Monthly Archives: October 2013

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Kyle and I are fighting. Over plaster, like normal people. Kyle explains to me, as he has done more than a handful of times, the benefits of taking all of the walls down. “Patching those cracks will eat up hours of your life,” he says. He continues with his list of logical reasons the plaster should go.
For Kyle plaster has become the enemy of Progress. It stands in the way of quickly plumbing and electrifying our home. Beyond that, it’s hardly in great shape. It’s cracked by time and age-spotted, too, carrying the stains of time like a grandparent’s skin. Engineer-soldier that he is, he would like the plaster to shape up or ship out.
In the face of Kyle’s logic I invoke the ghost of long-dead plasterers. “One question for you Kyle: WWMFD?” And then, smugly, to his confused face: “What Would Milt Finch Do? Obviously.”

I am an object lesson in why you can’t reason with crazy.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand Milt would’ve gone bonkers for drywall if it existed back in 1871. Instead of laboring for weeks he could have spent sweet days fishing the Miami River. But he didn’t have drywall, and instead he sweated it out over these (to his/their credit! still standing!) walls, and I think he’d be pretty upset to see them come down.

It is possible my incredible concern for the feelings of a long-dead man stems from a sticky July spent steaming wallpaper off of the very walls Kyle now wants to tear down. Possible.

But I have other reasons. Tearing down walls that have stood more than a century because they aren’t immaculate feels suspiciously… American. I once asked a professor of mine, a world-traveler who spoke over 30 languages, to name a distinctive feature of Americans. He said, without a second of hesitation, “They think everything should be convenient. And efficient. And new.” Watch House Hunters International sometimes (which Kyle and I did, way too often, in the month where he actually had a TV). A hole in the wall? The Italian shrugs. It will be fixed. Tiny kitchen? Character! At this point the Americans generally faint. I’m definitely American through-and-through; I’m right there with them. But as nice as convenience and efficiency and newness are, I just don’t think  they are very interesting.

Still, I can’t win the argument entirely. Walls, and ceilings too, are torn apart. I shudder when I see plaster coming down, leaving thin wood lathes pressed tight as the bones of the  rib cage. If the craftsman really cared, and took his time keying the plaster in just right, chunks still cling to the other side. Then lathes splinter under the crowbar: the whole thing is undone.

Dismantling a house that stood through decades of coal-burning is filthy work. I keep thinking of London’s peppered moths and wondering when our skin will change. Here is a photo of Kyle post-plaster:
This guy is smiling because he hates plaster.

This guy is smiling because he hates plaster.

In case you can’t tell, that is a short-sleeved khaki shirt he is wearing. That we coerced my dad into helping with plaster removal on his visit to Dayton is a testament to a father’s love.  (My mom went into a swoon after stepping foot in the house, reminded me that she is predisposed to lung cancer, and went home. Thanks, Mom).*

On plaster clean-up duty. Have I mentioned it's not fun?

On plaster clean-up duty. Have I mentioned it’s not fun?

For now, at least, the plaster wars have ended. Kyle and I have compromised: our home will have half original walls and half plaster-veneer. It’s not an elegant compromise, but I appreciate the clunky agreement almost as much as I appreciate our leftover walls (at least for now, until I have to patch them, at which point I will hate them). We’ve been together long enough to know we see the world differently, but we’ve figured out how to make it work. Sometimes–with houses, with relationships, with blind-but-adorable dogs–interesting means so much more than perfect.
*In actuality, she spent hours cleaning our apartment. Mopping up dog drool is also a testament to the depths of a parent’s love, so for real: thanks, mom.
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Handyman Joe disappeared about a week ago. This isn’t atypical in old house renovations. The other day a neighbor told me that during his remodel his contractor had a meltdown and left. I thought that would be the end of the story, but then my neighbor added, thoughtfully, “The third meltdown was the last one. We never saw him after that.”

That homeowner-contractor relationships stretch wide enough to encompass emotional breakdowns and mysterious disappearances shows how unusual they are. As Kyle pointed out, Joe is the person we’ve spent the most time with since moving to Dayton. We know each other in a way that only close-living usually makes.

For example, the other day Joe was clearing out detritus from our basement, junking it as he went, but he set aside a discovery he couldn’t wait to show us. Meet Inselwood.

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It is the cousin of the fake brick paneling once covering our house. Which, I now know, is called Inselbrick, not Insulbrick, and which, I now know, is a good-looking choice of siding. At least, comparatively. Not to mention: Two Exclusive Features! That Joe knew these salesman samples from half a century ago were not immediate garbage but something we would want to see is testament to how well we know one another.

On my end, when I order sandwiches I know that for Joe it is ham and cheese on white bread, hold everything else. And I know things deeper than that, because painting and hole-digging side-by-side gives you plenty of time to talk. We worked our way through relationships and upbringings. Pasts, too. I won’t go into the details leading to Joe’s disappearance, but bad decisions and fear and love are all involved. Our house can tell you: history isn’t easy to shake off.

It’s a hard time to lose him. We are about to embark on a big project, rebuilding the back room torn down. When we went before the historical commission to get the rebuild approved, Joe asked to come with us. The three of us sat in folding chairs and waited for the meeting to begin and wasted our time flipping through pictures. We’d heard the board could be hard to please, so we also brought along photos to show the scale of our renovations. In other words: to make the board feel bad for us. Joe paused at one photo where half of the house still wore Inselbric. “That’s the day my life changed,” he said. “Seriously, it is.”

Joe, struggling to find work for months, had been walking through our neighborhood. Kyle and I, overwhelmed by all the work we had to do, were staring at the remaining Inselbric and wondering which one of us would dare the tall ladder. “Hey,” said Joe, stopping in front of us, “I can help with that.” Need and chance and a leap of faith. It’s how plenty of relationships begin.

The board ended up approving our new room and the permit now hangs in our window:
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But we haven’t kicked off the work yet. It’s hard to be without Joe. Partly because the man is a crazy hard worker and knows how to do everything. And partly because, whenever I’d comment on the (lack of feasibility) of our end-of-December timeline, he’d point at the front of our house and say, “Remember! Christmas tree in the front window!” And then we’d laugh, because it was ridiculous but somehow still seemed possible, and we’d get back to hauling dirt or stripping paint or piling plaster in the truck.

It’s a fact that we are all far from perfect. But we made a pretty good team.