Sheetrock & Shellac: A Thinking Person's Guide to the Art and Science of Home Improvement

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9780743251198: Sheetrock & Shellac: A Thinking Person's Guide to the Art and Science of Home Improvement
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The author draws on his own home construction experiences to offer insight into such projects as replacing leaky roofs, rewiring a room, and building a home office, in a reference complemented by practical tips and observations about the psychological benefits of do-it-yourself renovations.

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About the Author:

David Owen plays in a weekly foursome, takes mulligans off the first tee, practices intermittently at best, wore a copper wristband because Steve Ballesteros said so, and struggles for consistency even though his swing is consistent -- just mediocre. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker, a contributing editor to Golf Digest, and a frequent contributor to The Atlantic Monthly. His other books include The First National Bank of Dad, The Chosen One, The Making of the Masters, and My Usual Game. He lives in Washington, Connecticut.

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Rooms and Dreams

The best-selling poet in America in the nineteen-thirties was also a newspaper columnist, a small-time actor, and a successful designer of Hawaii-themed dinnerware. His name was Don Blanding. He wore an oversized fedora and had a Clark Gable mustache, and he described himself as an "artist by nature, actor by instinct, poet by accident, vagabond by choice." He was born in Kingfisher, Oklahoma Territory, in 1894. In 1912, he saved the life of a six-year-old neighbor, Billie Cassin, who grew up to be the actress Joan Crawford. In 1915, he briefly shared an apartment in Chicago with the novelist and playwright Sherwood Anderson. For a few years in the nineteen-forties, he was married to the crayon heiress Dorothy Binney. He was famous for having no fixed address, but he kept turning up in certain favorite warm-weather locales, mainly in Florida, Hawaii, and California. He died in 1957, at the age of sixty-two. In 1986, the musician Jimmy Buffett borrowed the title of one of his poetry collections, Floridays, for a song (which he dedicated partly to Blanding) and an album.

I first heard about Blanding from a friend, who had bought one of his books at a flea market and thought that I would get a kick out of it. The book is called Vagabond's House. It was first published in 1928, was reprinted more than fifty times during the next couple of decades, and is still in print today, though only barely. I bought my own copy from a used-book dealer; the flyleaf is inscribed "Aloha Don Blanding." The book is -- well, the book is virtually unreadable. And the illustrations, which are also by Blanding, are on the creepy side, full of statuesque naked ladies and dated-looking silhouettes. But the title poem is kind of captivating:

When I have a I sometime may...

I'll suit my fancy in every way.

I'll fill it with things that have caught my eye

In drifting from Iceland to Molokai.

It won't be correct or to period style

But...oh, I've thought for a long, long while

Of all the corners and all the nooks,

Of all the bookshelves and all the books,

The great big table, the deep soft chairs

And the Chinese rug at the foot of the stairs,

(it's an old, old rug from far Chow Wan

that a Chinese princess once walked on).

My house will stand on the side of a hill

By a slow broad river, deep and still,

With a tall lone pine on guard nearby

Where the birds can sing and the storm winds cry.

A flagstone walk with lazy curves

Will lead to the door where a Pan's head serves

As a knocker there like a vibrant drum

To let me know that a friend has come,

And the door will squeak as I swing it wide

To welcome you to the cheer inside.

And there are a couple hundred more lines, all written in the same merrily sprung anapestic blandometer. I've never drifted from Iceland to Molokai, and I don't own a Chinese rug or a Pan's head door knocker (although I now sporadically search for both on eBay), and some of Blanding's decorating touches are mildly disturbing -- "An impressionistic smear called 'Sin,'/ a nude on a striped zebra skin," "a nook / For a savage idol that I took / from a ruined temple in Peru, / A demon-chaser named Mang-Chu" -- but the impulse that drove his fantasy must be close to universal. The theme of Blanding's poem is the same happy daydreaming that leads to the construction of tree houses, backyard forts, ice-fishing shacks, cottages at the beach, and three-bedroom raised ranches in suburban New Jersey. The Vagabond's reverie is a reverie of shelter.

Don Blanding is unrelated to Jim Blandings, the fictional protagonist of Eric Hodgins's 1946 novel, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (which was made into a movie, starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, in 1948, and was remade, as The Money Pit, in 1986), but Blanding and Blandings share a belief in salvation by home improvement -- and so do I. Anyone who has spent a happy hour wandering the aisles of the Home Depot, or has looked covetously at a neighbor's brand-new pressure-treated garbage-can enclosure, or has used two hooks to hang a picture on a freshly painted living-room wall and then stepped back to admire the completed project from various distances and angles, understands how a drifter like Blanding could take comfort in the idea of a fixed anchorage, and why a sensible urbanite like Blandings might yearn to upend his life by buying a decrepit country place on the verge of collapsing into its cellar. All shelters, even real ones, have fanciful dimensions as well as structural ones. All houses are also houses of the mind.

There's a second poem about the Vagabond's House in Vagabond's House, just seventeen pages after the first one. It begins:

I wrote of a house of dreams one day,

My "Vagabond's House." I told of the way

That the rugs were laid across the floor,

I told of the walls and the paneled door,...

The jars of spices along a shelf,

I told of the things I chose myself

To grace my house...those priceless things

That an hour of idle dreaming brings.

So vividly real it sometimes seemed

That I quite forgot that I only dreamed;

...So I wrote as though the house were real.

The book went forth and made appeal

To some far person in some far land.

I know, for a letter came to hand....

"Dear Friend," it said. "I don't know you,

But I am a dreamer and a vagabond, too,

And the house you built of fragile stuff

Is the same as mine. If we dream enough,

If we strive and work, I truly feel

That we can make our houses real.

And if mine comes true and I build some day

A house of wood and stone or clay

In a summer land by a drowsy sea

I hope you will come and visit me

For the door will open to rooms beyond

For poet and artist and vagabond.

Forced rhymes aside, I feel the same way (except for the last bit, about dropping by for visits). Home improvement is a powerful creative act, maybe the most ambitious creative act that all but the true artists among us will ever undertake. Remodeling a room, building an addition, planting a garden, even installing a bathroom sink are all forms of three-dimensional self-expression. Over time, houses evolve into structural extensions of the people who live inside them: our shelters become projections of our selves. I still have an almost physical memory of the houses of all my best friends when I was growing up. Each of those houses was a unique micro-environment, with its own topography, smell, ambience, quality of light, and temperature of parental authority, and each had features that came to seem indivisible from the personalities of its inhabitants. My memories of my grandmothers, who died more than fifteen years ago, are partly memories of their houses, which I visited often when I was little and which seemed to me, and still seem to me, as much a part of them as their potent perfume and their soft, fascinating skin. My memories of my own childhood are scenes in which the scenery is often a room. A nautilus is a living creature, not a shell, but when we think of the creature what we picture is the shell.

My direct adult relationship with home improvement began a week after I got married, in 1978, when I was twenty-three and my wife, whose name is Ann Hodgman, was not quite twenty-two. We had just graduated from college. On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, we loaded our belongings into a small Ryder truck in Rochester, New York, said good-bye to Ann's parents and their dog, and drove to New York City, where we had rented the unfurnished one-bedroom apartment in which we would begin our married lives. I took the wrong expressway exit in Manhattan, and we nervously drove, for what seemed like several hours, down an avenue that neither of us had seen before. At some point earlier in the day, a short circuit had developed in the truck's steering column, and periodically it caused the horn to blare unexpectedly, sometimes for many seconds. The only way to stop the horn, I had discovered, was to pound the center of the steering wheel with my fist. At the corner of 120th Street, while we were waiting at a traffic light, the horn suddenly started, and when the people in the crosswalk looked up to see what the problem was they saw me, in the cab of our Ryder truck, face red with aggravation, pounding the center of the steering wheel with my fist.

Somehow, we got where we were going. Two friends from college helped us move in. The move didn't take very long. The friends went home. The sun went down. The power in our apartment hadn't been turned on yet, and we learned from the building's superintendent that no one from Con Ed would be able to turn it on until Tuesday, after the holiday, three days from now. The phone didn't work, either. We couldn't afford to go out. There was hardly anywhere to sit, because we didn't own a couch yet. Our apartment that night seemed as big and blank and dark as the formless future. The empty rooms were no longer quite empty, since we had heaped our boxes on the floors, but the apartment was not in any sense inhabited.

We lived in that apartment for seven years, and, little by little, we turned it into our home, initially just by filling it with possessions: our shell grew around us, chamber by chamber. We bought a couch, then some bookcases, then some other things, then a cheap metal table to hold the sole piece of office equipment that we owned in those days: a used IBM Selectric typewriter, which I had bought in college. Ann's parents gave us some old curtains. We hung pictures on the walls. After a few months, I could no longer quite recall what the apartment had looked like when it was truly empty -- could no longer re-experience the sense of portentous excitement and anxiety I had felt when the rental agent first unlocked the door and walked Ann and me through the starkly unlived-in rooms. Week by we...

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9780743251204: Sheetrock & Shellac: A Thinking Person's Guide to the Art and Science of Home Improvement

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Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2007

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