Origin Story

The kitchen, sketched out in its inglorious glory.

Truth be told, this was not my first rodeo. I had emergency surgery twice to complete my pregnancies. Those boys always wanted to do things the hard way. And then, a dozen-plus years later, I had six pins put in my ankle to ensure it didn’t hang at a bad angle after my free fall.

Perhaps the first two didn’t count. Both of those were epidurals. I did have general anesthesia for the orthopedic surgery. I had been knocked out for oral surgery before, but it wasn’t general. The ankle doctor warned me that I would be intubated.

This translated to waking up in a a new place with the worst case of cotton mouth that I have ever experienced. And then they gave me crackers!?! I guess to get my system back in flow. I took a nibble. I had absolutely zero moisture in my mouth so the slightly salty cracker dust sat between my cheek and my gum like a very dry and very heavy sand. I tried to float it away with apple juice, but instead the sakrete expanded and solidified into an immobile brick. I had to work it out with more juice and my pinky finger. And then all I wanted was a toothbrush–except dry mouth and toothpaste was almost worse.

This time, I was going under to get a tattoo (if you want, you can catch up with this part of the story here). I was there, cheerily in the morning. I was cheery because I needed to be. It made the entire process better for the surgical team, and being a frightened mess served no purpose.

The Spouse and I were called into pre-op, which was an eight or nine square feet space delineated by a bed in the center and a surrounding set of curtains that made a metal swoosh sound as they were drawn aside. I stepped into my bay, was given a not-cute outfit and a set of instructions. I placed my street clothes into the clear plastic bags with drawstring tops and snuggled my feet into the surgical socks with gripper bottoms likely required by the risk manager wishing to avoid unnecessary patient falls on the cold slick floors.

I wasn’t walking around, though. I was on my cot with my jacquard hospital blanket tucked under my elbows. I had my surgical gown on, but didn’t need to wear my green mesh hat until later.

Pretty much everyone in the hospital verbally verified my name and birthdate as they spied the data printed on the plastic bracelet around my wrist. The first year resident put in my IV. He totally blew it and got blood all over my bed and uncleverly hid it under my hand. He then had me apply direct pressure to stem the flow until the weary nurse fixed his mess. She did make him clean the floor.

There were additional residents and medical students, nurses and nurse anesthesiologists, techs and transporters, my doctor and his assistant and the anesthesiologist herself. They all name-checked and proofed me.

Everyone was very polite and, more importantly, kind. I teased the youngins and joked with the pros. The Spouse shuffled between the single guest chair and the space just outside the curtains, depending on the staff directions. I liked it when he was closer. I think the staff did, too.

We did our schtick–where we trick everyone into thinking that we had deep affection for each other via our cruel and cutting banter. There really wasn’t reason to be too worried about this procedure, but it was the start of a series of procedures with more worry. But today, we were keeping it light.

It was close to showtime. My gurney was flanked by the transporter, a pair of nurses and the anesthesiologist who stood at my right. She patted her breast pocket.

“This is the good stuff,” she smiled. I didn’t know there was any “good stuff.”

Turns out they give you some pre-juice before wheeling you into the operating room. She explained that the syringes in her pocket didn’t completely knock you out, but relaxed the patient. I would be awake but wouldn’t remember anything.

I was a bit suspicious. “Is this like some kind of truth serum?” Everyone laughed, the nurses, the transporter, the Spouse and me.

“Naw. We won’t quiz you.” She pumped the happy juice into my IV and I woke up two seconds later in the recovery room. Well, it wasn’t two seconds in a literal sense, but that was all I knew.

I had my apple juice and skipped the snack. While I avoided the dry crackers, I did have real moisture in my mouth. After a short stint, I was unhooked from the monitors. I changed back into my civilian clothes. Not long after, I was dropped off at home for an uneventful day, and the Spouse was able to squeeze in a half-day at work.

That evening, when we sat down for dinner, we went through notable moments that day–the funny socks, the charming nurse, the failed resident and the happy juice.

“Hey, did I say anything after I got that shot?”

The Spouse looked at me for a second before he answered. “Why, yes, you did.” The way he said it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up a little.

“I did? What did I say?”

He paused again. “Well, as they were wheeling you away, you pointed your finger at me and said, ‘You will not stop me from redoing the kitchen this time!’ And all the women around your bed [there were only women] looked at me in horror and said that I better get you that new kitchen.”

Whoa and WHAT? I had no idea where that came from. Really and truly, I didn’t. This hadn’t been a major point of discussion or contention. That morning, I was going to have a procedure to mark the tumor in my mouth. I had this cancer shit on my mind, and of all things, I talk about a stupid kitchen remodel?

And, Loyal Reader, three years later, that’s how we got here.

End of Eden

The sum total time f my counter space with tonight's dinner prep all over it. It is literally a 24 square inch patch.
Actual entirety of my work counter.

I’ve been working on a postage stamp space in my kitchen for a generation. I have used all of my wiles to maximize the chopping, measuring, mixing, cleaning and plating space. I stage in the sink. I manipulate pots and pans and cauldrons across the stove when I need to hold something. I rotate mis en place on the counter, on the storage cart behind me, in the dish drainer, in an open cabinet on top of the dishes, and, occasionally, when it’s not in use, inside the oven.

Today, I just might have hit a wall that I knew not of.

I knew not because I was managing in what is. When the kitchen designer asked me what I didn’t like in my kitchen–what didn’t work–I looked at her blankly. I actually never thought of my kitchen in that way.

Sure, I’ve broken a glass or burned my wrist or spilled a plate full of food on occasion. But these faults have been exceedingly rare.

Yes, I cook many days during the week. And, yes, I enjoy trying new foods and new techniques. And, yes, I’ve hosted many dinners. And, no, I didn’t think it was any trouble. I was simply cooking in the kitchen I had. Nothing to complain about, because I got it all to work. If it didn’t work, then there would be reason to complain.

Today, I almost lost it. I didn’t have enough room. I was working in layers. There were piles upon piles of workspaces in order to mimic more than the less than two square feet of workspace. It’s actually smaller than that, since the kettle and dish soap and olive oil and salt are permanent tenants on that patch. Why don’t I move them? Because there is no place else for them to go.

In fact, lots of things have no place to go. And when there is no home, things mill around like a grade school class without seats. Chaos.

I’ve been plotting where things would go in the updated kitchen. With it’s new cabinets, ample drawer space and new island that, by itself, is six times bigger than my current counter space. I stand at today’s sink and think about turning around to line up four or six or eight plates, plopping down the rice or potatoes on each and then the green beans, next, the chops or steaks or thighs and, finally, spooning the relish or sauce–all without tying myself up in the pretzel contortions to which I am expert and accustomed.

I stand near the door where there will be a dishwasher that I’ll remove the used utensils and bowls to–rather than figure out how to get enough space in the sink so I can get the full salad bowl just waiting for it’s vinaigrette out of the work’s way.

The imagining has been fun. I’ve been anticipating the efficiency and ease of a right-sized and right-spaced kitchen. But not today. Today I was frustrated.

Today, I was annoyed at the high level of tightrope walking and high wire balancing that I perform every time I try and get a good meal on the table.

If the architect asked me what bothered me about my kitchen today, I’d tell her that it isn’t the kitchen that I will have. I am dissatisfied with my culinary life because now I see myself in a new environment. One that is not so difficult.

I’m hungering for something better than what I’ve had that I didn’t actually feel was that bad. It’s a loss of innocence.

I feel like I’ve taken a bite from the apple. I like apples.

Nightmare Scenario 

An old sink and faucet with an electric blue cast.

The sink got replaced. The new faucet sat shiny above it. I signed off on the project. It was now me and The Spouse.

Then, almost immediately—but not really immediate because it took at least a part of a second for the realization to reveal itself—I could see that the counter was a mottled mustard, flecked with dark brown. It was akin to a 70’s color combo, not the expected white quartz composite. Where was my pro-faucet? I expected it’s flamingo-like neck arching over the sink, but it’s just a workaday American Standard spigot that my big pot won’t fit under.

Wait, wasn’t the sink going under a new window? Hey, it’s in the same place it was before. There aren’t any new windows. And the cupboards are new, but they’re a dark wood and the pendant light emits a sickly yellow cast.

This is not my beautiful kitchen.

I turned, distraught, to The Spouse. The shock in my eyes was matched only by the slack in my jaw. I couldn’t even get a baleful “noooooooooo” out of my lips. We were going to have to de-sign off. Somehow. What do I do next?

I woke up. It’s not too late. We haven’t even started.

And yet, already it starts.

Can’t Tell Me Nothing

a black and white rendition of the SE corner of the current kitchen. There's a window that will go away, and a range sitting squarely there

The kitchen plans, of course, look good. Why on goddesses’ green earth would somebody give a client something that looks bad. See what I mean?

There’s a lot of time between encounters–encounters between the design/build folks and the client. And for those of you not quite following along, the client in the equation is me. Doc. I want it to be done. Complete. Finito.

Maybe this is less about being done, and more about my impatience. Be that as it may.

The problem is that Doc is actually obsessing about that last batch of drawings. The batch in possession is actually one conversation/version behind. So, the pix that I have do not actually incorporate all that we said. All that we agreed to. All that I want to be.

Well, that’s not exactly true. There are notes and arrows that acknowledge the changes–but you don’t see them all. Not totally. There is interpretation required. See. I’m obsessing. I told you.

So, as you know, pretty much every day I stand in different spots in the house and try to imagine what will be. I’m not saying that this is healthy. I’m just reporting the truth.

Today, I’m looking at the plans and seeing that there’s a problem. I’m looking at the edges and see that there are two corners in play. One on the southwest side. The other on the southeast side. The cabinets join at those corners. I’m wondering how the hell you get anything into or out of those spaces. It’s geometry. Angles and space. This is not looking good. The space is blocked.

And then I look, again, at the drawings. I see some weird words. On the plans it says:

Blind corner with pull out magic corner.

An image of one of the drawings that includes an indication that a pull-out-magic-corner will save the day. Fingers crossed.

Of course. Magic. That’s what I needed!

I go to the Google and ask about the “pull out magic corner.” It’s actually a real thing. I know this because one of the sellers is AmazonDotCom. Has to be legit.

It’s a few wire shelves that are connected and folded upon themselves. These shelves are attached to a cabinet door to provide access to the dark matter at the joining of the cabinetry. You pull the door open and the storage unfolds, four shelves for pots and pans or for mixers and bowls or for plastic containers and their snap on lids.

I’m feeling more confident. You can live through anything if magic made it.

Personality Quiz

The wall of pots in our kitchen, hanging haphazardly on a pegboard wall. Circa now.

What’s your kitchen style? Farmhouse? Modern? Mediterranean? French country? Traditional? Transitional(?) ? Contemporary? Eclectic?

It’s like a giant, stupid Buzzfeed quiz. Which Disney princess are you? What Hogwarts house will you be sorted into? What does your aura orb say about your love life? How are your values reflected by your cereal choices?

It’s not like it’s science. The elements of the different design styles overlap. A lot. Like what’s the difference between contemporary and modern? Maybe styles can be grouped along a spectrum running from fussy to Jetson sleek. I’m not sure, though. I mean, I get that it’s a shortcut to a consistent look–except, however, if you choose eclectic, which evokes “whatever you want.”

Selecting a kitchen style reminds me of that “seasons” thing they used to do to figure out someone’s most flattering color palette. Women went to parties to get draped with scarves of different tones and colors by an expert who likely learned the trade by going to a party the previous week. After the sorting, you’d be named a Winter–whereupon you were instructed to throw away all your gold jewelry and, speaking of jewels, focus on jewel-toned clothes. If the veins in your wrists looked more green than blue, you’d be crowned an Autumn and were instructed to wear coppery browns and olive-y greens. [You can see the ancient ceremony performed here.]

These kitchen styles don’t really speak to me. I don’t want fussy, but minimalist would soon look like some professional organizer’s “before” picture. There isn’t a style called “hide the dirt and accept that there’s gonna be a mess and, also, I cook here.” Too many words, I guess.

I don’t want the rich look of marble with a fancy crystal teardrop chandelier and the nooks and crannies of faux furniture turned legs and corbels flanking the hearth. I don’t want a Tony Stark kitchen with shiny surfaces that are unforgiving to fingerprints and with cabinets without pulls, hinges or surface details, camouflaged as a blank wall.

Then I found industrial kitchens. Industrial sounded good. Like a factory floor with working machines and surfaces that you’d clean with a sandblaster. But what if it’s really another term for steampunk with all the complexity of sci-fi meets Victorian charm? Too much. And how do I distinguish industrial from professional? And, does it actually matter?

For me, for my kitchen style, maybe I should just say, Winter is coming.

Connecting Rooms

I was committed to staying within the current footprint and floorplan. I was okay, and, in fact always planned, taking out the pantry wall. The pantry was a rabbit hole with a bottom that we never could actually get to. Stuff piled up. I’m sure this is a problem that could have been organized out of, but opening the kitchen and gaining those fifty-four inches would add a third more space to cook in. And a better cooking experience is a major rehab goal.

The rest of the house would keep the historical layout. Center hall. Three rooms on the right. Living-dining-kitchen on the left. The bathroom at the end of the hall needed an internal reconfiguration, but there was enough space. I always loved how the rooms interconnect and how the house flows.

Over the years, the front room went from “toy room” to TV/game room and den. We still call it the toy room, to the dismay of our adult children. Old habits.

The back bedroom had been our guest room (except when I was recovering from various surgeries). We referred to it by the name of my sister-in-law, on account of her living with us for her first semester of law school until she divined that the benefit of free rent (to be fair, she insisted on paying us) and family meal was poorly balanced against a precocious four-year-old who wandered in asking a cross-ex worth of questions during reading for torts or contracts. We understood her escape. She was honored with the room name for a decade, until the former four-year-old-now-fourteen decided that he didn’t want to share a room with his brother and slowly assumed that space as his own.

That middle room was long the office of The Spouse. Computer towers, two phone lines and the screech of a 2400 baud modem electronically defined a space full of contract negotiations and a highly complex hiring hall. The Spouse had to be very efficient–more contracts meant more jobs to fill. More jobs meant more itinerant members with their schedules and last minute trips as well as the occasional times in rehab or jail. A merger and some technical changes unchained him from the desk and landline. And the room accreted into a huge closet.

I moved boxes from my last office in there. He piled up old briefcases that were never quite emptied. There were boxes of photos that I didn’t trust to the dank basement. The board games we maybe might play, boxes of computer discs, laser discs and record albums that got moved there when we got rid of the old wall unit and turntable. A collection of serving pieces and table cloths. A bunch of unidentifiables stacked haphazardly on the long buffet server that didn’t fit in the dining room. Random pieces of furniture. A ladder that didn’t get put back downstairs. A set of crutches and the recording rig that the Big Guy used to record and produce music.

When the proposed design relocated the bathroom to take a hunk out of that room, a bit of a shudder shot across my shoulders and down my spine. But I was gaining five more kitchen feet and opening light to the back of the house. We weren’t doing anything in that room, anyway. We didn’t need it as a bedroom in any future configuration. But we were losing that room. My pulse stepped up and my tongue was too dry to lick my lips.

The architect swapped the master suite idea for a narrow office configuration. We could definitely use that–I had carved out a corner in the toy room. Then she drew in two pocket doors, reestablishing a direct connection between the three rooms. The linking of space that first drew me to into the spell of this house. And my heart slowed to a regular pace, the moisture returned to my mouth. Deep breath. Okay. Let’s do it.

Moby Dick

The east wall run the current kitchen. Yeah. For reals. It's a stylized filter so you don't think it's so bad.

One of the pre-identified risks in this project is the possibility that I will not stay married. A disruption of this magnitude could fray the loosely woven cloth, nay, the net, of our union. At our core, the Spouse and I are incompatible.

To get this particular project moving–this project that has sat simmering, fermenting, fomenting and even festering for nigh on a generation–I extracted a promise. It was really quite clever of me. I asked that for my birthday present, the Spouse would give me boss status on the project. Final say on any disputed decision.

It was helpful that we were at the beach, that there was a post-sun beer or two and a lovely bottle of red that we drained along with grilled sea and farm fresh fare. With the Beast splayed on the cool tiles of the oddly large and mildly dysfunctional rental kitchen, his baleful hound dog eyes tracking the slow merry-go-round of the ceiling fan and with the red sun flaming the window over the sink (with a view of a yellow brick corporate mall that included the Piggly Wiggly) signaling the end of my birthday, a “yes” was extracted.

Yesterday we saw the kitchen elevations. And I wasn’t blown away. I was a little surprised. I thought that I would hear choirs of angels. Nope. No celestial movement.

Kitchen elevation of east wall. All cabinets.
It was the great white wall. A wall of cabinets that stretched to the very top of our ten foot ceilings. A great wall of white that ensconced and cocooned the rangetop. I railed against it. I was Ahab who needed to destroy that great white monster.

Working with the architect, we moved some storage blocks off of the counter. We replaced some closed cabinets with open shelves. We decided that the bottom cabinets would not be white. It was a great solution. We picked out some stuff, scheduled the next meeting and went about our day. But still, I wasn’t settled.

After work, I walked into the kitchen and imagined the storage space at the top of the room. What would I put in those cabinets? I’d need a real ladder to reach them. I stretched my hand above my head, as far as I could. I opened the current cabinets and stood on my tippy toes. I could barely touch the third shelf of these low ones. I could neither see nor touch anything in the back. I looked up to the ceiling again. It looked like a shear rock wall that I had no idea how to summit. I felt closed in. I felt claustrophobic.

I shook off the future kitchen plans and turned to the current meal plan. I worked on getting dinner together in my borderline decrepit kitchen. It was comfy. Most everything was in reach–mostly because the footprint was confined. Stuff was either right there or not in the room. But still, it was manageable. I was managing.

I plated the arugula, topped it with the burrata and scattered halves of heirloom cherry tomatoes and a few red onion strings around the mound of cheese. I crushed black pepper over the top and rained sea salt. I sliced the leftover roasted chicken and placed it on the other side of the plate. I drizzled a lemony pesto sauce on the chicken and finished the burrata and arugula with olive oil and a drop of the good balsamic.

The Spouse and I sat down to eat. I poured the wine that he had opened. I said that I wasn’t sure about the big wall of white. The Spouse said that he was surprised when I didn’t object to the enclosed exhaust hood. He was surprised because when I showed him images of what I liked, a hearth surround was not on the list. In fact, he noted that I liked the clean lines of an exposed stainless steel hood reaching to the ceiling and disparaged the hearths fashioned to look like a pizza oven or a fireplace.

He knew this because when I swiped through dozens of pictures that I amassed online, those times when I thought his nodding head was a signal to move along, he was actually paying attention. And that his nods indicated that he understood. 

Now I saw the white monster in its true form. It was the closed-in range. I wanted freedom to cook and create, but the design of the cabinetry was closing in.

But here’s the thing. I didn’t know he was listening. But he was. And he fixed it. What a dope. Me, that is.

So, really, the secret to our marriage is that we are incompatible. At least that’s what I say it is. And I’m in charge of this project.