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Michelangelo Had It Easy

December 24, 2009

This week’s post is a little late and I have been gratified that some people have actually noticed and dropped me a line wondering what I was up to.

I have a good excuse—we’ve been having a sort of Rimbaud period over the past week or so. 

Earlier this year, we decided to build a small house on the farm we are restoring.  The property had been a dairy farm for decades and most of the vegetation had been cleared to make pastures for cows to graze in.  We are getting rid of the cows and replanting the pastures with native trees. 

The farm is about an hour away and has electricity but no running water or anything remotely resembling shelter.   That means that toilet facilities are limited, even though the cows have been merrily using most of the property for that very purpose for years. 

All of that created practical limits on what we could accomplish in a day and we decided that a small house would greatly improve our productivity.  The operative word is small.  Nothing fancy.  The garage is bigger than the house.  We were told it would take eight weeks.  Two months.

So when I tell you that we started the process in May, you would naturally think that we have been weekending in the country for the past few months. 

Not so. 

It’s a long story, but we drifted into December, the house was still a shell and we started to panic.  Vendors (e.g., painters, flooring people, concrete driveway layers) were telling us that if they didn’t do whatever it was we wanted them to do by X date, it would have to wait until January because things were going to shut down for the Christmas holiday.  The builder kept saying “No problem.”

But nothing continued to happen. 

Eventually, we couldn’t find a painter who would agree to do the work before January 2010.  So my wife and I decided to do it ourselves.  And that’s where I’ve been.  Painting.  Plus we’ve had three different sets of overseas guests, three family members travelling overseas, my birthday and getting ready for Christmas to work into the full time painting schedule.  We had to be finished before the floor guys came and we had one week.

We approached the decision to do the painting more lightly than reasonable people should have.  I’ve done lots of painting in the past.  I figured, It’s a brand new house.  How hard can it be?

To paraphrase Geena Davis:  It’s hard.  It’s very hard.   It is no coincidence that the first four letters of paint are pain!

It is one thing to repaint a bedroom.  It is quite another to paint a new house.  You can’t just walk in and paint.  You have to fill in nail holes and gaps.  You have to sand inequalities in the plaster.  You have to put on undercoat.  And then two or three coats of final paint.

And let me tell you.  Very small bedrooms have very small closets which take longer to paint than the bedroom.  In fact, I think that one of the closets was actually a Tardis because of the bizarre adventures I seemed to have in there.  The laws of space and time (and geometry) didn’t seem to apply.  Don’t get me started on bathrooms.

Although it was the Christmas season, I put my iPod on repeat and listened to Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John Passions. 

Crucifixion music just seemed appropriate in the circumstances. 

It’s really hard to decide what is the worst thing about painting.  Especially when you are doing it to a deadline. 

First of all, there are no shortcuts.  You have to do things in a certain order and can’t jump ahead, no matter how hideously painful, boring or frustrating a task is.  Most are all three.

And everything takes longer than you think it should.  Take nail hole filling.  How hard can that be?  You’ve got a little hole and all you have to do it stick some putty into it and smooth it off. 

I discovered that there are virtually an infinite number of things that can happen when you are up on a ladder and trying to introduce putty into a little hole.  The putty comes premixed in a little box.  It looks like cream cheese.  You might want to remember that for next April Fool’s Day.

Anyway, the first challenge is to get some on the putty knife.  Invariably you get too much so you spend several minutes playing around, with no hands on the ladder, to get just a little dab.  This has the effect of knocking little balls of unused plaster back into the box.  They solidify and become totally useless and prevent you from accessing the real putty below.

Once you get a nice sized dab, probably 50% of the time, it will fall to the floor as you extend your arm toward the hole.

If, by some chance, you make contact with the wood surface, odds are you’ve missed the hole.  So then you sort of smear the putty around, trying to get it into the hole.  The amazing thing is that sometimes it goes in and fills the hole nicely and sometimes it doesn’t.  It’s sort of a random outcome, like rolling dice or swatting flies.  I have no idea why.  Sometimes you manage to fill a hole and it looks perfect but you can’t resist one more swipe with the putty knife and when you look again, the hole is empty. 

Clearly, normal laws of physics do not apply.

Then you have to deal with the residual putty left on the wood.  If you scrape it off you risk unfilling the hole.  So you decide that it will be better to sand it off later.  But that requires a second pass around the room on a ladder.  And guess what?  That so-thin-it’s-translucent film of putty on the wood virtually requires sandblasting to remove.  And you can’t do it.  And it will show up no matter how many coats of paint you but on it.  But I digress.   And we’ve only filled one hole.

Then there is squirting gap filler into bigger holes between boards and walls and places like that.  Gap filler comes in a tube and you are supposed to use a caulking gun to extrude it into holes.  I’ve seen those DIY guys do it on TV and they sure make it look easy.  But it’s not.  The stuff has a mind of its own.  When you want it to come out of the tube it won’t, no matter how hard you pump the trigger of the caulking gun.  But the minute you manage to fill a hole and take your finger off the trigger, the thing is spewing gap filler all over the place like Old Faithful.

And I don’t care what they say.  It doesn’t stick to wood or plaster.  It only sticks to human flesh.

Then you have to mask things you don’t want to paint.  Again, the tape is designed to stick to everything but the stuff you want to mask.  It tears when you don’t want it to and stubbornly refuses to tear when you want it to. 

Oh, and I almost forgot.  You have to take the doors off.  And you have to take the knobs and hinges off to paint the doors.  And worse, you have to put them back so they work after you’ve painted them.  It’s harder than you can ever imagine.

Only then can you start painting, and your sense that you are on top of the situation and that it is all downhill from here is tempered when you realize that you have to do what you are about to do at least three more times.

But it wasn’t all pain and boredom.  I learned some things as well.  I learned that paint stings when it gets in your eye.  And it tastes very bad. 

I guess it wasn’t all bad.  No, wait.  Yes it was.  For one thing, everything hurt.  I had blisters on my hands and tennis elbow from nonstop use of a paint roller.  I had sore legs from clinging to the ladder for dear life.  My back and neck decided to complain about everything I was doing to them.  Michelangelo had it easy.  He got to lay down while he painted the Sistine Chapel.

But Tom, you may be saying, that only accounts for one week and you’ve been out of sight for longer. 

True, that.

Because even though we made the flooring deadline, we are still painting the garage (and it’s bigger than the house).  Plus there has been other excitement.  Today is Christmas Eve and they just turned on the water and electricity and gas yesterday.  But the kitchen appliances, which were supposed to be here two days ago have gone walkabout and are wandering around the Auckland warehouse system like a refugee laden ship that no one will claim, the hot water heater won’t work, there seems to be water leaking from somewhere and the garage door won’t close all the way.

In retrospect, painting seems so uncomplicated.


Merry Christmas!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 26, 2009 2:34 pm

    It’s good for thinkers like you. Clears the mind.

    I’ve just spent the whole xmas day building a miniature house for my kids, and feel strangely rejuvenated.

    • December 26, 2009 6:41 pm

      I think you’re right–some different synapses start firing or something. How user friendly were the assembly instructions for the house?

  2. December 31, 2009 5:00 am

    I viewed the manual as a series of zen riddles. Each hilarious, collectively nonsensical, and greatly enriching.

    Or something like that. My kids got a kick out of my struggles and foibles. Mission accomplished. 😉

  3. June 5, 2010 6:43 pm

    Just got around to reading this post this evening. This is great! When we remodeled our home in 1992 I primed and painted the entire interior as well as all the staining and varnishing.

    The day I painted the livingroom my husband came home from work and he said that he didn’t like the color and we should probably repaint before we install the carpet. So the next morning I got up and gave the room 2 more coats of paint which involved scaffolding (16.5) ceiling on the south wall.

    After painting I decided to take down the two sections of scaffolding and managed to put one of the crossbraces through the livingroom window. So I broke the first window in the house before we even moved in $235 to replace. Somehow I always imagined that one of my boys would break the first window playing ball.

  4. June 5, 2010 8:25 pm

    I’m sorry but I had to laugh when I read about you knocking out the window. I can picture the scene and imagine the feeling. You think you’re done. Your’re proud of yourself. Everything is going so well and crash!

    But in spite of everything, you can’t beat the sense of accomplishment.

  5. June 6, 2010 12:29 am

    If there is one thing I have learned to do over time is to be able to laugh at myself instead of getting angry. Being angry just doesn’t seem to fix anything.

    My 20 year old son laughed til he nearly cried a few years ago the day I came to him with the skirt of my swimsuit caught up in the motor of the weed wacker and asked him if he could help get it unstuck.

    He tried, but finally said ” Sorry Mom but this is something Dad is going to have to take care of himself, I just can’t do it” Then he and my other son sat in the lawnchairs and laughed til they nearly rolled on the ground as my husband got my skirt unstuck.

    I don’t know what the problem was. Its not like the suit came off or anything. 🙂

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