Tuesday, September 06, 2011

They tried to make me stop the rehab

Irony alert: There is no 12-step group for compulsive renovators, and I spend much less time remodeling than trying to forget about the last remodeling.

Hello, my name is Stephen and I'm a remodeler. I'm here this afternoon to help all of you who share my affliction: home improvement. What a cruel phrase. Renovation is a literal home wrecker. It hits you where you live, rips it apart and leaves you with nothing but the taste of sawdust.

Looking at all of you, I see the bruised thumbs, the odd burn marks, the hair flecked with paint spatter. I hear the wheeze of lungs beat down inhaling plaster dust and paint thinner. I know I'm the presence of recovering renovators. And in this mutually supportive environment I'm prepared to make a searching and fearless inventory of my compulsion.

How does it begin? We all know the pressures of life in Chicago. Workers in a high-pressure environment thirst for fellowship, and in early evening you see them rushing out of the high-rises to gather in dank basements. They say they just need to raise a few, but we know what's going on. They'll be raising more than just a few sheets of drywall cleaning up their musty, flooded rec rooms.

Reporters especially face cruel deadlines, hear gruesome stories. At the end of the day they want to let off some steam, and letting off steam is the only way rid yourself of ugly, flocked wallpaper. In one night I'd go home and finish off a couple of cans, but I was convinced I would quit as soon as I got the paint color right. As you’ll see, I was just making excuses. The walls would never look right.

Years ago I confided to my editors about how I'd go home frustrated and start pounding holes in the wall. Today this would send you straight into an employee assistance program, but newspapers had more of an old-school approach back then. I got an assignment to write about how simple it was to build a niche in your wall to display art or collectibles. For years I continued to write about destructive behaviors – teardowns, reconfigured floor plans, emerald ash borers. My enabling editors kept me from facing the consequences, till I finally hit bottom: the big kitchen remodel.

It started simply enough. The kitchen was always the job I was going to do next, except I couldn’t really start on the kitchen till I had finished the basement, and I couldn’t keep a dry basement without first doing some tuckpointing, but once I started replacing the masonry I knew water was seeping in from the top down, and it was time to tear off the roof. And as long as I was working up there, wouldn’t it be great to add a deck and a bedroom with vaulted ceiling!

Once I was finished with the deluxe master suite and its whirlpool tub with skylight views of the O’Hare flight pattern, I had to address the fact that there was not an inch of granite in my kitchen. Homebuyers in the trendy neighborhoods are stone in love with granite -- it must be something in the ultrapurified water. Cable TV channels throw the word granite into conversation every few minutes just to keep viewers hooked: “Chef Bobby Flay scores extra points for presentation by setting his bowl of albondigas soup on that beautiful granite countertop.” “Accessorize the outfit with this designer purse, which has the luxurious sheen of a granite countertop.” “Dartmouth’s front four allowed only four sacks all season for the Granite State.” “Meanwhile, on the far side of the island, the Mishegoss team was taking their good fortune at Tribal Council for granite.” Granite would be the rock upon which I would build the ultimate kitchen. I had already built the penultimate kitchen, and by the time I finished the new bedroom, deck, roof, brickwork, drain tiles, sump pump and rec room, the cabinets were out of style.

I needed new cabinets that stretched to the ceiling, with a separate stairway to the top shelf. I needed storage for the everyday dishes, and the occasional dishes, and the thought-it-was-a-good-idea-at-the-bridal-registry dishes. I needed a double oven and a triple-track lighting system and quadruple GFI outlets in satin nickel. I was blind to a compulsion I I couldn’t control even with an X10 home automation system, an iPhone app and a Bluetooth-enabled refrigerator that sent Peapod an order whenever I was low on chicken nuggets.

I sold my furniture, my books, my music collection – I had to make room for the new appliances while I was installing the hardwood floor. Rooms were stacked floor to ceiling with cabinets waiting to be installed. Fortunately they were big enough to store the kitchen table in the meantime. My house looked like the final scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I managed to clear a path to the door past the power tools and scaffolding. My wife was making Christmas cookies on a hot plate. Yet a new kitchen was nowhere in sight. As I wired the 50 amp service for the convection oven, I realized I was powerless. I needed help. Finally, I surrendered to a higher power: a general contractor.

I realize my environment is beyond my control. Such is the power of the Home Depot. My room addition addiction is now in the hands of others, and I will wait for them to show up for work, one day at a time.

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