Home Improvements

It's funny how people respond when you announce that you are going to be doing some remodeling, specifically your kitchen. There are some, like my mother (thanks, Mom!), who are frankly encouraging, even though they themselves have gone through remodeling projects and know how frustrating, inconvenient, and, yes, expensive it can be. But there are others, some but not necessarily all of whom who have suffered through the same, who seem determined to throw cold water on the whole prospect by pointing out (as if one didn't know) a) how frustrating, b) how inconvenient, and c) how expensive everything is going to be. Moreover, who insist on it even after one has explained that one of the reasons for doing the remodeling is to bring the electrical wiring in the kitchen up to code so as, for example, to be able to run both the kettle and the toaster at the same time without having to take a break to go down to the basement and punch the circuit breaker back in. No fire risk or anything in having substandard wiring, oh no.

As one of my friends on Facebook put it when looking at the picture I posted (right): "So this is 'before?' If you are truly prepared to eat Poptarts cooked on a card table in the living room and get to know the delivery boys on a first name basis for a matter of many months, and have taken your budget, multiplied by 1.5, and decided that you can still afford it, then I look forward to seeing the 'after'." I don't get it, is he jealous? But of what? Our current floor? The deadening browns? Our inability to run the washer and the dryer (also on the same circuit) at the same time? The fact that we have such a comparatively enormous kitchen? Compared, say, to what?*

Oh, I know well the envy of walking into other people's kitchens that have recently been redone. Why on earth do you think my husband and I are willing to go through this process? Because graduate students whom I know have more up-to-date kitchens than we do? Because junior colleagues have nicer cabinets and flooring? (Really, I'm not kidding.) What exactly is so wrong with the dream of having an elegant and functional home? Oh, right, I'm an academic, I'm not supposed to care about such things. I'm supposed to be content to live in a shoe box and eat tuna fish and get paid beans simply for the love of my research. But I don't actually think that this is what this is about. What is it then? A love of giving people bad news? Of showing them up as naive? How would the friend that posted that comment feel if, when he and his wife announced several years ago that they were about to have a baby, I had posted something along the lines of, "So if you're willing not to sleep properly for six months, spend all of your money on childcare and have no more private life, then I look forward to seeing pictures of your kid"? No, I'm sure he and his wife, no more than my husband and I knew what they were getting into when she got pregnant (and then, for good measure, did it again), but is that any reason to tell them it's a bad idea to take such a step? No, my husband and I have not had a kitchen redone before; I'm sure we're in for a lot of surprises. But isn't that simply the definition of life?

I'm really puzzled by the desire that so many people seem to have to insure that nobody else makes any changes in their life. "Oh," they say, sucking their teeth and shaking their head, "you don't want to do that." Why not? Why fricking not? Right, it's much better to sit tight, change nothing, risk nothing, experience no inconveniences (ironically, in this instance, specifically so as to live more conveniently). As if there are not people in the world who live like we are about to have to for a few months--no running water in the kitchen, no facilities for cooking, no way of washing our clothes at home--all the time. We're still going to have a refrigerator plugged in and there will be water in the bathroom. And we're simply going to move the dining-room table into the front room (we don't--as I think my friend is assuming, although why I don't know, he's seen the picture--have a table in the kitchen) so as to make room in the dining room for the appliances and all the boxes of stuff that are going to come out of the cabinets. Shoot, it could be fun, like being back in graduate school, you know, for the decade or so before we had a washer-dryer in our own apartment and had to go to the laundromat. But, no, I'm being naive. It's going to be hell.

Get a grip, people! Sheesh. Try having your campus office flooded--from the ceiling, no less--just as you are trying to finish a major fellowship application and having to spend the next couple of days drying out all of your books and then moving everything out off the floor so that it could be ripped up and replaced. Or having the city inspectors condemn the back porches in your building not once, but twice, and having to go through the frustration not just of redoing the construction, but also wondering how big the fine would be if the second time round the structure did not pass. But guess what? My office now has a beautiful wood floor rather than depressing, institutional gray carpet, not to mention new book shelves and thus space for a beautiful new couch. And our new porches not only passed inspection but look good, no more peeling brown paint. Yes, it was hard not having access to my books for over a month just when I needed them most. Yes, it was hard not being able to go out the back for better than three (or maybe it was only two. Who remembers? The work is finished now.) But it was hardly as grueling as some would seem to want to make out. Unless, of course, one is swapping stories, as now, so as to make one's life seem more exciting than, truth to tell, it actually is.

I'm starting to think that going through a remodeling is somehow a rite of passage, more serious than simply moving apartments or buying your first home (which, by the by, this apartment still is; the first that we've owned, that is). We had some work done before we moved in, but ran out of time (that is, the time we felt we could spare before putting our lives back together) to finish the kitchen. Nor was what we had done then at all that extensive: painting the walls, polishing the floors, getting new appliances, that sort of thing. Just surface stuff, really. This project is going to show us the bones of our building, right down to the brickwork. Is that what this is about? The contingency of the built. The impermanence of space. We are about to disrupt the structure of the material world, changing more than just the color of the surfaces, digging deep into the very supports of our life. Actually, no, we're not. We like the walls where they are. But we are going to change the shape of the window so as to be able to extend the countertop around the corner of the room. And, of course, we're going to have new flooring and cabinets installed. But these are the very things that, until one goes through this process, have always seemed most fixed. It's easy moving furniture around; it's even relatively easy to paint (albeit not well). But until one embarks on a kitchen (and, once that is done, bathroom) remodeling, the kitchen and the bathroom are the two rooms in one's life over which one has had least control.

Think what we do in those rooms: Cook food. Wash up after cooking. Wash our bodies. Shit. Kitchens and bathrooms are the rooms in which we are most messy, most biological, most flesh. Embarrassing things happen in kitchens and bathrooms. Heated conversations. Encounters with one's most urgent needs, with hunger and waste. No way of pretending here that one is not mortal, bound by the fleshly. Which, of course, is why it is comparatively so difficult to live without access to such rooms. Painting your living room? No worries, you can sit somewhere else for a while. Having your bedroom rewired? Not a problem, you can sleep on the couch. But you can only shit in the toilet and cook on the stove. Actually, no, that's not entirely true; you can, as my husband and I were talking about, get a gas ring. Or a toaster oven. We already have the kettle. What you can't live without is clean water. And a way to store food. Which, thanks to the fact that we live when and where we do, we will have. Not everybody in the world does.

I spent the afternoon yesterday in the Merchandise Mart looking at floor coverings and cabinetry and being overwhelmed at the choices in store. Wow. All this for making rooms in which we cook, eat, wash and poop. I know I want something mosaic-like for the floor in the bathroom (we're talking about 6'x6' here, not counting the bathtub), and wood for the floor in the kitchen seems right. White cabinets for the kitchen with probably a dark countertop. And hopefully some nice tiling for the splashboard between the counter and the cabinets. Nothing as fancy as some of the finishings that I saw. But what palaces some people have! No wonder such projects can get so expensive: there's a whole world of craftspeople out there imagining beautiful ways to create a home. I really, really, really don't see anything wrong with that.**

So there.

*Just for the record, it's 10'x12'. Not exactly mansion-sized like our neighbors the Obamas'.
**And no, I don't think it's socially just that some people live in mansions while others have only hovels. It's only that I refuse to believe that making beautiful things is in itself a bad thing.


  1. For whatever it's worth, I enthusiastically support the remodeling. I never actually thought of your kitchen as ugly or out-of-date, but a newly remodeled kitchen is just so wonderful--despite the nuisance (our family has been through many; we even lived in the basement for about six months while the rest of the house was unlivable).


  2. I find this very encouraging, Jason! Now, about dogs...


Post a Comment

Thank you for taking the time to respond to my blog post. I look forward to hearing what you think!


Popular posts from this blog

Credo ut intelligam

Make the Middle Ages Dark Again

Nation, American Style

Talking Points: Three Cheers for White Men

Facere Quod In Se Est*