Sunday, March 24, 2013

Here’s Mud in Your Eye

I made my own transistor radio when I was ten. My mother’s boyfriend was an electronics engineer and in his home office, filled with oscilloscopes and other pre-home-computer equipment, he showed me how to use a soldering gun and make a circuit board.

That summer, I took my boxy black transistor to the beach every day. It wasn’t the sleekest radio, not white with a wrist strap and flower decals, but it was mine, and when I tuned the dial to KKDJ, I thought of the tiny beads and cubes like Monopoly house wired together and held in place by delicate silver blobs I had melted.

Right now I am constructing walls. I learned how to demolish sheetrock down to the studs and insulate walls last year when my husband and I worked on our writer’s studio. We covered those walls with wood panels.
Looking into the old basement from the old den, both now  becoming our  master bedroom.

Now we are building a master bedroom by combining an old downstairs bedroom with basement space, and after sealing the cement block wall with masonry paint, we’re using traditional materials: wooden framing, sheetrock, mud, tape, and texture.

My husband built the framing, installed the doors, screwed in the sheetrock, ran the electricity, put in outlets and switches, researched heater choices and wired accordingly. 

He is teaching me the next steps:

I am working with a thick vat of “mud” that looks like Greek yogurt. Using flat metal spatulas I dap and swipe over every nail hole. I run mesh tape to join edges everywhere they meet, in corners, along ceilings, mid-wall where boards end, and then I cover the tape with wide swaths of mud that when I’m not careful, splats on the floor, on my clothes, and on my face.

I cover the bullnose tape at window wells and sills, holding my spreader at odd angles, smoothing out my mud as if it were frosting, and like the cakes and cupcakes I used to bake, my efforts look uneven, amateurish, and unappetizing.

The good news is that no one can get it right in one swipe. The process requires drying time, sanding, and then applying a fresh coat, repeating each step three or four times, and with each application feathering out the mud in wider strokes using thinner amounts of product so the walls end up smooth at every seam, joint, sill, edge, and corner.

It takes a long time to apply just one coat in an entire room, and it’s repetitive, tedious, the sort of thing that made me wish I was writing a short story or a novel, because I’d have plenty of time to think about my characters and their actions while I’m scooping mud into a tray, dragging my ladder, climbing up, slathering on the mud, climbing down, repeating.

But I’m not working on a writing project, so instead my husband and I listen to our Pandora radio stations while we work.

Tonight at dinner he asked, now that I’d been working with the mud for several days, if I felt like I was getting the hang of it. “I guess what I’ve become used to,” I said, “is how bad I am at this.”

There’s nothing particularly difficult about the remodeling work I’m doing, but there’s a difference between simply completing a task and doing it well. Right now I’m sloppy and unskilled, and it shows.

I think it also takes more than practice and repetition to become skilled. You need patience and motivation to master anything, from manual labor to surgery, to high art. I enjoy spending time with my husband working on our house, and like making my own radio, I am proud that I can say I did it myself.

I’m a little worried though, that someday I’ll have the flu and will spend the day in bed, too tired to read, bored with TV, and with nothing to do, I’ll gaze at the walls and notice every imperfection—that the layers of mud aren’t level from one side of the window to the next, that I failed to properly cover the tape in the corners at the ceiling, that there are paint drips along the baseboard.

When that happens, the only person to blame will be me, which is a problem I’d never foreseen: A do-it-yourselfer forfeits the right to complain about shoddy workmanship.

I will just have to close my eyes and look the other way. Unless, that is, I’ve got mud in my eye.

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