Monday, August 22, 2016

House by Niggle

J. R. R. Tolkien's "Leaf by Niggle" is a fairy tale about a Sunday painter whose devotion to his craft leads him to neglect his duties in life, despite the fact that he works in complete anonymity, in his shed, with his neighbors' contempt as his only recognition. When it comes time for his "journey," he must set out unprepared, and undergo a long period of penal servitude (painting board after board the same boring color) to rectify his many failings. But in the end he's granted the reality of what his faltering art has always aimed at without ever achieving it.

Really, the story is a parable about purgatory (cf. Of Rodents and Ashes), and captures a great human truth: time does something to the soul, something that can't be replaced by any amount of wishing or willing. It's has always had a special significance for me, because I seem to have a lot in common with its protagonist. Tolkien appears to have had himself in mind. But his "tree" has, in fact, gone on to become one of the marvels of modern times.

Anyway, one of the duties I've neglected while spinning tales and painting pictures is the decoration of a doll house we bought for my daughter two and a half years ago. It started in a plain-jane, raw-wood condition and has progressed by fits and starts. A dresser here. A floor there. No hurry. But gradually the conviction has grown in my mind that, should I happen to die unexpectedly, the first 200 years or so of my afterlife would be spent painting thousands of identical doll houses the same uniform white. So, overcome by my conscience at last, I've put in some serious man-hours, and gotten the darned thing playable.

Now, don't worry. I'm not going to bore you by showing– Wait, what's that? You want to see pictures? You're twisting my arm, but...okay!


We bought the house unpainted and unfinished. It's not fancy or anything – it's made to be played with by little kids – and we got a set of blocky, unpainted wood furniture to go with it. So, here's the finished exterior:

There's a brick stoop that didn't make it into the picture for some reason. Thin slats of wood and a coat of silver paint on top sufficed for a metal roof, which the houses all have around here. We live in the old part of town, and decorated the house to resemble some of the ones around our neighborhood. We don't know what the chimney is for, as there's no fireplace inside, but no matter.

The interior was decorated in the shabby chic style, in consultation with world-renowned designers. Actually, we copied things out of interior design books from Half Price. But it is shabby chic. As you can probably tell from the background, it's made to look a bit like our house, and a bit like we would like our house to be.

We begin our tour in the master bedroom. Note the distressed antique finish on the nightstand and chest of drawers (or "chester drawers," as people around here like to spell it). That's a genuine natural-fiber jute rug you see on the floor, carefully hand-crafted from a place mat I bought at Wal-Mart. The edges are coated in Dritz Fray Check, in case you're wondering. I think I'll glue some rafters to the ceiling one of these days.

And here's the loo. My daughter informs me that the red pan on the floor is the cat's litter box.

Here we have the upstairs hall. I made the wood floor from popsicle sticks craft sticks which I cut square, glued together in a movable mat, stained, and varnished. Everything made specifically for doll houses is super expensive, so I improvised where possible.

The kids' bedroom. We followed instructions from a furniture refinishing book to give everything the antiqued look. We're still working on the lace curtains and blankets and pillows, but that's my better half's department. We're also working on some paintings for the walls, and that, of course, is my department.

The living room, where I think we really do need some more work, plus a big throw rug. Unfortunately, the Plastic Ordoñez family resembles the Real Ordoñez family in that every available horizontal space is stacked with books. We both need more shelves.

The kitchen, where the bareness of the walls is felt most keenly. Note the chunky vintage appliances: pure shabby chic. Disconcertingly, my daughter has given the Plastic Ordoñez family the gender-reversed names of the Real Ordoñez family, with the exception of my wife, whose name has no masculine version. I'm told that they dine around the coffee table, as there's not enough room in the kitchen. At least they don't have a TV.

Thank you for visiting Chateau O., where you're always greeted by a chicken on the roof.


My grandmother, who in my own mind ranks among the great matrons of antiquity, became an expert miniaturist in her later years, despite her arthritis and rapidly failing eyesight. She would make scale models of the cane-bottomed chairs built by her carpenter father, who was also blind, and crochet tiny sweaters with tiny crochet hooks. A good but reserved and terrifyingly critical woman. The story is that whenever her adult children gave her handmade gifts at Christmas, she could later be seen surreptitiously giving the handiwork a critical examination.

I recall once driving her around town as a teenager; my truck had a standard transmission, and, impressed by her silent presence beside me, I did my utmost to ensure that my gear-shifting was as smooth as cream. And she was watching carefully, because later on she expressed approbation of my skills with the clutch to my mother.

Her nine children are scattered across the country now, a race of eccentric misfits who might make for a good screwball comedy in the style of You Can't Take it With You, if you could get them all in one place, which only happens when someone dies, and sometimes not even then.

She, alas, would be less than impressed with my accomplishment here, despite being the inspiration behind it. It is a bit crude. But my daughter is sitting here playing with it as I type, which is very rewarding. We'll keep adding to it, too, and no doubt our next endeavor will be finer.

I've always loved models – I had a dinosaur diorama and an HO-scale train set when I was a boy – and I think my son and I will start railroading sometime in the next few years. That's what's great about having kids around: you get to play with really cool stuff, and people act like you're all virtuous because of it.

What now? Hm, I think the backyard may need mowing...


Many thanks to whomever has been buying my books, incidentally. I hope you enjoy them! And if you haven't bought 'em yet, go get 'em! See the links on the sidebar for more information.

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