Stories from middle America

Never underestimate the power of a clothing exchange. You can purge your closet of unloved clothing and bring it to new life with fresh garments — all in one fell swoop.

That’s why Heather and I decided we needed to host one. We were each tired of standing in front of our closets on a daily basis with glazed-over eyes, empty of all inspiration.

Heather offered up her photography studio as a space for the event, and I offered up the mixing of a cocktail. One Facebook invite later… voilà!


The system of a successful clothing swap

When our guests arrived, they traded in their clothes for tickets with which to “buy” other clothes. We had three ticket levels:

  • Thrifty ($0-$25)
  • Moderate ($25-$75)
  • Splurge ($75+)

To make the shopping fair and fun, we had an upgrade system! Three Thrifty tickets obviously got you three Thrifty items, or you could use all three to get one Splurge item. Two Thrifty tickets got you one Moderate item. Alternatively, if you had one splurge ticket, you could pick out three Thrifty items or two Moderate pieces. Get the idea?

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Of course, we had jewelry in the mix, as well as shoes. The jewelry was kind of a steal. You could trade one Thrifty ticket for four pieces of jewelry!

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After all of our guests had spent all their tickets and drank at least one mixed cocktail, they left with new ideas and new inspiration. Heather and I gathered up anything that hadn’t found a new home and bagged them up to deliver to Goodwill. Nothing like a full recycle of these no-longer-worn clothes!

The night was such a success that we plan to have the event again. Be sure to watch for the invite so you and your unwanted clothes can attend!

I’ve carried a lot of my parents’ mindset about home decor into my own adulthood.

If I’m not replacing something that’s damaged or badly stained, the guilt is very real. But I already have this, even though I really don’t like it. But it still works, even though it’s kind of shabby looking. But his mom painted that, so I can’t paint over it.

Remember my guest room? A month ago, it still had my comforter set from college, my bedroom furniture I painted in high school, and a rather dreary rug I picked up on clearance at Nebraska Furniture Mart.

Fixing up that room for Air BnB has proven to be tougher and more emotional than I would have ever guessed. I’ve wanted to throw up my hands and say, “Screw this!” on several occasions. But two things have helped me put on my big girl pants and power through:

  1. The room doubles as my office. I’m in there between six and 10 hours a day, so I better damn well like it.
  2. Jessica took out a ton of the guess work for me. Having specifics spelled out for me eased a lot of my anxiety.

Focus on what’s good

Instead of focusing on stuff that made me anxious (am I being wasteful? Is this frivolous? Why do I need things to be pretty, dammit?), it was encouraging to focus on the room’s good points. When I let myself come up for air, I found a few things that I loved about the room already:

  • Natural light. The guest room/office gets the best light in the house. It feels airy and peaceful all day long.
  • The wall color. A super pale olive that I love, the paint helps the room feel bigger than it is.
  • Neutral bedding.By the time Jessica peeked her head in, I had managed to say goodbye to my college comforter set. The new bedding doesn’t scream “Hello! I’m here!” when I’m in video meetings.
  • Heirloom Samsonite suitcases. They still have my great-uncle’s name and address in the tags, which I think is an awesome touch of the past.
  • A computer chair with personality. I found a pale, wooden computer chair on Craigslist and instantly gave away my huge black office chair.

The trick was to let these elements shine through without detracting from the room’s dual purpose (guest room + office) and without massively redoing everything (not good for the bank account, not good for my mental well being).

Get rid of what’s holding you back

The trouble with holding onto things out of guilt is that it’s tough to view them objectively. It’s hard to curate a room when you’re seeing “she’d get mad” or “bad purchase” instead of simply “ugly rug” or “tiny lamp.” It helps to get feedback from someone who doesn’t see the extra baggage.

Jessica helped me pinpoint some specific things that were holding the room back from the peaceful, airy feeling I wanted:

  • The rug. The dark color sucked the life out of the room, and it was too large. It also didn’t vacuum well and had a contemporary, geometric pattern that didn’t mesh with the 1930s cottage thing.
  • The wall art. A couple pieces were too small for the wall space, and another piece had a dark, outdated matting and frame.
  • The pillows. Old and flat, they didn’t look welcoming at all.
  • The bedside lamp.Too small for the corner and kind of the same color as the wall, it got lost quickly.

Realize the power of tiny fixes

It’s all well and good to point out things that have to go in your life. I still needed some pointers to make sure I didn’t just fill the room back up with “this was on clearance” or “I have this thing in the attic.” After some gentle prodding from Jessica, here’s what I introduced back into the room:

  • A mirror. Larger than the previous wall art, the mirror is still simple and not so contemporary that it feels at odds in an 80-year-old house.
  • A new rug. This handwoven silk rug was definitely a splurge piece. It adds an awesome feeling of “This is my power office,” rather than “Here’s the random corner where I’m online all day.”
  • A larger lamp. I was afraid that a taller lamp would overpower the twin bed, but Jessica insisted I wouldn’t regret it. The large white shade pops nicely against the neutral green wall.
  • New pillows. A couple new shams and a large decorative throw pillow are making me side-eye my master bedroom now.

There’s still more I could do, of course. Some 95-inch curtains wouldn’t go amiss, and I’d like to redo the matting and frame on that one art piece. The hub and router for the internet are still an unsightly mess of wires that I haven’t figured out yet.

But I already feel more relaxed walking in here every morning. I’d be proud to offer it to any guest. Guilt-free.


I cannot tell you how much social media makes me long to be a fancy photographer. I refuse to follow people who post poorly lit images or blurred lunch shots. I feel a sense of false superiority when I reach the coveted “11 likes” level on Instagram. Because of this many of these platforms are not so much a reminder that everyone is living a better life than me — it’s that most people are better photographers than I am.

And here’s my ultimate problem: I’m competitive in the most unfortunate way. If I’m not going to be awesome at something, I don’t want to do it at all.

At first, I thought this was just laziness. I have a collection of half-assed hobbies I’ve hoped to master based on natural talent: partially filled journals of incomplete stories; a guitar, resting neatly next to a borrowed piano; a dusty collection of fancy cameras set to Auto mode.

There are so many moments in our lives when we need to realize that we don’t have all the answers or skills. Humans sitting right next to us offer expertise beyond our experiences.

I get really embarrassed when I put myself out there with a creative talent. Writing for COOP on a regular basis was Amanda Actually Trying Step 1. Being a part of a team of different discipline forced me to put aside my insecurities and finally just write. Just writing has been the biggest reward.

Step 2 was taking a photography class from Hooton Images. It went awesomely — and horribly — all at the same time. I forgot to charge my battery. The first picture we took, my shutter speed was waaaaaaaaay wrong, and five seconds later it finally closed. The whole class looked at me.

But I learned and put myself out there in a way I had only done behind filters and staged iPhone shots before. Now I have a mentor that I trust and who will push me to keep trying and finally step away from my security blanket: my iPhone. It was a thrill to learn from someone whose skills I deeply admire — and to then befriend.

Step 2.1 was having my best friend get me to start dragging my camera around with me again. And take glamour shots of her.

I’m embracing the learning process, instead of focusing on the end goals. Celebrating my friends who have deep talents that I can learn from is one of the best things in my life right now.

I can’t wait to take another class.


Black-and-white photos by Hooton Images. All other photos by Amanda Rucker

Typically when one visits a friend’s house, they don’t enter into an obstacle course of unfinished renovation projects. That is, unless you visit my house. I welcome you with a myriad of hot messes: unfinished paint jobs, plenty of loose door knobs — you might get stuck in my bathroom, lucky you!


Speaking of my bathroom, it has looked like this for about… oh, maybe six months. Honestly, maybe even longer. Who can keep track anymore? The point is that I have subjected my friends and family to this state of affairs for way too long.

In my defense, I’m not a scatterbrain. I do have the ability to finish tasks. I continually help clients get to lovely and finished spaces. But when it comes to my own house, I have a harder time with commitment. That might be one of the hazards of the job since I’m constantly trying to stay current while also timeless with designs. Or it could be that after designing for others all day, all my creative juices are spent.

But times, they are a changin’. I’m finally getting the ball rolling on my main bath renovation.


The first stage to any design Birdhouse does is to create a vibe board. We scour online resources for inspiration images to help visually communicate the proposed design direction. We do it to speak the same language since not everybody’s “contemporary” or “Bohemian” is the same. We give those descriptions context in a setting with images.

My house was built in 1940, so I want my bathroom to be classic but still a little edgy. I plan to go with black, white, gray, mixed metallics, a little wood and a pop of green.


After we get on the same page with our clients, we create a game plan mood board. This is a collage of all the room ingredients that we’ve settled on.

My main bath is pretty small, which means I don’t have room for a large vanity. To help with storage, I selected a brass medicine cabinet combined with a small shelf to hold toothbrushes and other items. The mirror needed clearance to open, so I found a really cool tube wall sconce for overhead lighting. And finally, I want to use this indoor/outdoor striped fabric for a custom, extra long shower curtain.

I’ve ordered the light and mirror and plan on installing those within the next couple weeks. I plan on keeping the momentum going and hopefully complete the renovation by midsummer.

Next, it’s time to complete some room renderings to showcase what the space will look like in a few months.

Stay tuned!