Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Give a Man a Fish: Thoughts on Becoming a Self-Starter

 The summer after I graduated from eighth grade several of my friends and I enrolled in the Model United Nations class at our local high school. As freshmen, we were each given small African countries that we hadn’t heard of before to represent. I “was” Tanzania, and soon learned that the People’s Republic of China was my ally.

The PRC, a high school senior, introduced legislation to build a railroad in my country, and as I prepared a speech, my first, to give on the floor of the general assembly, I came across a Chinese proverb that seemed the perfect illustration as to what this legislation would mean for the people of my country. Instead of delivering food or other consumables as aid, my countrymen would learn construction skills building the railroad that would in turn foster enterprise to spring up as goods, produced in our own nation, could be moved readily throughout the country.

“Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day,” the saying went. “Teach him to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.”

I delivered my speech, quote and all, despite the fact that several other delegates used the same one—directed I’m sure to the same book by our branch librarian.

For the past two and a half years, my husband has been teaching me to fish—in the sense that do-it-yourself remodeling is akin to railroad construction is akin to fishing. In my case I have been learning the basics: this is a rod, this is a reel, this is bait, this salmon is edible, this jellyfish is not. Here’s the pole; here’s how to cast, I’ve caught a fish for you, please reel it in.

Each day on the job, unless I was self-assigned to the garden—where I gather my own tools and choose my own weedy nemesises (nemesi?)—I relied on my husband to set up my tools and instruct me on my tasks. Even when I became capable of painting (something I’m not particularly skilled at, but which is simple enough to understand and doesn’t require brute strength), I relied on him to set up the work space with tarps, stir the paint with his drill, mask off the windows or other edges, attach the roller to the cage, fill the paint tray, find the right sized brush.

My job was to dress appropriately, don my gloves, stand in the right spot and spread the paint, or operate the electric drill, or do whatever I was assigned until I’d finished it, or needed my supplies refilled, and went back to my supervisor for the next assignment.

Now, however, the house we’ve rented has revealed itself as a fixer-upper, and my husband is busy at the project house we are renovating for our livelihood. After corresponding with our property manager, who has been relaying requests to the owners—a couple in their mid-eighties who live out of state—I received permission to remove the old carpets that smell of dog accidents, and to paint the rooms at my own time and expense.

interior stairs with carpet removed, pad ready to be removed

Although my husband has been bringing me home free paint from the Household Hazard Waste collection site, I am the one mixing tan and white concoctions to repaint the rooms. I am masking my own doors and windows, assembling my own rollers and cages, choosing brushes, spreading newspaper and cardboard on the floor, moving the furniture I can move on my own, ripping up carpets (once a corner has been started for me) and padding, removing the padding’s staples from subfloors, and prying up rotted tack bars.

My paint station: thanks honey!

In the late mornings, after I’ve edited posts for “Good Letters” and checked my email and run the dishwasher or folded laundry, I don the appropriate attire, queue a book on my iPod, head for the paint station my husband set up for me in the garage, choose the supplies I need, set up, work, take a lunch break, and work until it’s time to cap the buckets, slide the rollers and brushes into a Ziploc bag for another day, and turn my attention to dinner.

interior stairs painted

My husband has awarded me with imaginary gold stars, declared me a self-starter and jokingly, a do-it-yourself badass. There are still things I don’t know how to do: install toilets with their flanges and wax rings, use a level to hang a curtain rod, replace the kitchen faucet, caulk baseboards and door trim.

I don’t know about the toilets: it’s enough for me to keep them clean. But I imagine that someday in the not-so-distant future, I could caulk the areas I paint, or hang mini-blinds singlehandedly (but using both hands and a level, of course).

Downstairs bathroom repainted (by me) with new toilet (by my husband)

I imagine myself pulling the blind’s cord, the shade sliding effortlessly up and down the window, making a satisfying whoosh, not unlike the rumble of a train headed through the arid countryside of an impoverished Tanzania, a whispered promise of dignity and prosperity echoing in my ears.

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