Barry Smith: Irrelativity
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
“You’ll never be done.”
That’s what people say when I announce that I’m all done renovating my house. These people, people who have been there, say this with such an ominous “your work hasn’t even begun” tone that it makes me piddle a little bit.
Because I fear they might be right. Even in my definition of “done,” there’s so much still left to do. That insulation stacked in the corner of the attic, still shrink-wrapped, isn’t exactly achieving its advertised R-value. There’s still some painting and caulking and curtain-rod hanging that needs tackling. Some shimming – gotta do some shimming. No job is complete until you’ve shimmed.
Now, if you’re just joining us, I am not a handy guy. When I say, “I renovated my house,” what I mean is “My brother renovated my house, and I handed him stuff.” I tried to learn as much as I could during the process, but man – I seem to be much better at writing about how I don’t know stuff than I am at learning new stuff. And Bryan was a good teacher, too, patiently explaining to me what different tools are and how they work.
“See, Barry, this one’s called a hammer. Here, you can hold it. Heavy, isn’t it? This is what we’ll use to … no! Take it out of your mouth!”
But he’s completed the brunt of the work and has moved on, so I no longer can fall back on his guidance, motivation and common sense. He took his hammer with him, too, which is a shame. It was delicious.
So … I’m faced with a job that I don’t know how to do and that will never get done. Awesome.
I guess I’ll start with the most immediate issue – the light switches. There are switches protruding dangerously from the wall in several rooms – this brings a certain high-stakes precision to the usual casual act of switching on the light. It’s like a game of Operation but without tweezers, and the buzzing sound is replaced by your own screams. Probably ought to fix that.
The plan is to replace the old switches with new dimmers. The switches that are currently in my 100-plus-year-old house were installed right around the time electricity was invented. I start with the one in the bathroom. It unscrews easily, and I pull it from the – oh! Shut off the power first! Right, right, I remember now. I untwist the wires, remove the switch and attempt to slide the new dimmer into place.
Uh oh. It’s too big.
In order to appreciate what happened next, you need to know what would have happened next just four months ago, back before I started this renovation project. Let me walk you through that scenario:
1. Realize new dimmer doesn’t fit in existing hole.
2. Declare that it “can’t be done.”
3. Reattach Franklin-era switch – leave it dangling from wall.
4. Declare this a good day’s work.
And this is assuming that I’d have even attempted such a project, which I almost certainly wouldn’t.
Before I tell you what did happen, though, we need to go back to the 1980s, back to the movie “The Karate Kid,” right to the scene where Daniel-san gets fed up with the waxing and sanding and painting that Mr. Miyagi has been making him do. Remember? Mr. Miyagi responds to his whiny little fit by throwing a series of punches and kicks which Daniel successfully blocks, and he realizes that his waxing/sanding/painting motions actually are transferable to the world of not getting his ass kicked. He’s learned something without even knowing it.
Well, that’s exactly what happened to me …
It was all kind of a blur. The dimmer is too big for the hole, so I snip the nails, pull the old electrical box out, remove the remaining nail bits with pliers, grab a remodel box from the leftover parts pile, cut the drywall opening to accommodate the new box, snake wires through, install box, tighten down, twist wires together, insert dimmer, affix switch plate, switch on power, test, done.
Elapsed time – 10 minutes, tops.
Whoa. What just happened? Was that me doing that? About 95 percent of what I just did is stuff I was clueless about just a few months earlier. The only part of that process that I’d done before was to twist wires together, and that was to make a bracelet.
You know what this means, right? This means that – man, I almost don’t want to say this, for fear of jinxing it – this means that …
… I learned something.