Saturday, September 07, 2013

Mike and McGee: the end and a new beginning

As you've noticed, there hasn't been a lot of action on this blog. I had good intentions of posting on a regular basis with the beginning of the last school year, but as you've seen, I posted Meredith's first day of school pictures and then stopped.

I've thought about writing this post (and apologies in advance because it's going to be a long one) for almost a year now, but I wasn't sure what to say or how to say it. I'm still not sure what to say or how to say it. But I do know that it's time for me to do this.

My life as I knew it, my life as I'd planned it, fell apart at the beginning of Labor Day weekend last year. You see couples sometimes who've been together for a while, and then they divorce, and no one is really surprised because they'd been at each others' throats for years, or they'd been just generally unhappy for a long time. If you know it's coming, you can prepare, emotionally and otherwise.

I didn't know it was coming.

Everything blew up Labor Day weekend. We talked a lot, we went to counseling. We put on a happy face for the kids and pretended everything was fine. We said we wanted to stay together and make it work. Two weeks to the day that everything fell apart, we sat on the covered patio with the fan blowing overhead and a breeze rustling through the trees, and we decided to end the marriage.

In debating the contents of this post, I thought a lot about the whys. Everyone wants to know why. How does a couple who looks 'ideal' on the outside fall apart so quickly? My friends were all stunned, and so was my family. "We never would have thought..." I heard that a lot last September and October.  At the end of the day though, the whys really don't matter, at least not for this post. I'll just say that we reached a point where so much was broken in a really short period of time, that there just weren't any other sane options but divorce. Some things you can't fix, and this was one.

Still, the concept of divorce... it was just so foreign to me. We were on the cusp of our 8th wedding anniversary. We had a house and two children and two dogs and a life that we'd built together. Unraveling all of that was one of the most emotionally wrenching experiences I've ever had.

One of the biggest issues was the house. I knew I wanted to move back to Arkansas with the kids, and Mike didn't want the house just for himself, so we knew we had to sell it. The problem is that it was still half-finished. We'd torn out the built-in desk in the kitchen but hadn't put anything in its place. We knew we would have to put cabinets there, but that would mean a countertop... which wouldn't match the mauve laminate in the rest of the kitchen, so that would have to be replaced too. We had a big hole along the wall in what was the playroom where the unfinished built-ins needed to go.

I brought in the same awesome Real Estate Agent who'd sold us the house in 2007, and he put us on a tight time schedule. The market dips around the holidays, and he said we'd have our best chance to sell quickly the sooner we could get it photographed and listed for sale. We literally worked around the clock for weeks - repainting Meredith's room, packing up clutter, transforming the playroom into an office, sprucing up the garden and finishing the kitchen remodel, plus tying up all of the small loose ends - the little projects you tell yourself you'll get to 'eventually.'

I've heard people say that remodeling a home or building a home is a quick route to divorce, but Mike and I never really fought about the house. We actually made a really good team when it came to remodeling - I designed all the built-ins, and he built them. He sketched out the frames for the doors and then built them. We had reasonably similar tastes, and I don't recall us ever fighting about things like paint colors or type of tile. Even with divorce hanging over our heads and the extreme awkwardness of sharing a house with your soon-to-be ex-spouse, we managed the rest of the remodel just fine. It was a breakneck pace, but we did it.

I remember thinking how incredibly bizarre it was that we could finish the remodel as a team but be unable to salvage the marriage. I still don't have answers for that. I do know that living in the same house together for three months with divorce pending while trying to put on a happy face for the children was incredibly stressful.

Halloween and Alex's third birthday took place in the midst of all of that. He was Spiderman again last year (two years in a row - and he's considering being Spiderman AGAIN this year too), and he got a lot of use out of the costume with a Spiderman birthday party a week after Halloween. I'm very happy that we were able to provide a good Halloween for both kids and a great birthday for Alex in the midst of everything.

The divorce was remarkably amicable, all things considered. We came to an agreement on everything ourselves, from division of assets to custody of the children. I was pretty numb for most of it. I think you have to be in order to calmly and rationally divide up the contents of your life. After nearly a decade together, there was a lot to split up, but to be completely honest, aside from a few sentimental things like photos and art, everything else was just "stuff." You can get more stuff. The world is full of stuff. I was more attached to the house and what it represented than the things in it.

What really mattered most to me though was the children. Alex didn't really understand what was happening. Meredith took the news of the divorce pretty hard, and it absolutely broke my heart. Me hurting was one thing, but when your child hurts and there's not a lot you can do to make it better, it's a whole new level of awful.

I knew I'd need a lot of support in starting a new life, and I decided to move back to Arkansas with the kids. Mike agreed that it was probably for the best, so on December 1, 2012, I packed up the last of my life in Texas, loaded the kids and Dexter into the car (Zelda adores Mike, so she stayed with him), and I drove away. My attorney filed for divorce the following Monday.

I'd spent the last 4+ years working part-time from home, and I was now faced with the need to go back to work full-time. I'm exceptionally blessed in that my mother (aka NeNe) takes care of Meredith and Alex while I work. I'm also incredibly lucky in that I found a really good job pretty quickly. We arrived in Arkansas December 1st, and I wrapped up my work-from-home job at the end of the month and started a new full-time job the first week in January. I'm working in communications and development again, and I absolutely love it. I know not everyone can say that they love their job, but I really do. 

Meredith started at her new elementary school the first week in December. It was an adjustment for her, of course, but we lucked out in that she was assigned to a really amazing teacher. Because of Meredith's developmental vision delays, we did a lot of vision therapy in Austin, and NeNe took over with extra tutoring to help Meredith get caught up in school. Mer was really struggling with reading when she started school in Arkansas, but by the end of the school year, she was doing so well that she even received a Literacy Award at school - and on her 'school' birthday no less! I'm SO proud of the progress she's made!

Being in Arkansas has been really good for us. I didn't grow up very close, geographically speaking, to my extended family, and it does make a difference in the type of relationship you have. I'm really happy that the children are able to spend so much time not just with my mom but with my Aunt and Uncle and with my cousins and their children and with my friends who are so close they might as well be family. If my dad were alive, he'd also probably be happy that his grandchildren are growing up learning important things like how to Call the Hogs at the University of Arkansas.

Check that out - two kids both looking more or less at the camera and all of the U of A mascots, minus Tusk, the live boar. In all fairness, Tusk doesn't come to gymnastics meets. Just football games, I think.

Anyway, it's obviously been a huge adjustment for the kids. Counseling has helped - a lot - but the reality is that divorce is something that affects their lives profoundly, and it's something they'll have to cope with at every stage of development. I wish that they didn't have to go through all of this. I wish that we could have given them the idyllic life in Texas that we'd planned. But life rarely goes the way we plan it, so we pull ourselves together and cope the best that we can and try to rebuild and move on.

Meredith just started second grade.  Her goal in life is to be a Rockstar AND a Lawyer. No, really! She participated in a rock and roll day camp over the summer and loved it. She joined our church's children's choir, and she keeps everyone in stitches most of the time with the funny things she says and does.

And Alex just started 3-year old preschool. He's still tall for his age but has finally slowed down a little in the growth department. I'm no longer worried that he's going to be a giant someday. He wants to be Spiderman when he grows up, and he's still really obsessed with superheros. If he can't be Spiderman, then he wants to be a football player or a doctor someday. He says he's going to play for either Arkansas or LSU, but we'll see. 

I'm hesitant to say a whole lot more about the children because their story of the divorce isn't fully written, and it isn't really mine to tell. I'm happy to say that thus far everyone in their lives is cooperating to ensure that they know how loved they are, and Meredith and Alex are both doing really well.

The divorce was finalized in March of this year, just a few weeks after the 10th anniversary of our first date. I had to go back to Texas and appear in court for the finalization. It was really just a formality, but one that had to happen. The kids had just spent Spring Break with their dad and had to be back in school, so I went by myself. I was worried I might spend those two days feeling alone and sad. It ended up being anything but - I have so many wonderful friends in Austin, and I managed to cram an awful lot of visits into one short trip. Three new babies had been born since I'd left, and I was able to see them all and get lots of good baby snuggles. I got to have margaritas at Chuy's with a bunch of my girlfriends and get caught up on everyone's lives. I met friends for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I laughed, I cried, and I consider myself so very blessed to have all of them in my life. Last fall I relied on so many of them, so many wonderful women who offered to babysit my children while we went to counseling or when I met with my lawyer or when I needed to pack, who met me for dinner or coffee or a drink, who let me talk through all of my emotions, who offered to bring dinner when most of the kitchen was already packed. I hope someday I can return the favor, and if I can't, then I plan to pay it forward.

After court, my attorney smiled at me and said, "Well, it's all done, and I can tell you from both personal and professional experience, that it gets better." I can say now that she's right. It does get better. The kids are thriving in their new home, I have a job that I love, and I'm figuring out what I want to do with the rest of my life. If you'd told me back in 2004 when I stood on the beach with Mike and exchanged wedding vows that it would all be over in about 8 years, I never would have believed it. Then again, I don't think anyone goes into marriage expecting divorce. I've learned a lot about myself in the last year, and I'm still learning. I know that I'm happier now than I was last fall, and happier still than I was last spring.

I don't know what lies ahead for me, but I know that it will not be documented on this blog. 'Mike and McGee' is over. Our story is finished, and it was not a happy ending. I've had people ask me if I intend to blog again, and the honest answer is that I'm not sure. The kids are older, and as they continue to get older, I think they'll be less and less comfortable with the idea of their mother writing about their lives. I'm also not comfortable with the idea of blogging about my work either, so that cuts out two big topics of conversation right there. I am doing plenty of writing though - in between work and parenthood I started writing fiction again, and I'm working with an idea that I hope might someday become a novel. Perhaps someday I'll blog again.

I don't know what to do with this blog now. It was an online journal of my life for a long time, and I have so many great memories documented here. I had always intended to have books made of the posts on here, but I never got around to it, and now it seems odd to do so - spending money to print and bind memories of a life that no longer exists. Still, the idea of just deleting the blog seems wrong too. I guess for now it will stay here, as it has since I first started blogging in 2005.

I leave you with this thought:

The life that is waiting for me is a work in progress, and a year after the life I planned began to crumble, I am looking forward to what lies ahead.

Best wishes,


The Austin, Texas House - The Finished Version

In late October, 2012, we listed our house for sale. We first bought it in April, 2007, and we spent a long time renovating it ourselves. Because so many of those projects were documented here, I wanted to share the finished version of the house.

The Exterior:

The entrance and hall: we replaced the floor, all the baseboards and door trim and partially walled off what was the formal dining room with a half wall of built-ins.

The kids' bathroom: we replaced the floors, the toilet, the faucets, the lights and the mirror, re-tiled the shower, installed new baseboards and door trim, put in a beadboard ceiling and crown moulding and built a frame for the shower.

Alex's Room: We'd hoped to remodel his closet and put in new carpet, but that was a long-term plan had we stayed there. Basically all we did in his room was paint, install new baseboards, and install the big built-in bookcases.

Meredith's room: This was painted bright pink, but we went with a neutral cream for resale purposes. We took down a chair rail in here, painted and installed new baseboards.

On the other side of that wall of built-ins in the hallway was a space that we were using as a playroom for the kids. With the house on the market, it got staged as a home office. We put in new floors, backed the other side of the cubbies with wainscoting, put in a new light and new baseboards and framed the windows with a huge built-in. The window seat lifted up to reveal two big storage boxes. I wish I'd taken pictures of it as a playroom because it was so bright and cheerful. I cried when we had to put everything away and turn it into an office.

The kitchen was one of the most dramatic remodels. We put in wood floors, peeled the damaged thermofoil off the cabinets and painted them, installed cabinet hardware, put in a new faucet, tore out an old built-in desk and replaced it with base cabinets and a countertop, replaced all of the appliances with stainless steel, had new granite counters installed, put in a stone tile backsplash, and installed a linear crystal chandelier. This was the last big renovation project we did on the house, and it was a rush job that we completed to sell the place because the kitchen was basically half-done when we decided to sell.  

The living room and dining room got new floors, new baseboards, a new fireplace with stone tile surround, a new ceiling fan/light fixture, a new chandelier, and a custom built-in entertainment center.

After the above photos were taken, the room felt really empty to us, so despite the stager's suggestions, we added an inexpensive rug and coffee table from Ikea. 

The master bedroom: new paint, new baseboards and door frames. We had a lot of thoughts about what we might want to do with this room, but it never happened. 

 The master bath. We kind of dropped the ball on this one. We replaced the toilet, took down the big mirror and put in medicine cabinets and new lights. We added a storage cabinet above the toilet, and we removed the old thermofoil on the cabinets and painted them and added new hardware. We also replaced the baseboards and the sink faucets. We'd hoped to do more, but again it was a time and money thing. We needed to sell quickly, so not everything on the dream project list happened.

 The backyard. We expanded the concrete patio and added a covered porch with a ceiling fan. We put in a fountain and did extensive landscaping that included herbs, vegetables, and even productive grapevines. These photos were taken in late October, so the yard wasn't as gorgeous as it could have been, but it still looked like.

So there it is: the finished version of Casa de Mike and McGee. We didn't have a chance to do everything we planned, but we did an awful lot, and it was truly a gorgeous and unique home when we put it on the market. We priced it a little bit on the high end per square foot for the neighborhood, but the house had so many updates that you just couldn't find in a lot of other homes, particularly ones that are just under 2,000 square feet. We had a deluge of requests to show the house, and within 10 days on the market, we had three offers, and we were under contract. I can't say enough wonderful things about our Real Estate Agent, Eric Bramlett. If you're looking for an agent - buying or selling - in Austin, he's great!

We closed on the house in December, and by Christmas, another couple was celebrating in what was once our home. I cried an awful lot in September, October and November, and yes, even into December. Meredith was a baby when we bought that house. It was the only home she'd ever known. Alex was literally born there - in the master bathtub. It was the longest I'd lived in one home since high school. Saying goodbye to that house was literally closing the door on a long chapter in my life. I think we become comfortable in a space, especially when we do a lot to really make it our own, and venturing out of that, letting it go and moving on, becomes harder the longer that space has been your sanctuary. Letting go of that house in Austin was so incredibly hard, and it really was about moving on into a great big unknown. There are so many memories, some good and some not so good, that I took with me when we left.

We left our mark on that house, and it left a mark on me too. I hope that the new owners take good care of it and that they have a wonderful life there.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

1st day of 1st grade!

Yesterday was Meredith's first day of first grade! How did our little girl get so grown up?

I was a little bit nervous for her. Kindergarten here is very play-based, and it really isn't that much of a leap from the preschool she attended. First grade, on the other hand, is much more structured and academic. When we attended the "Meet the Teacher" night, Meredith was a bit taken aback when she walked into the classroom and realized there were no toys in there. Alex was extremely disappointed with the first grade room, and he was not happy that he had to settle for scribbling on a scrap of paper from my bag to entertain himself.

The other source of my anxiety about first grade is related to a big development from the end of the last school year. Right before kindergarten ended, Meredith was diagnosed with developmental vision delays. I'll explain more about that in a future post, but essentially, she's a very bright little girl whose eyes didn't develop properly, which makes things like reading and writing very difficult. We're working with specialists to correct the problem, but in the meantime, school may present some difficulties.

Fortunately her teacher seems very understanding about the whole situation, and I started the school year optimistic for Meredith.

Her chosen attire for the first day of school:

I asked her to smile for me, but she's only willing to do big cheesy grins and not her natural gorgeous smile. I'll take what I can get.

I'm happy to say that her first day of school was a success! She was disappointed that some of her closest friends aren't in her class this year, but she had a great time playing with them on the playground, and she's already made two friends in her new class. Her teacher called me last night just to touch base with us, and she said that Meredith was delightful and a joy to have in the classroom. Way to make mommy proud, kiddo!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Should you buy a fixer-upper?

True story: When Mike and I were looking at houses back in 2007, we walked into a house with our Realtor, looked around and made more or less the following comments:

"The floors all need to be replaced." "The bathrooms need to be redone." "All of the lighting needs to be updated." "That kitchen is awful." "Who in their right mind did the tile around the fireplace?" "It needs to be painted from top to bottom." "There's no landscaping at all in the back."

Then we looked at each other, shrugged, turned to our Realtor and said, "We'd like to make an offer."

He almost fell over in shock and asked, "Are you SURE?"

Were we sure? Well, we thought the house overall had good bones: we liked the layout, and most of what needed to be fixed was cosmetic. It had plenty of space for our little family of three (Meredith was just a baby). We liked the location: it had easy access to major roads which would make Mike's commute more bearable. We liked the neighborhood: it had plenty of amenities like swimming pools, and there was a good elementary school within walking distance.

So we looked around the house, both thinking that it looked like the aftermath of an episode of "Trading Spaces" gone wrong, and said "YES. We'll take it!"

It wasn't exactly a fixer upper in that it needed a massive addition or the roof was caving in, but it had plenty of problems. In 5.5 years of ownership, we've replaced the roof, the air conditioner, the water heater and part of the fence, all out of necessity. A mishap with the washing machine flooded most of the house a few months after we moved in, so nearly all of the baseboards had to be ripped out and replaced too. Stuff happens. It's part of the "joy" of owning a home.

As for the "fun" fixer-upper stuff, well, we're both generally handy people, and we enjoy working on a house together, so we considered ourselves prime candidates for a fixer-upper. Even so, I have to admit that it's not been easy managing jobs and children and trying to DIY it.

Our little helpers:

Meredith as a toddler, helping with the fireplace remodel.

Meredith at 3.5, helping us demolish tile in the bathroom.

Alex last Christmas, helping Mike install wood floors throughout the house:

 Alex earlier this summer, helping Mike with the backyard fence:

We've noticed over the years that those nice folks at HGTV do a great job of making renovation look easy. They send in some designers and carpenters, and in a mere 30 minutes, we the viewers watch a room or a house go for bad to beautiful! They throw out suggestions like, "Don't throw out that old dining room set - paint it and recover the chair cushions for a whole new look!" Do you have any idea how high the PITA (pain in the a$$) factor is for redoing furniture if you don't have the proper tools? It's pretty high, as one of our good friends found out recently. Do you know how long it takes to install new door frames in a house? We don't know either because we're still working on it, but we're pretty sure it takes twice as long if you have little helpers underfoot like we do.

In other words, unless you're an experienced pro, DIY renovation takes a lot longer than it appears to on television. It is also usually filled with far more mishaps than HGTV shows!

So are you thinking about buying a fixer-upper?

The nice people over at Credit Sesame came up with a funny but informative flow chart to help you decide. (Click image to enlarge, or click the Credit Sesame link above)

We'd also add that if you're considering a fixer upper, give some serious thought to the home's location: if you sink a bunch of time and money into fixing the house, will you get it back? Or are you over-renovating for the surrounding area? If the home is in a very desirable area, buying a renovating may make great sense, but only if you and your significant other can make it through the renovation process without killing each other!

As for us, so far we've managed to do quite a bit of work on this house, and we're still happily married. As an added bonus, the kids are getting a great lesson in how to build and renovate, and perhaps someday - a VERY long time from now - we'll be able to trust them with power tools. Maybe then we can get a really big fixer upper!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Then vs. Now

Since we've been in our house for five years now (has it really been that long??), we thought we'd share a few photos of our work in progress. And it really always is a work in progress, isn't it?

When you open the front door, this is what you saw in 2007:

This is what you see now when you step into our home:

Still to come: We'll probably swap out the artwork for something new. We need something on the foyer wall to your left. The main light you can see in the top left corner of the photo needs to be replaced, and we'd like to eventually have accent lighting on both art niches.

This was the secondary bathroom in our house in 2007:

 This is the secondary bathroom now:

It's hard to tell from that photo, but we replaced the ugly floor tile with 12x12 cream marble tile. The shower surround was updated with white subway tile, beige grout, and honey onyx accent tile.

Still to come: We need to replace the counter top, sink and faucet.

From the hallway, looking toward the formal dining room in 2007:

More or less the same position today:

I designed a five-foot tall half-wall with shelves and storage cubbies, ending in a column, and Mike built it himself! What was the formal dining room is now a playroom for the children, but it's not finished yet, so you'll have to wait to see photos for now. We'll do a post soon with the whole process of building the half-wall!

This is what we termed the breakfast room in 2007:

It's now our main dining room now. This photo was taken from the living room, looking back at the dining room and the hallway. Excuse the dog bed and food dishes - Dexter and Zelda are part of the package.

This was the main living area when we first purchased the house in 2007:

You can see the bar for the kitchen on the far right of that photo. I was standing in the breakfast room when I took this picture. It's basically one big open space, which was something we both wanted.

This is the living area today:

Still to come: We need a rug and a coffee table. I'm picturing a faded oriental rug in shades of blues, creams and greens, but I'm not sure how that would hold up with the kids. As for the coffee table, I love the idea of something glass and metal and square, but again, I'm not sure how practical that is with Meredith and Alex. We've also discussed replacing the back door with a full glass door. 

This was the small nook off the living room in 2007 with an awkward art niche:

We replaced the art niche with a great - and practical - built-in bookcase and wall sconce.

This was the kitchen, taken from the living room in 2007:

This is the kitchen today (and a little bit of Dexter down at the bottom):

We've replaced all of the appliances with very nice stainless steel (including my beloved gas range with double oven).

Still to come: New lighting, refaced cabinets, new counters, and an actual tile backsplash.

We still have SO much we want to do to this house, but it's come a long way in five years!