Home Improvement for Fun and...Huh?

So in the past week, I've not only done a ton of reading - no surprise, given that I'm a grad student - but also edited and laid out the final copy of a journal, revised my CV for a grant proposal, and done the usual prepping for teaching. Also no surprise. But I've also re-caulked the kitchen sink and re-grouted the tiles on the kitchen counter. And I've fixed two big holes in the cabinet underneath the kitchen sink and sealed several smaller cracks that serve as access routes for bugs. This weekend, I plan to sand down and then repaint the inside of that cabinet. Also, I'll be planting irises in the garden.

New grout! Doesn't it look sooo nice and clean?

OK, so I have a ton of things to do for school that are pretty urgent. I have a grant application due November 1st, 3 ½ books that absolutely need to be read by next week and another two that probably should be, a set of fifteen 5-to-7-page student papers to grade, a prospectus that should've been sent to a committee member about a month ago, and a paper to write for a conference I'm presenting at in, oh, two weeks. So really, I have more than enough ways to occupy my time without turning to home improvement.

So who cares? I'll be painting the cabinet and working in the garden in between bouts of reading, writing and grading.

Not that the home improvement is anywhere near as necessary. Not that there's a deadline for it. Sure, the re-caulking and re-grouting was a good idea - apparently water from the kitchen counter was somehow leaking into the cabinet below - but there was no need to re-grout both countertops, including the places that clearly weren't leaking. And painting the cabinets? Sure - it'll look nice. But necessary? No.

This somewhat fuzzy picture shows not only the cabinet in question, but also my somewhat fuzzy assistant in all home improvement projects: Tista. Caulk? He's got his nose in it. Sanding? He wants to chase the sandpaper. Paint? He thinks his tail needs a new coat, too.

But there's something about home improvement that feels necessary to me. Not so much because of the actual improvements, but because of the process. Because it's something I can do with my hands besides type. And I can get my body working and let the brain go wherever it wants, or just let it tune out or turn off for a while. That's a luxury, and it's what keeps me coming back to those home improvement projects.

A newly re-caulked sink. Oh, the excitement! I am a home improvement geek, apparently.

There's another reason, too. It's not just the process. It's about how the process feels when it's done.

Being in grad school, you get used to long projects, and projects that, even once they're done, don't really seem to change anything, other than maybe your mind. Sure, maybe that paper will get published and maybe it will change other people's minds as well, but you don't exactly get immediate feedback on it. Teaching is a bit more immediate, because if you're doing a good job, students do change the way they think over the course of the semester; but still, it's a relatively slow process. Not like grouting. Grouting takes maybe two days if you're doing it slowly-remove the grout one day, get the dust out, re-grout the next day. But once you're done, wow-the difference is immediately visible to anyone who happens to walk into the kitchen. There's a concrete, physical change, and it's right there, right away.

My first caulking project: The shower. And doesn't the new caulk look just so blindingly white?

When I was in high school and working on a paper for English class, I used to take breaks to do my math homework. There was a certain pleasure in solving math problems. x = 4, y = 2.5. Clear, solid answers. Even x = (3 or 6) was pretty clear and solid when compared to figuring out whether James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man contradicted its own aesthetic theory.

Home improvement is much the same thing. Re-painting the trim? Sure, it takes a while - but you can see the change as it's happening, and so can anyone driving by on the street. You can invite people over and they will notice the trim, or the way the garden looks, or the new grout. It's visible, and from that you get a very immediate sense of accomplishment.

House trim, re-painted. It was light green; it's now purple and dark green. Added bonus: The garden!

And it's that immediacy that tends to be lacking from the sort of things we get to do in grad school. No one's going to notice that I've graded 15 papers (except my students, when I hand them back, but they're not always going to be thrilled about it); no one's going to look at my desk and see that I've turned in a grant application. And while actually printing something out and turning it in does provide some sense of accomplishment, it tends to be kind of a let-down as well. I've put all this work into it, and all I've got to show for it is a piece of paper? Or empty hands, after I've turned it in? Heck, if you get little stickers for voting or giving blood, they should at least come up with a set for grad students. "I wrote a grant!" "Be nice to me - I finished a dissertation chapter!" "Yes! I revised!" "I finished my reading for the week! Good job!"

Well, ok, maybe not. And it's not as if there's no gratification in finishing things as a grad student - it's just that it tends to be a lot more delayed. If that grant proposal gets accepted, I get to go to New Zealand, which is going to be much more exciting than redoing the grout on a countertop. But I have to wait for a month or two after finishing the grant to find that out, and I won't go to New Zealand until about five months after that. The grout looks great five minutes after I've put it in.

In case you weren't convinced at my home improvement geekiness: another shot of the new grout! Yay!

So from time to time, in between grants and dissertation work, it's nice to do the kind of work that uses my body and mind in a different kind of way, and where I can tell, five minutes after finishing, that I've done something.

So now that I'm done with another essay, I think it's time to take a break. It's time to go sand down the cabinet.


18. October 2002

 

 

Home Depot Don't Know Jack,
and other things that have been bugging me lately

Have you seen the latest set of Home Depot commercials? They're supposedly just about home improvement, but what pisses me off about them is that they all follow one pattern: there's a heterosexual couple, and the woman pressures the man into doing some home improvement he's long promised to do.

As a woman who does a lot of home improvement, it just ticks me off that the woman's only role here is to nag her boyfriend / husband.

Especially because what ends up happening is that they just go to Home Depot and get the folks from Home Depot to install the tiles (or whatever else) at their house. She can't even go to Home Depot and buy tiles on her own! No one's even laying the tiles themselves, and she still needs to get her boyfriend / husband to exert his manliness in ordering tiles! Not to mention that she could just go there, get a book on laying tiles, and do it her damn self.

Because when I go to Home Depot, that's what I'm there for, and it looks like there are a bunch of other women there doing the same thing. We all thought "Do it yourself" actually meant "Do it yourself." Apparently, though, it means "Do it yourself, unless you're a chick." Oh. Right...

One thing women can do, though, since we can't do home improvements, is shop. Ha ha, laugh laugh, oh, women, we shop so much, it's such a novel and interesting joke, and so true.

Or so J.C. Penney seems to think. Every time they have a sale, their commercials feature men and children sad because mommy is not there to fulfill her caretaker role because she's gone out shopping at J.C. Penney. And because in J.C. Penney's world, fathers are utterly inept at caring for children or, really, doing anything for themselves (I guess that's why women have to nag them to go order tiles at Home Depot?), we get to see the ever-so-humorous results of women abandoning their family to go shopping.

It's such a nasty way of reinscribing so many negative stereotypes about women and men, I don't think I can ever shop at Penney's again.

On the other hand, I have to say that there's one commercial on these days that I get a total kick out of. There's a mom chasing her kid around the house. She's shouting at him to stop, or slow down, or something; he keeps running from her, and she keeps chasing him.

I'm watching this thinking, wow, they don't usually show moms shouting at kids; usually moms are just sweetness and light, and never exasperated at their kids; so I don't hit the mute button.

Mom goes into the kitchen and fills up a glass of water. To take the headache remedy that's being advertised, we think. Ah, but no. She swallows the headache remedy without water, and her son runs by. She grabs him, holds onto him, and he spits the goldfish he's been keeping in his mouth into the glass of water.

The best part is that she says to him, "You've got to stop doing that!" Heh. It totally entertains me.

And writing about it, I have to say I'm also amused by the fact that I've watched it several times but I absolutely can't remember what headache remedy it's supposed to be advertising. Oh well - for me, that wasn't the point anyway!

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