This is Episode #6 of Hammered and Nailed, the series that ran in Homelife in 2002 and 2003, and is being featured here. The Saturday "Where IS This?" contest returns in two weeks. To begin at the beginning, start at Monday, Aug. 4.
Why did I not realize it before? "This Old House" is pornography; porno for people like me. A fantasy for owners of old homes with as much basis in reality as a stag film. The odds of a squad of competent workmen in flannel shirts, tool belts and beards showing up at my home and speedily, say, framing a new porch, are about the same as the odds of the meter reader turning out to be Traci Lords in a breakaway dress.
Here I was trying to pick up practical tips. What a fool. It was like was watching "Horny Housewives in Heat" hoping to learn about actual human behavior.
And you know what's the most deceptive thing about "This Old House?" Not the calm, quiet skill of the workers (my workmen are as jittery as Lucy Riccardo moonlighting on an assembly line; I have a feeling that if I spoke to one, he'd shriek and toss his tools in the air). Not the way the TV guys carefully discuss their every step, guided by established rules of Yankee carpentry. (My crew seem to figure out what to do next by a lot of shouting, shrugging and hand gestures).
No, the most deceptive thing about "This Old House" is the sense of time compression. One moment Hank is showing the host how he's nailing down those hand-cut cedar shingles. The host nods gravely, they cut to a commercial—a commercial for door handles, for shop vacuums, not the kind of ad you'd normally see on television—and then Bob (or whoever; they keep changing) strolls back to Hank and says, "I see you're about finishing up that roof. . . ."
Ha! Not in my world. I glanced at my 2002 planner the other day and noted, under May 20, the scribble: "WORK STARTED ON BATHROOM." I like to think it was a bray of triumph, but something tells me that I knew, in my heart, they'd still be at it now, more than three months later, and I wanted to give myself a mnemonic aid when groping to recall a time when the bathroom wasn't under construction.
Yes, they're still at it. Or rather, not at it, since if today is an average day, the workmen are at another job or visiting their relatives in Kyrgyzstan or doing something else somewhere that isn't our house.
"A lot of that is our fault," says my wife, all Sandra Dee perkiness, when I brought up the subject (not in words, but by taking my hands and raking my fingernails over my cheeks, letting out a loud, quavering moan. She knows what I mean when I do that now).
She's wrong of course. Yes, work was suspended for a few weeks while we struggled to get a few boxes of hexagonal white tiles. But even if it took an entire month, that still means they spent two months (and counting!) on a job that Slava swore with his hand on his heart and tears in his eyes would be done in two weeks (leading me to the awful fear that there is a kind of remodeling code: merely substitute whatever your contractor says with the next higher unit of time measure: if he says the job will take two days, figure two weeks. Two weeks? Figure two months. And so on).
After the bathroom is done, the kitchen is on deck, and has been, for two years. Two years! My wife is beginning to come unhinged. After spending hours picking out appliances for the third time, since all the appliances we picked out the two previous times are no longer manufactured, my wife immediately announced that perhaps we shouldn't remodel the kitchen after all, seeing as how we can't actually afford it.
"It's cheaper than a divorce," I said, in a flat, emotionless voice, pressing my fingertips to my temples to keep my head from exploding. Two years.
"OK, we'll remodel it then," she said. "Or maybe we shouldn't. It'll be expensive. So let's not. Except of course it looks horrible. So we will. But not now, unless of course we do, because prices will only go up. So why not. . ."
She might have continued in this vein, perhaps fluttering a finger over her lips, but I was already backing away, eyes bulging, shaking my head back and forth like an extra in a sci-fi flick about to be eaten by the alien.
This sense of horror crops up in unexpected moments. Take last Monday--our 12th wedding anniversary. We have a tradition ... I'm a little reluctant to share it, lest it shatter the crusty, unpleasant, middle-aged-man-going-out-of-his-mind persona that I so carefully develop in this space. But it, like the persona, is true. We do have this ritual, on the day of our anniversary, where we take the cigarette-pack-size piece of our wedding cake out of hibernation in the freezer, place it on the good china, kiss, take a picture, savor a tiny bite, read the love notes we jotted for each other last year and tucked inside the wrapping, write something sweet and hopeful for next year, then return the package to the deep freeze.
The notes really are the best part. Dripping with hearts and nicknames, scribbled over the past dozen years--we keep them all in the cake package--they quickly trace the progress of a marriage, from the heady honeymoon days, to the time when babies loomed on the horizon (identified as "?") to, well, maybe I better just reveal my note from last year. Looking ahead to my fondest hopes, I wrote:
"Dearest love: Happy 12th! Together in our new old home. Thank you for all your work getting the kitchen done, finally."
Ha! Double ha! I had expected the kitchen would be done in a year. Had assumed. Naturally. How could it not? How pathetic.
The mood couldn't have changed faster had I dashed the wedding cake to the floor and jumped on it. I suppressed the urge to write: "Happy 13th--if the kitchen isn't done by now I'm divorcing you." Instead I wrote something pleasant and positive. One must be positive. I made no mention of the kitchen being done. A guy has to learn from his mistakes.
—Originally published September 8, 2002