I believe it was Dorothea Brande, that hard-nose (in my mind, she looks a lot like Margaret Thatcher and loves nothing more than a giant bowl of broccoli after early-morning calisthenics), who said writers need hobbies completely outside the realm of words in order to keep themselves clear-headed. I also hear from my friend Erin that novelist Joshua Ferris wrote the final page of his new book The Unnamed in The Home Depot (I may not have loved his And Then We Came To The End, but I think I have to read The Unnamed just because he was able to pull off actual writing in such a soul-sucking environment).
It was with Brande and Ferris in mind that I embarked on weekend three of intense house-fixing, trying to drum up a little excitement for my new “hobby.” We’re getting ready to put our place on the market, and those little projects we’ve been putting off for years have accumulated to the point at which it will take about eight or more weekends to finish them off. On Saturday, my husband spent the majority of the afternoon under the bathroom sink, trying to get 80-year-old, rusted faucets unstuck from the cast iron, then replacing them with shiny, new, non-drippy ones.
In the interest of a fair division of labor, I offered to do the next step of bathroom-fixing: refinishing said cast iron. I went to–wait for it–The Home Depot, where I was hit on by the paint-mixing guy who was old enough to be my father, got some kind of oil all over my sweater, and eventually bought what promised to be a toxic experience in a box: an acid wash, steel wool, and epoxy kit “known to the State of California to cause birth defects.”
So, armed with a double-charcoal respirator, hausfrau dish gloves and plenty of ventilation, I went to work on scrubbing decades worth of ugly off the sink, chemically burning myself only once. I was getting into the scrub-and-wash rhythm, thinking I just might be able to make myself like being handy. Then, while painting on the new surface, I realized my hard time seeing what I was doing wasn’t due to my safety goggles fogging up. I was blacking out. I vaguely remembered a can-printed warning about central nervous system problems, but I’d assumed it was similar to “warning: coffee is hot,” and that if I wasn’t a Cro-Magnon who applied the epoxy to my nostrils, I’d be okay. Wrong. I ended up spending much of the day out on the back porch, prostrate, soaked with rain but breathing clean air. I recovered my sight about 10 minutes later, wishing I’d spent the day in my writing office rather than in the bathroom gassing myself.
Finally, today, possessed of my eyesight and very much over my handy phase, I realized Joshua Ferris is really the exception, and Dorothea could find a novel place to stick her advice. I “finished” the book (there are, of course, revisions to be made, but I’m now at the desired page-count. I’m going to call it “finished” for now), and it didn’t happen in the Home Depot. It happened in my office, slumped over the desk, thumbing my nose at Dorothea and Joshua, and realizing my Ikea desk chair is, for now, the only place I want to work.