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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Depot Don't Know Jack,
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