Thursday, August 7, 2014
Hammered and Nailed #4 -- That sinking feeling when desires die
The feature normally in this space, "People Far Richer Than Yourself Show off Their Mega-Mansions as If You Could Possibly Own One in Your Wildest Dreams of Avarice," is on summer sabbatical. In its place, we present a continuing saga of remodeling an old house when money is not just something stuffed in walls for insulation.
You know what I think makes a kitchen really elegant? A little round sink—not the main sink, mind you, but an auxiliary sink, say, set in a freestanding island. That way, if the main sink is filled with dirty dishes (and really, when is it not?) and you want a drink of water, no problem! You turn, hold your glass under the delicately curving stainless steel swan's neck of a tap and slake your thirst.
Many times, I've fantasized about using such a sink: to rinse brightly colored summer fruit, to pour cool water on my dusty hands, to ease some complex cooking task, standing back-to-back, romantically, with my wife working at the main sink in our brand-spanking-new kitchen.
You would think this desire would mean that the plans for our new kitchen would include such a little sink. The island is there. The pipes are there, somewhere. But no little sink, and herein lies the tale.
First, let's back up a bit. Any construction effort, be it a spare bathroom or the Taj Mahal, is a compromise between imagination and practicality, between the fever dreams of the bountiful trappings we know we deserve and what our pocketbooks and spouses will let us get away with.
Usually, unless we are toward the Taj Mahal end of the spectrum, those constraints are considerable, and a good thing, too. When you see the sprawling monstrosities that the rich tend to throw up (and I use that term aware of its dual meanings), it seems that a few restrictions are beneficial. I mean, as much as we would like Bill Gates' billions, did anyone look at the photos of that enormous hotel-like construction he calls a home and think, "Gosh, I'd love to live there"? Nobody.
OK, that's a cop-out. Having lots of money would be great when it comes to remodeling. I can't tell you how many times we've noticed something we really like, just to later realize that not only can't we afford it, but we can't believe there's anyone in the world who can afford it.
Take the stove. We surveyed the stoves available and settled on a Heartland, based entirely on the fact that it had a cute semicircular window. I could see myself peering through that window for the next 25 years, at bubbling pies and browning turkeys. It would make me happy.
Turns out a Heartland stove costs about $5,000. A lot of money, considering you can get a perfectly good stove for about a tenth of that.
So we set our sights lower. My wife selected a stove that would do the trick and set us back only about a grand and a half.
But I had a problem with it. For $1,400, it just, well, it just didn't look cool. I wasn't expecting a round Heartland window. But I wanted something. At least the knobs should be nice. Hefty knobs. Industrial knobs. I scanned the store, and found one I liked. It had big, solid, black, hand-filling dials, knobs that would control the nuclear missile launch in a James Bond movie. The stove costs $3,000.
Both stoves worked equally well. (Actually, the more expensive stove worked less well, because it had powerful, industrial burners designed to bring 10-gallon stock pots to boil. The thing literally couldn't dial down to low, so it came with a round metal plate you had to put over a burner if you wanted to approximate a low setting, a major pain if ever there was one). I knew, in my heart, it was insane to spend an additional $1,600 for knobs on a stove that demanded you insert a special blast plate whenever you wanted to simmer a can of soup. But that wasn't how I viewed it. I viewed it that you could spend $1,400—still a lot of money—and get some chintzy, Oreo-knobbed, nothing stove. Or you could spend a bit more—and what is $1,600 in the money furnace that is remodeling an old house?—and get a mighty-knobbed stove.
My wife convinced me this is madness. Which brings us back to the little sink. Features she wants—such as an extra wall oven for Thanksgiving and the other two days a year when we might need lots of cooking room—are vital elements intrinsic to any basic, minimal kitchen. Simple expressions of practicality, on par with church key can openers and straw brooms. You can't live without them.
The elements that I want—the oven with the hearty knobs, the little round auxiliary sink—are wasteful, fanciful frills that need to be trimmed away to stick with the budget and avoid bank-breaking financial ruin.
I know this makes me seem henpecked, and I've tried dozens of times to argue. "Why," I ask, "do you dismiss what I want in the kitchen as a needless expense?" She, of course, denies it. "Lots of things in the kitchen were your idea," she says. "The floor—you wanted a floor, and you have one. Or stainless steel appliances. We're getting those."
I try to point out that she, too, wanted stainless steel, and that I'd happily switch to something else—red is popular nowadays—to prove my point. But somehow the point is never made and I sigh and let it drop, while the little round sink drifts away on the gentle breezes of regret, off to that misty land of sports cars and summer homes and all the luxuries that life hands to the select few but forever denies the rest of us.
—Originally published July 14, 2002