I’m calling it quits on housesandbooks because there are so many other topics I want to write about. Here’s the new blog:
I hope to see you there! And a very warm thank-you to all my faithful subscribers.
I have written 130 posts for Housesandbooks since 2011. I have over a hundred subscribers, and my viewership statistics have been increasing nicely over the past three years. One of my travel essays (The Grandeur — And Squalor — of Old Versailles) has become inexplicably popular and was even posted on Reddit. So what’s the problem?
I happen to have cancer, which is certainly capable of altering a writer’s focus, interests and outlook on life. And I recently stepped down from my beloved job as weekly columnist for the Bloomington, Indiana, Herald-Times “Homes” section, a position that I had held for eleven years and which had come to define me to some degree. But houses and books are no longer my primary interest right now.
The urge to write is a lifelong one and I know I will want to blog again. But it’s not likely to be on Housesandbooks. I’m thinking of setting up a new site where I can post a hodgepodge of thoughts that perhaps will include travel, politics, photography, and/or writing. Perhaps I’ll post chapters of my newly finished teen time travel romance. I would consider posting memorable journal entries, or essays on subjects that interest me. And whenever I figure it out I’ll post a link here to let you know about it.
I want to thank my readers and subscribers for their interest in sharing the quirky subjects that I love. One person who commented summed me up very accurately by writing that she couldn’t figure out whether I was strangely odd or oddly strange. That perfectly sums up both me and the things that interest me. Undoubtedly my next site will be oddly strange as well. Hugs to you all, for now.
[This article was published Nov. 29 in the Bloomington Herald-Times.]
All good things must end. After eleven years, with great regret, I’m handing over this “Homes” column to fresh talent.
Many readers are aware that I received treatment for a rare form of ovarian cancer this past spring and summer. Although it’s in remission and I’m symptom-free, it’s virtually guaranteed to recur sooner rather than later, and I want to enjoy the time I have left with friends and family. I’ll miss writing this column very much, but “Homes” will continue under the able guidance of Lee Sandweiss, whose features have appeared for eight years in “Bloom” magazine.
For my last column, here are a few things I’ve learned during the course of this job.
What is a home?
I’ve toured hundreds of homes ranging from rental units to mansions. The ones that remained in my memory were not the huge ones with vast expanses of rare granite countertops and hand-planed floorboards, but the ordinary homes whose owners had put real love and hard work into them. A house is more homey when it contains evidence of lives lived well: a grandmother’s quilt, a child’s framed painting, objects brought back from vacations, and flowers fresh-cut from the garden outside. A home, ultimately, is not a place to show off your status or wealth, but a place in which you feel most truly yourself.
A home is always a work in progress
Homeowners always apologize to me that their homes are not really “finished” yet. But virtually no house will ever be truly “finished.” Even a brand-new custom home will contain, somewhere inside it, a crack along a drywall seam, a slightly dodgy electric switch, or an overlooked corner on one window where a trickle of cold air slowly seeps through. Most older homes need a new furnace, or new attic insulation, perhaps new siding, or a French drain on the soggy side of the yard; and these things get taken care of as the budget permits. The existence of a to-do list does not generally affect the overall livability of a home (or its worthiness to be featured in this column!). Almost nobody achieves 100 percent “finished-ness.” What’s more, nobody is keeping score.
Food for thought
An old house even on the brink of collapse can be brought back to life and made livable again. (Just ask Bloomington Restorations, Inc., or Golden Hands Construction.) Drastic rehab often costs less than demolition combined with all-new construction. Remember, even the “greenest” new construction comes with a big carbon footprint.
Plant a garden
Gardening promotes beauty, creativity, mental and physical health, food security and environmental restoration. You don’t need to lay everything out perfectly with straight lines and labels. All you need is a simple veggie bed, flowers for bees and butterflies, a fruit tree, and a compost system in which to layer kitchen waste with your fall leaves.
Beware of radon!
Many basements in south-central Indiana contain unsafe levels of radon. I strongly suggest that readers invest in a good-quality radon meter to make sure their radon levels remain below 4 (the EPA’s cutoff point). Radon gas is the number-two cause of lung cancer in America after smoking, and many basement playrooms expose children unwittingly to this carcinogen.
What I’m proudest of
Over the course of eleven years, despite two serious surgeries, and a five-month course of chemotherapy, I always met my deadlines and succeeded in handing in my weekly feature.
What I’ll miss most
I’ll miss the ongoing interactions with kindly homeowners and talkative contractors. I’ll miss the opportunity to gain ideas that I can use in my own home, such as innovative built-ins, gardening methods, unusual fixtures, and new uses for old furniture. I’ll miss walking through wonderful historic homes, seeing gorgeous landscaping, and meeting skilled artisans. I’ll miss the emails from readers who tell me, “I’m the former owner of the house in your recent column, and I’d love to tell you some of its history.” Most of all, I’ll miss the opportunity to share my ongoing enthusiasm about houses and gardens with my readers.
I am thankful
I could not have done my job without the able support of Sonja Stotler, my compositor at the Herald-Times. It’s Sonja who chooses which of my photos you will see each week in the “Homes” section, and who arranges the articles on the page so they look attractive.
Thanks are also due to my wonderful boss at the Herald-Times, Laurie Ragle. I also would like to thank Jeannette Smedberg, who served as my backup proofreader whenever I was gallivanting on vacation (and who did a far better job than I did). Lastly, heartfelt thanks to the many readers and coworkers who sent their good wishes when I became ill. The stack of get-well cards that I received was five inches high.
I’m retiring now to tend my health. Wish me luck! And I in turn, wish the very best to all my readers. Writing for “Homes” has been a wonderful privilege, and I will never forget it.
While in remission, and still healthy, I hope to be able to do something to help other people with the same cancer I have. There is a real need for this because of the rarity of this disease. Consider the fact that ovarian cancer strikes only 1.3 percent of all women, according to the National Cancer Institute’s data page. Then consider that my variant of cancer, malignant Mixed Mullerian Tumor or ovarian carcinosarcoma, is responsible for only around 2% of that 1.3 percent.
Yes, we MMTs are “special.” But believe me, it’s not so great, being “special” in this particular way.
Because we’re so far and few between, there’s no institutional support for us. I’m in a local ovarian cancer support group, but my prognosis is significantly worse than my peers in the group, and my disease is physically different from theirs (carcinosarcoma can occur in men as well as women). My peers in the group have approximately a 45% chance of still being alive in five years, while I can expect only one to three years (and I’m already ten months into my first year). My disease responded somewhat to the chemotherapy given for ordinary ovarian cancer, but MMT tends to recur aggressively simply because the chemo is not a tailored fit. Pharma companies are not interested in researching drugs that treat cancers as rare as mine, and this situation won’t change anytime soon. So we MMT patients are given drugs that work better for other people’s cancer than they do for us. There’s no national website for our disease. We’re overlooked, ignored, and in the way.
I want support of a kind that I can not find online and which is not really available locally. It seems obvious that since I can’t turn to others, what I need to do is to list the little that I DO know, for the benefit of that small handful of people out there who are also looking for support with MMT/carcinosarcoma.
I don’t know whether a gene or an environmental exposure causes this cancer. What I do know is this: I suspect that inflammation could be part of the problem. I have a tendency toward inflammatory autoimmune disorders, as was shown by my genetic health testing. Six out of the top nine ailments that were identified for me based on genetics were autoimmune conditions. Ten years ago my health was ruined when my young son brought home a case of Fifth Disease from school, which I then caught. Fifth Disease is human parvovirus B19 and is usually a childhood disease. Like mumps or measles, human parvovirus is much worse if you come down with it as an adult. Parvo apparently has the ability to induce, or mimic, autoimmune conditions in susceptible individuals, and I appear to be one of these unfortunate people. The parvovirus wrecked my immune system, which began to attack various parts of my own body. A link between inflammatory disorders and cancers has been known for decades; celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus are all linked with specific kinds of cancers. I cannot prove it, but I believe that the inflammation from the parvo planted the seeds that would become my cancer ten years later. A web search will show that cancer patients tend to fall ill with human parvovirus far more readily than the public at large due to having compromised autoimmune systems; but I wonder whether their illnesses are in fact old parvo infections that have lain dormant in their bodies until being reactivated by illness, the way shingles is reactivated chicken pox.
It’s likely that stress also plays a role. The year-and-a-half before my diagnosis, I worked a second job that was enormously stressful, and this cannot have helped anything that was already going on inside me at the time. And just before my symptoms went critical, I completed a round of powerful antibiotics because of a cat scratch. Antibiotics of course kill off our internal biomes and can affect our balance of health. Both the stress and the antibiotics could have been contributing factors.
I would like to hear from other people, women and men, who are currently dealing with MMT/carcinosarcoma. I would like to compare backgrounds and see whether fellow patients also have a history of inflammatory disorders. We also need to see whether we share any other characteristics in common: stress, antibiotics, ethnic background, even body mass index. (A note of interest: obesity is a risk factor for ovarian cancer; yet all of the seven women in my ovarian cancer support group are slim. Do slim patients tend to survive longer?) If we can compile facts about what we have in common, we could be of great help to future researchers.
Far too little is being done to learn more about this disease and what causes it, and unfortunately, patients have a habit of dying very early on. We need to know more. If you find this post, please contact me at the email listed on the “About” page of this blog. Together, I hope that we can come up with enough information to post online for others.
[This article first appeared in the Bloomington Herald-Times in August of 2014.]
Chuck and Patti Russo love their historic house, built in 1906 by Mickey Burke, a Monon railroad conductor. Its wide limestone steps lead up to an inviting front porch, while the elegant interior abounds with period architectural flourishes: high ceilings, large windows, pocket doors, and original trim. It’s an integral part of Prospect Hill’s National Historic District, and the Russos are only the fifth owners over 108 years.
“We love old houses,” said Chuck. “It reminded us of our first home in Morris, IL, which was a 1916 foursquare. When we saw this house we just couldn’t resist it. We never thought we’d get a house like this.”
The former Bloomington residents raised their four children here before relocating to Boulder, Colorado. When they returned in 2012, they were empty-nesters seeking a new home that would accommodate social gatherings and visits from grown children. They looked at a variety of houses, but nothing really struck a chord until they saw the Prospect Hill house.
The Dutch Colonial house has overlays of Free Classic style and is almost identical to an early Montgomery Ward house plan. The house is locally significant because of third owners Bill and Helen Sturbaum, who with their sons restored the building after a period of decline. This set in motion a train of events that led to Prospect Hill’s current rebloom following decades of mid-century decline.
Chuck and Patti were fortunate in being first in line for seven scheduled showings of the house. They took one look and immediately fell in love with it. They made a bid then and there, which was accepted.
Although the former owners had decorated it in a sumptuous retro-Victorian style, the interior was simply too dark for the new owners.
“The former owners recreated 1906,” said Patti. “They had fainting couches, a harpsichord, stamped tin ceilings, and dark burgundy walls. But I’m light-sensitive and we just HAD to make it brighter and more cheerful.”
“We wanted to respect what we had, a beautiful house with Victorian value,” said Chuck. “We have no desire to do anything to the exterior because it’s part of the historic district.”
The couple completely refurbished the main level. Original floors with almost-black finish were stripped; wallpaper was removed, and walls repainted. Tim Laughlin of Plumb, Inc. was the general contractor; Steve Berg of Lee Supply helped with the kitchen and bath; Jason Underwood of InStile and Ron White completed separate tile projects.
“We repainted any trim that was already painted,” said Chuck, “but we left everything that was varnished. After the floors were stripped, it became as bright as a spotlight. ”
Most importantly, the kitchen was completely gutted and rebuilt with simple, modernist lines.
“We weren’t taking out a historic kitchen, so we felt comfortable updating the space,” Patti pointed out. “We started from scratch. The cork flooring was in poor shape and we took it all out. It was a galley kitchen with an entrance to the bathroom at one end. My friend Marie Carpenter and I drew up the kitchen plans, and we asked Steve Berg separately to do the same, and he came up with the same configuration. We moved the location of the bathroom door because we have a lot of guests and we wanted them to feel more comfortable.”
The kitchen was fully opened to the adjacent sitting room with its many south-facing windows, and an island with breakfast bar took the place of the former wall. The high-quality former cabinets were donated to Habitat ReStore. Although the new cabinetry looks custom, it’s actually stock cabinets that complement Arts and Crafts style, albeit with modernist opaque glass fronts. The new flooring is porcelain tile. The adjacent bathroom was enlarged by sacrificing a parlor closet. Because the existing tub had an arched opening above it, the opening between the former closet and bathroom was also remade in an arch.
New limestone tile now surrounds the original fireplace in the dining room, brightening the space. Upstairs, rooms and trim were painted. The work extended over four months late last year, including both Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“We had all four kids home for the holidays,” said Patti, “and we threw a party for 28 people. We had the kitchen barricaded with caution tape and sawhorses, and can you guess where all those people ended up? In the kitchen!” She laughed at the memory.
The east-facing upstairs windows formerly offered an admirable view from Prospect Hill all the way to the Courthouse lawn, but construction of the new Hyatt Place at Morton and Kirkwood has impinged on the view of the square. Still, the vista is panoramic.
“We tell people, ‘Nineteen steps up, but the view is worth the climb,’” said Patti.
She summed up, “It’s much more than just a house. It’s a home, to all our friends and family as well. Even in the midst of the construction, we hosted many gatherings. The house just feels like us.”
“We’re thrilled,” Chuck emphasized; “we’re thrilled!”
The post-chemo CT scan was not what we had hoped for, yet it was not a total disappointment. The same three small tumors that were visible after my surgery in March are still there; but the good news is that they have shrunk by 50%. The largest is just over half an inch across; the two smaller ones are the size of peas. And yet, the bad news is that they are still there, because it means they are probably still viable and active rather than dried-up shells. And because the tumors are still there, it suggests that my cancer is largely resistant to the drugs.
My particular kind of cancer is extremely rare and represents less than two percent of all ovarian cancers. In general, it’s fast-growing, and there’s very little research being done because so few women fall ill with it. Its acronym, Mixed Mullerian Tumor or MMT, is usually prefaced by another “m” word: “malignant.” (It’s also called ovarian carcinosarcoma.) I first noticed symptoms in early January and was fading fast by March, when they surgically removed two large masses. I felt much better immediately, and sailed through the chemo with very few side effects while continuing to work at my job.
Whenever these three small tumors decide to reactivate, I will probably only have a couple of months left before I start to die for the second time. My oncologist at the Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis told me that it would make little difference if we were to take the tumors out now, as opposed to waiting for symptoms to return. The fact that there is so little research being done is frustrating, because there are few persons or institutions capable of providing a second opinion. From what I can tell from my Internet research, there is virtually nothing I can do to extend my life. My oncologist advised me to go forth and seize the day (that is, the days that still remain). My own online searches for MMT cancer invariably turn up my own blogs on the subject. (Thanks, Google.)
There is a choice to be made here. Do I want to struggle like mad to extend my own life by any means possible, spending money traveling to distant clinics to speak with experts, even though most likely I will fail in the end, filled with frustration, rage and panic? Or do I continue my quiet acceptance of my fate as a mortal being? After all, I’ve come to a good place in my life, a place where I have achieved all of my major hopes and ambitions. And all of us have known from childhood that we must die at the end. Even if it were feasible, I would have no interest in having my consciousness downloaded into a computer chip. I would not want consciousness under those limited conditions: an existence in which I could never walk again in the woods, inhaling the aroma of pine trees while birds sing.
For now, I embrace the facts of life — and death. This may change if I become more ill down the road, but for now I intend to accept my lot. After all, an important part of growing up is to learn to gracefully accept to play whatever cards we are dealt, instead of making a scene and complaining. I plan to relax with my family and friends, and yesterday I gave notice at my job, effective the end of November. I have projects I would like to complete, and travels to make. Life is a beautiful, complex, challenging, wonderful thing, and I wish to enjoy it fully in the time that remains.
[A shorter version of this article appeared in the Bloomington Herald-Times on Aug. 16.]Professional historic preservationist Duncan Campbell and his wife Cathy Spiaggia live in one of the oldest homes in Monroe County. Built by Edward Borland in the 1830s, the brick house was a near-ruin when Duncan purchased it in 1986.
“We are only the third owners,” he noted. The Borland family retained the house and the hundreds of acres surrounding it until the 1929, when Edward’s great-granddaughter sold everything to the Furst Quarry Company. The old house then became home to two successive generations of quarry superintendents before finally being rented out in the 1970s.
“People would come out here and swim in the quarries,” Duncan said. “Every now and then I run into someone who remembers the house back then.”
The house when new was one of the most elegant houses in Monroe County, a fitting residence for the man who was one of the leading builders, developers and landowners of his time. (Borland built, or helped build, the first Indiana Seminary buildings, Wylie House, and the original brick courthouse.) Edward Borland and his brother James arrived in Bloomington just after its founding.
“The Borland brothers were interesting men,” said Duncan. “They came from Pennsylvania and were Scotch-Irish. Edward was a master builder and James was a surveyor. We have this idea that pioneers came trudging through with a gun over one shoulder and a coonskin cap, but many of them were wearing frock coats and carrying surveying equipment.”
Between them, the brothers helped to develop the young settlement of Bloomington. James Borland served as the land agent for Perry Township which was at that time government-owned land; money raised from the sale of lots was applied toward the fledgling state seminary which later became Indiana University. Edward, in his turn, served as trustee for the new university, and built himself one of the finest homes in the county.
But by the time Duncan saw it, about 150 years later, the house was sadly run down.
“The walls had five or six layers of wallpaper,” he recalled. “The floors were covered with Masonite and indoor-outdoor carpet that was all mildewed. Every room had issues. Many of the ceilings were bare lath.”
Duncan’s opportunity began when a young couple expressed interest in buying the house. On their behalf, realtor Bob Dunn asked Duncan and his former restoration-contracting partner Michael Yoakam to estimate how much a full restoration might cost.
That first walkthrough was astonishing.
“The house was 100 percent original: floors, paneled doors, windows, trim, even the hardware on the doors,” Duncan said. “It was one of the few historic houses I’d seen that hadn’t been seriously messed with. I was flabbergasted. I’d lived in Bloomington for years and had never heard about the house.” Beneath layers of paint, parlor trim shaped like Grecian columns represented Greek Revival style, the popular architectural fashion of the 1830s.
Duncan and Michael estimated that with tuck pointing, replastering, and updating the plumbing and wiring, it could cost the would-be purchasers $150,000 if they were DIYers, and perhaps double that amount that if they hired contractors to do it for them.
“The young couple talked to Bob for a few minutes and then drove away,” Duncan chuckled. “Bob came over to us and [sarcastically] said ‘Thanks, guys!’ I casually quipped that I’d buy it in a heartbeat. A week later we started negotiating.”
Duncan scraped together all his money, sold a house he owned in town, and bought the house along with surrounding acreage.
“I spent the whole first week in the basement trying to keep the water heater running,” he recalled. “The electric service was spotty; some of the rooms had never been wired. And over the next several years I did more plastering than I’d ever done before.”
He and Cathy had just begun to date two months before the purchase. After talking it over, they decided she and her two teenagers would move into the house along with him.
“The teenagers weren’t all that happy about it at first,” he laughed, “but they really pitched in and helped do a lot of the messy cleanup.”
Cathy added, “I remember stripping wallpaper with my daughter and discovering signatures, a tracing of a small hand, and even a love poem. It was exciting.”
The symmetrical brick structure is a classic I-house (so named because they’re common in the I-states of Indiana, Illinois and Iowa), two rooms wide and one room deep. The central hall and staircase divide the building in half. An original two-story rear ell contains the kitchen and the room above it. A smoke-room on the far end was added slightly later. The basement contains the original baking oven. A unique two-story back porch runs the length of the house.
“The Furst quarry superintendent used the upper level as a sleeping porch,” said Duncan.
Restoration moved forward as time and money became available. Also, Duncan wanted to understand the issues before moving forward, alert to any possible damage to the historic fabric. He utilized antique recipes for lime mortar and plaster when making repairs.
“Cement mortar just tears up these old soft bricks,” he said, looking regretfully at bad repairs made during the Furst years.
Over the years Duncan and Cathy have tended, painted and lovingly restored the house. (Admittedly, there were still unattached doors leaning against walls as late as 2008.) After discovering signatures on the bare wall under the wallpaper in the staircase, they decided to leave that wall unpainted and unpapered. Every guest at his and Cathy’s wedding then autographed the equally-bare facing wall.
“There’s a spirit in an old house that is palpable,” said Cathy. “Memories run all through it. Living here, the house has become a part of our history, and we’re a part of its history.”
“I don’t want to dissuade people from buying a house like this,” said Duncan, “but it takes a lot of time and energy, and it’s not for everyone. But we love this house! It’s just a phenomenal living experience. To live alongside history is exceptional.”