers had somehow used paint that didn’t quite match from one area to the next so interior and exterior walls (same sad brown color) looked as if someone had tried to come back and paint over graffiti, but were unable to match the original color. They’d tried to get the kitchen sink centered on the window, but didn’t quite make it. Nothing had been done correctly, and very little had been done. They bought the place for ninety. They wanted one forty six. I couldn’t give these jokers fifty six grand and then come in and fix everything for them. While I was listening to the contractor deride the house, a city ordinance enforcer showed up to ask the home’s owner again to remove the fallen tree in the alley behind the house. I had noticed the fallen tree but wasn’t sure whose responsibility it would be to remove. They said the last time they’d come by, they’d left a notice on the window. The flippers had thrown the notice away. It was too much. We backed out and walked away.
The next day, the first house we’d been interested in came back on the market. This is the house I was interested in writing about. We’d gone to view it with our first realtor, who we were referred to by our bank, who was our first lender. The property was essentially a large old house in Prospect Hill, one of the early neighborhoods built close to downtown. Prospect Hill is perhaps the last neighborhood left surrounding downtown that hasn’t been gentrified. Some time in it’s long life the house had been cut into a four unit and was zoned commercial. One of the units was a glass front commercial space cut directly into the front of the the building. There was also a cinder block oversized two car garage in back of the house. Tall white washed concrete walls surrounded the patio retreat behind the house, with a short palm tree along one side. Most everything inside was still original. The four units had been divided by simply nailing plywood against the door casings. It wasn’t beat to hell like most rentals, just some dirty carpet and sad mildewy bathrooms. All the excellent trimwork was still in place. It was perfect. The second floor apartment was an efficiency, one large room with three walls of windows, a cedar shingled surf cottage perched atop the roof. It was perfect.
The realtor hated it. It was old. It was different. It would be hard to fund. The neighborhood… He hated it. Every detail in the house was a point of contention for us, and I watched in horror as he tried to convince my wife that dirty surfaces were uncleanable, that no one should buy anything unrenovated, that I was crazy to even have brought us there. It was an awful afternoon for me. None the less, my wife is amazing and she truly wants me to be happy. She believes me when I tell her I can fix something. We trust each other. We went directly from the tour to our bank where we were told unequivocally that we couldn’t get funding for anything more than a two unit. That was that. The house/gallery/rentable apartment dream disappeared the next day when the house went off the market. I called the listing agent. The seller was financing the sale.
I tried to forget about the house, but it stuck with me. I did research on how to actually buy a house like it, or this house specifically if it came back on the market. Interestingly enough, FHA loans are available for homes with urban residential/commercial zoning, as long as less than a quarter of the square footage can be used commercially. The rest would need to be used for living quarters. Technically this property would pass this measure, and for good reason. This particular loan is designed for just this type of building in just this sort of neighborhood, potentially allowing for the type of mixed use that has only recently been repopularized. Prospect Hill is a traditional pre-World War Two neighborhood, formed before the advent of the single use zoning restrictions responsible for the suburban boom. Everything in the neighborhood is scaled to distances easily travelled on foot, and a great many homes in the area are still attached to businesses, mostly hairdressers, garages, and restaurants. Are the whites flocking back to the inner cities ready to invite their community’s citizens inside their home/businesses to interact and shop, or is the developer model of dormitory cubbies stacked above video game retailers and crap convenience distributors the only mixed-use options that can get funding through traditional lenders.
So the house came back on the market the other day. Who knows why? I’m not sure how seller financing falls threw but it did. I rushed back over to the property the day it relisted, called the realtor, called the listing agent, called the lender, called the goddamned mayor. Nobody answered. I sent the lender a note, explaining the situation, told him the part about FHA loans being used for some commercial properties, tried not to sound desperate. No body got back to me. The next day the listing agent finally answered. He remembered talking to me the month before. I had asked him to call me if the property came back on the market. He hadn’t called. I could tell he felt bad. He seemed genuine. He tried to let me down easy. He was on his way to meet the seller and the new buyer. They were paying cash.
When I finally did hear from the lender, he didn’t mention anything about my investigations into the FHA loan programs. He didn’t say whether or not I could get funding for something similar. He didn’t really say much. He basically just said that any loan on a commercial property would be totally different from the single use residential loan we had talked about in his office. The tone of the email was, “You don’t get it Mike, if you want a house house, we screw you with this; if you want a business house, we screw you with THIS!” My instinct tells me I’d hear something similar from other lenders, especially in the current market. Wouldn’t it be to the lender’s advantage if properties they funded could be utilized for income generating projects? Are the single use zoning restrictions partially responsible for the boom and bust housing cycle we’ve come to see as normal? Are there other obvious options for urban renewal possible that are already present and functioning in traditional neighborhoods? And what should my next move be if the house in Prospect Hill comes back on the market?