What I Did Instead


I think I could write my entire life story in terms of all the things I did instead.

Those of us with a good healthy streak of oppositionality revel in our capacity to perform any number of tasks other than the ones immediately at hand. This skill often develops during childhood and persists well into old age. Have homework? Play the piano. Time to practice scales? Rearrange your bedroom (are parents going to complain if you clean your room?). Dissertation to write? Paint the inside of the house, even if it is a rental. Continuing Education hours to fulfill? Hah! Experience tells us that paint is the only way to go.

As you see in the above photo, our weather has continued to be, by and large, horrendous. Cold-to-freezing air, intractable clouds, persistent dampness. It’s just as well the garden has needed nothing from me, because I am not about to go out in that. Soon enough I’ll be faced with the task of cutting many plants to the ground; this can wait for more agreeable weather. The landscape is populated with dead-looking plants: garden as ghost town.

In the house, everything is paint.

As you no doubt recall, this current bout beganIMG_0511 with my commitment to converting our dull old sand-colored indoor trim* to my favorite “Brilliant White” from my best friends at Benjamin Moore. (It makes me a little nervous when the people at the paint store start calling me by name. It’s like knowing your dentist’s phone number by heart.) Once you start to see lovely white trim, long before you’re done with that part of the operation, the walls start whining for attention. Fortunately I’d granted myself permission to work on one vista at a time, in whatever order I felt like doing it.

And since the color palette of our house hasn’t been my favorite from day one, well. That’s how these things start. There’s no place to go but up. Literally.

Just in case our taste in colors doesn’t converge, I’ll clarify: the lovely beautiful warm green on the left is mine. Ultimately it would turn out to be the wrong green, but no matter. The ugly nameless boring color on the upper right is what the house has been wearing for lo these past five or six years. (Replacing all the gold-colored handles is very high on my priority list, as you might imagine.)

Painting is a lot like weeding, or any other tedious chore: it gives you plenty of time to think. Or listen to the radio. Or go through the twelve “Serial” episodes one more time. All of which I have done over the past week.

I couldn’t tell you much of what I’ve thought about. It’s a lot like the inside of a James Joyce novel: my mind goes in a dozen directions with no apparent pattern, from what I dreamed last night to some stupid song lyric that rose up out of nowhere (“Close to You?” Really?) to perfectly understandably fantasies of living in a 200-square-foot tiny house. Since I’ve been happily on winter break and only just returned to my therapy office, I haven’t had too many thoughts about work or due dates or annoying undergraduates.

It was hard not to think of terrorists, given the slaughters in Paris. I thought about what becomes of zealotry, what happens to immigrants who live in ghettos, what influences young people to take up guns and bombs for causes they believe in. I thought about their victims. I wondered what has been accomplished, and tried not to think like a senior citizen shaking her head at the sad state of the world. I thought about how much joy my annoying undergraduates bring me, how much hope, how they keep me current, how they help me remember that time in life when everything lies ahead and anything is possible.

I’ve thought about a video I saw on reddit, oddly enough. A young man in Ireland was discovering that snow had fallen in the night and was still falling. He was running around the house exclaiming his amazement, trying to rouse his roommate, running from window to window and out the door. “It’s just f***ing snow Alan!” the roommate grumbled from under the covers. But Alan kept right on going, ecstatically pointing out the snow on the berries in the hedge, and on the little hands of the Buddha statue in the garden. There was no stopping him.

I thought about how much I want to see the world like Alan in Sligo on the morning after a rare snowfall. I want to run from window to window, summoning everyone in the house to come and look! Look at this! It’s snow! Snow! Be a little more Alan today, I’ll tell myself.

In the days leading up to our annual Kids’ Christmas Party I gave some thought to whether I had enough presents for the five grands, whether the numbers would more or less match, whether I’d picked up things the kids already have. As it turns out, the kids were a madcap bunch as usual, tearing open packages at the speed of lightning and spending the rest of the afternoon in the ultra-cool bouncy house their Aunt Tracy gave them. They’ll be discovering their presents for weeks.

As I went up and down the ladders a thousand or so times, I thought a little bit about the most serious house project in the works, the tiling of the other side of the kitchen. One kitchen wall has had its stainless-steel tiles in place for a year (Cf. “DIY Tales,” October, 2013), so you could look out over the living room and think our house was on the modern side. When you turned toward the sink, however, it was a flashback to the ’80s, white tiles with cobalt accent tiles and some decorative squares thrown in here and there. So this past Saturday a very nice young man came by with a friend to rip out the old tiles and hang new sheetrock in preparation for finishing that wall.

No question about it, the kitchen needed a new coat of paint.


All One Green Now

Following in the footsteps of the “designer” paint job the house had before, I thought to do the kitchen in two shades of green. However, they failed to contrast as much in my kitchen as they had in the paint store window, so just today I succumbed to my daughter’s directive to commit completely to the shade of green we liked best – Benjamin Moore’s Aventurine. All that despite the fact that I’d sworn up and down to Floyd when I finished the living room that I was never painting a wall or anything else ever again. I guess it’s a waste of time to believe me.

I’d realized the tile removal was going to generate some dust. I’d had no way of knowing Floyd was going to have to trim the countertop’s space for our new sink to drop into, and how on earth was I to know that sawn Corian produces a dust so weightless it’s hard to imagine how even a bazillion trillion little bits of Corian stuck tightly together could possibly weigh anything? That stuff is amazing.

So of course even a tiny demolition involves dust.

This is how my nefarious mind works: if there’s going to be dust, why not pull apart the living room and paint that too? What is the matter with me?


A Brighter Future Coming In From the Left

This is a task even the most diligent homeowner with a lick of common sense would run from like the plague. Who in the world wants to empty six tall bookcases and do a bunch of painting at the tip-top of a six-foot ladder? Who wants to navigate around paint trays, displaced furniture, and the vacuum cleaner for days at a time? What is the matter with me?


The Results Are Worth It. I Guess.

You won’t be surprised if I tell you it wasn’t much fun at all. For one thing, all that book-toting, book-wiping, shelf-cleaning, ladder-hauling, trim-and-wall-painting (two coats of course), window-shade vacuuming, and floor-scrubbing are a whole lot to ask of my aged self, especially when I was giving myself a two-day time frame.

Perhaps worse, though, was my thought in the midst of it all that I truly may never do this again. And while on the one hand this is quite comforting when you are up to your elbows in dust, the reality that you are approaching the end of your house-project career is a little daunting.

It’s like the last time you’ll fall in love, or dance all night, or get way too high, or drive a car, or leave your bed. All the last times of all the things.

I know you can’t take life for granted. Any time you do anything could be your last, and there’s no way of knowing. My grand-niece Lexi is visiting with her boyfriend Brad this week. Lexi’s mom was my niece Jenna, who died tragically at age 37. So while I was painting I was thinking about Jenna, and how sad we are that she is gone, and how proud she would have been to see all four of her children thriving. And what a beautiful person her Lexi is, inside and out.

I guess it would be nice if I thought DSC_0039cheery thoughts while performing mechanical operations like painting or weeding, but my mind doesn’t seem to go to cheerful places on its own. I always need to be reminded of the cheerful things. Painting involves a lot of brush and roller washing, and that gave me ample time at the kitchen window to watch twenty or thirty finches feed. Looking out the back door I saw all the birds come for a drink: finches, cardinals, wrens, sparrows, bluejays. Every morning I took fresh hummingbird water out of the refrigerator in time for it to warm a little, then hung it for the rufous who still seems to be around. Birds are cheerful things.

I spent some painting time contemplating the Continuing Education hours I ought to have been accumulating; I need twenty by April, and they are most definitely a chore I like to procrastinate on. One of the books I chose is on the topic of Mindfulness, which is very Eastern in its leanings. I think of it as the Zen of Psychology as far as my profession is concerned, and I know I could stand to practice it a great deal more. My monkey-mind can be highly resistant to taming, and patience is a virtue I know about only in theory; but I’m always glad to practice mindfulness when I remember to do it. Inner peace seems like a very pleasant, very distant prospect.

I have a few lines for a poem about mindfulness, which seems like the quintessential example of me doing something else. See, I ought to have been mindful about painting, not about mindfulness. But no judgment.

And in fact I was quite mindful about painting, hardly making any mess at all. I moved slowly, took my time, paid strict attention when going up and down the ladders with a full paint tray, a roller, and a paintbrush, and hardly lost a drop. Sometimes on the penultimate step of the six-foot ladder I experienced the kind of wobbles I generally associated with skating down steep hills. Very unpleasant. But what cares the Unruly Gardener for wobbles, when there is a room to beautify and sunlight to enhance?

I have to admit it: I love nice clean freshly-painted surfaces. We may indulge in a bit of clutter at our house, with mail and books paperwork and bags of trail mix piled here and there. But I love new walls and bright trim.

I’ll love it a whole lot more when the sun comes back to reveal what all these colors actually look like in natural light.

Walls and trim aren’t the only things I’veDSC_0003 been painting. I’ve been working on the next iteration of agave tips, the ones that say “Valentine’s Day.” The little cut-out clay hearts have been languishing in their tray for weeks now; this morning I resolved to do something about them despite the near-arctic conditions of the garage. As you see from my cluttered and spattered workspace, I will never be producing a crafts blog. However, I think these tips will be really fun and cheerful, right at the dullest time of our entire year.

I wonder what all the people who produce crafts blogs do instead.

*I just heard from my friend Cynthia who calls this “Malibu Barbie Tan.” Told her I am stealing that right now. Malibu Barbie Tan it is.



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