{February 24, 2013}   Salvage Yard Shopping

My husband celebrated a milestone birthday recently and I wanted to present him a gift worthy of the momentous occasion. But where do you shop for a person who is celebrating 50 laps around the sun?

Most people’s first thought wouldn’t be the junkyard…ahem…I mean, salvage yard. And it wasn’t my first thought either. But that’s where I ended up finding his gift. (Birthday shopping at a junkyard is just one of the new things I’ve done this year.)

Doug is a truck mechanic by trade, but loves all kinds of vehicles from trucks to cars to tractors to boats to snowmobiles. So I was leaning toward something “automotive” related. I looked into flying him to Las Vegas to tour the Shelby Museum, but time and money were limited.

Our home has an extra “mechanic’s garage” with a vaulted ceiling, hydraulic lift and plenty of space for Doug to work on projects. (He restored a 1967 Minneapolis-Moline Jetstar 3 tractor a few years ago and recently started to tinker on a 1967 M-M U302.) What little free time he has is spent in his “man cave,” so finding something to spruce up the space seemed like a good way to go.

I headed to Google for inspiration. There, I came across an idea that intrigued me: have a photo of your auto enthusiast painted on the door, fender or other part of a classic car he admires. Hmm…I could work with that.

I called his mom, emailed his brother and contacted his best friend for information. What was his first car?  What’s his favorite car? What kind of car would he love to own?

Armed with details, I called my dad. Now this guy knows a lot about cars. When I was a kid, I watched him do auto body repair on vehicles in our family’s small garage. He “Bondo-ed” and sanded and primed and painted many cars over the years. In college, I remember impressing a guy with my knowledge of “fish eye repellent”—something you add to auto paint to prevent little craters in the finish.

When I mentioned the “car part as canvas” idea to Dad, he jumped on board. In fact, before I could confirm the year and make of Doug’s first car, my dad had tracked down a place to “shop.”

A few days later, he and I went on a field trip to Jack’s Auto Ranch in Watertown, Wisconsin. We walked into the office on a wintry day to find a handful of employees working at a computer, talking on the phone or warming themselves at the wood stove as cats walked through like they owned the place.

One of the men, who I assumed was Jack the owner but later learned was not, recalled the phone conversation with my dad and said he had just what we wanted. He told a younger man to drive us to a certain aisle where we were sure to find the perfect canvas for a painting: the hood of a 1968 Mercury Cougar.

Dad and I took a short ride in a car that had seen better days and were dropped in the “Ford” section of the yard to search for a needle in a haystack. Neither of us was so familiar with Mercury Cougars that we’d recognize a 1968 on sight. And the cars in the salvage yard were parked three-deep, piled atop one another and tucked into inaccessible places that made identification difficult.

We made a valiant effort, even learning to decipher the markings scribbled on a bumper or quarter panel. After a half-hour of exploring in the cold, we admitted defeat and walked back to the office. Not-Jack asked if we’d found what we wanted. “We found a lot of things,” I said. “I’m just not sure what we found.”

He grumbled a little, but kindly offered to drive us to the spot where the Cougar hood could be found. I was convinced he had an encyclopedic memory of every vehicle and part in the yard. So we returned to the beater car and enjoyed a few stories from Not-Jack along the way.

We got out of the car a few times as Not-Jack pointed out headlights, stripped-down vehicles and miscellaneous parts for 1967 and ’68 Mercury Cougars (there’s just a minor body difference between the two years). It seems he didn’t recall exactly where he had last seen the hood, but he recognized it immediately when he came across it. It wasn’t labeled, so Dad and I probably wouldn’t have found it on our own.  It was blue, dented and rusty; we could work with that. Not-Jack lifted it onto the roof of the beater and drove us back to the office. We paid, loaded it into the minivan and were on our way.

The devil’s in the details, and Dad was a great help with them. On the way home, we stopped to look into sand-blasting the hood (a no-go) and tracked down the codes for the original “Augusta Green” paint color at an auto paint shop.

Since I couldn’t keep the hood at our house without Doug noticing it, Dad offered to hold on to it and do “a little” work on it. Four days of sanding and filling and priming later, he called to say it was time I take a look at it.

Wow! What an amazing transformation. He’d gotten rid of the rust, filled the holes and dents, sanded it smooth and primed it. I thought it looked great, yet he wasn’t entirely happy with the feathering here or a small ridge there. He wanted it to look perfect and insisted on keeping it.

When it was ready, we once again loaded it into the minivan and hauled it to an auto body shop where Doug’s best friend, Mark, had arranged to have it painted. The next time I saw it, it was gorgeous—a deep metallic green and very shiny.

I had wanted to commission an artist to paint a picture of Doug with his first car on the hood, but I couldn’t track down a photo of him with the car, and time was running out. I returned to Google and found a decal of a voluptuous brunette with a ’68 Cougar for sale on eBay.

Mark’s connections streamlined the next step for me, too. His good friend Tom enlarged the image, added some wording and created an awesome decal to grace the hood.

When Doug unveiled his gift at a small gathering of friends and family, he was amazed. We asked party-goers to sign the hood that night, and several jotted personal notes, too. His one-of-a-kind Cougar hood will be hung on the wall in his garage as a reminder of his 50th birthday. Not a bad ending for a junkyard find.

Now it’s your turn. What’s the most unusual gift you’ve ever given or received?


{February 20, 2013}   *#%! The Water’s Cold!

Polar Bear, Polar Bear, what do you hear? I hear crazy people swearing near me.

Author Bill Martin Jr. and illustrator Eric Carle might not appreciate my take on their children’s book, but that’s how I’d describe the scene at the Polar Plunge in Muskego, Wisconsin on Feb. 10.

With temps in the mid-30s and a cold rain falling, nearly 200 people hopped, leaped, flipped, cannon-balled or jumped through a hole cut in the ice of the pond at Muskego Park to brave the icy waters below. They were “Freezin’ for a Reason.” The plunge raised about $90,000 for Special Olympics and is one of many similar events held throughout the state.

Since these folks were crazy enough to plunge into the frigid pond voluntarily, it wasn’t a surprise to see them dressed in wild costumes, including Elvis, chickens, nerds, aliens, caped super-heroes and other outlandish characters. Many teams wore matching T-shirts or swim trunks and several individuals sported teeny bikinis or skimpy Speedos.

I joined a team sponsored by Alpine Lanes  (a fun place to bowl and fabulous pizza!) We wore T-shirts emblazoned with our team name, the “Ice Holes,” then personalized our individual outfits with accessories like sparkly tutus, kiddie inner tubes, lei, crazy hats, fur headbands and a Darth Vader helmet.

After registering, our team waited for our assigned plunge time in a huge heated tent that included concessions and a band to get us warmed up. As the time neared, we headed to smaller tents closer to the pond to stow our towels and dry clothes.

All the laughing, dancing and shared goofiness of the previous few hours could no longer distract me from what we were about to do. If you read about our family outing to the Cool Fool Kite Festival on New Year’s Day, you know I don’t like the cold. So jumping into ice water is way outside my comfort zone. In fact, I dreaded it. (Worse yet, I couldn’t whine about it, since I’d convinced two lovely friends to do this with me.)

Our team had too many members to jump at the same moment, so we broke into groups. Jen, Lisa, Leah and I made up the first group, held hands and jumped on the count of 3. Lisa and Leah kept their heads above water while Jen and I went all the way under. Yikes!

Maybe it was just the people on our team, but the first words to be spoken after hitting the water were, I’m sorry to say, profanity-laced exclamations. “Oh, &#%!” “*@$%! That’s cold!” “Holy #*$&!”

Before my body had time to register the cold, I was ushered to a ladder and out of the water to make way for the next group. I don’t think we were in for 30 seconds. Dripping and shivering, we hurried to nearby hot tubs to soak off the chill, then headed back to the tents to dry and change.

Truthfully, plunging wasn’t as bad as I expected. It was cold, but quick. And the dip in the hot tub warmed me back up in no time.

Best of all, our team raised about $1,500 for Special Olympics and we had a lot of fun doing it. Would I do it again? Maybe. But I’ll insist that you join me.

{February 19, 2013}   Ignorance is Bliss

“Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.” –Edgar Degas

I’m only speaking for myself when I say this Degas quote sums up my recent experience painting with acrylics. I had a great time last month at Arte Wine and Painting Studio in Wauwatosa with my friend Ellen and my sisters-in-law Lisa and Kathy, all of whom have previously joined me on my year-long quest to try new things. (You can read about the adventures Ellen and I had in New York City here and learn about a hot glass class that Lisa, Kathy and I took here.)

Arte Wine and Painting Studio offers art classes in which students can replicate a famous painting, such as Monet’s Lily Pads or Edvard Munch’s The Scream, or simply use it as inspiration for a personal masterpiece. (Read about the experience my friend Michelle, a fellow blogger, had taking a similar class here.)

Instead of taking a class, the four of us opted for a few hours at the Paint Bar. Our artist bartender seated us at a table with easels, aprons and brushes, then delivered the wine and beer we ordered as well as plates of the paint colors we requested.

Lisa and I had printed out a few pictures to use for inspiration for our paintings. She had also printed out a few ideas for me, because they reminded her of a Marimekko Unikko wall hanging in my kitchen. I tossed my ideas and chose one of hers because I thought it would work with the colors in our living room.

Some of us used pencils to first sketch our designs on the canvas, then we got down to painting while sipping drinks and chatting. Lisa is an art teacher and offered suggestions for mixing colors and adding brush strokes here or there to get the look we wanted. I’ve seen some of her other artwork, so I knew her painting would be awesome. Her ability to show light and shadow so realistically in her close-up of sneakers is amazing.

What I didn’t know was how talented Kathy and Ellen are. Neither had much painting experience, yet both created cool canvases. Ellen’s nightscape swirls with gorgeous blues and purples reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and Kathy’s detailed cat pops off a beautifully blended red background.

Not worried about correct proportions or proper technique, I was happy with how my floral painting turned out at the end of the night. I like its modern design and simple color scheme. Displayed in our living room, it’s a daily reminder of an enjoyable evening spent with three great women.

et cetera