Thursday, September 30, 2021

Zen and the Art of Bathroom Renovation

How to power through a bathroom renovation....lose weight...and be successful in any pursuit.
I'm not kidding, either. But what I can't help you with, because I'm so perennially poor at it myself, is remembering to actually do it. Knowing the trick is worthless. Doing the trick grants you the keys to the kingdom. YOU NEED TO DO THE TRICK! I keep learning this, but, like an idiot, also keep forgetting!

Trying to Fiddle Your Way to Weight Loss

One of my least understood postings made a counterintuitive point about weight loss. I won't say its title right away, because it propelled readers into a dream state of previous assumptions. But I'll try to explain better now, and then circle back to that posting, which turned out to be more significant than I realized.

There's a common psychology among those who put on, and keep on, weight:
I've done all the stuff! I stopped eating junk food (except when I’m hungry and short on time). I gave up soda (but do drink juice, which is “totally healthy”). I exercise a decent amount - maybe not with great intensity or zeal, but I do hit the gym a couple times per week. I try to avoid fried foods and park my car far from the store so I walk more. I hardly eat! I skip breakfast and often lunch, which I know is unhealthy, but it reduces my calorie count, and yet, I can't lose the weight! I've done EVERYTHING!!!

These moves should have been sufficient! I'm not training for the Olympics, so I shouldn't have to resort to extremes - skim milk and carb/fat/protein tallying and grueling daily workouts. So it must be my endocrine system, or heredity, or something else quite outside my control, because for some strange reason I still can't lose the weight!
Millions of perennially overweight people imagine they can fiddle their way to weight loss. A renounced bad habit here, a pushup there, and the weight should just spill off. Yet it never does.

The solution is obliviously missed. You just said it! You need to resort to skim milk and carb/fat/protein tallying and grueling daily workouts. And so much more. All those "special occasion" exceptions must vanish. No junk food or fried foods or dessert ever. Expunge the juice (drink water!) and scarf nary a brownie...not even to reward yourself for skipping a few meals, which really just messes up your metabolism by convincing your body that it's starving and must conserve fat at all cost. No socializing around food; no canceling gym to go to brunch. And your epic 1/8 mile trek from the distant parking space? That's nothing. Leave your car home and walk to the store, even if it's 4 miles.

So long as weight loss feels like a hobby, you won't lose weight. It's only effective when it becomes your occupation, worth a handsome salary for your time investment, lifestyle shifts, schedule disruptions, and increased grocery bills as you feed yourself with the fussy care of a show horse. That's what it takes to lose weight. It must be your job for a number of months, and that's why I titled the aforementioned post "Losing Weight Costs $1000/pound". As someone from a rotund family who had recently lost 35 pounds to fit into high school jeans with 32" waist, I knew what I was talking about. One must reframe the enterprise. Not just "get serious", but transform outlook, actions, and life. You can't fiddle your way there.

You can't fiddle your way there.

Trying to Fiddle Your Way to Home Improvement

Now let's talk home improvement.

Nine years ago, one of my best friends at the time was a contractor who talked me into an ambitious home improvement project which he offered to helm. He tore open my house, installed a thing or two, then promptly disappeared.

I was hoping to find a white knight to step in and fix it all. Preferably inexpensively! A procession of contractors stopped by to offer estimates. Few could make sense of my guy's plan, plus, it's an old house, with the standard headaches, so the most experienced (i.e. laziest) contractors suggested gutting and rebuilding, for $$$$$. Most considered it aggravating and stopped returning calls. Or hollered at me about the ridiculous mistakes my friend had made.

Let's focus on my epicenter of pain, my great nemesis, the upstairs bathroom. Among myriad problems, one wall is covered with 100 year old "white" subway tiles that are no longer close to white. They're more of a putrid yellow, which vintage bathroom aficionados assure me is "gorgeous". And they couldn’t be replaced, because the wall behind them has devolved into sandy sediment and werewolves and tornados. So I was stuck with those tiles.

But then how do you waterproof behind the shower area, which had been stripped down to drywall? I couldn't install new white subway tiles, because they'd clash with the existing ones. One solution might be to buy “vintage” white subway tiles which actually match my old ones. But they're outrageously expensive. Like, thousands of dollars. I couldn't imagine paying so much for tiling.

So the bathroom (and all the rest) sat frozen for nine years, forcing me to bathe in the downstairs utility shower and to avert my eyes from the many construction zones and mangled atrocities (e.g. the tub was installed half on/half off the floor tiles, among a vast number of other insanities which, as I explored them, left me understanding why the incompetent bastard had run off).


Whenever I tried to help my Mom with her computer or her iPad, she'd respond with harried helplessness. "I don't understand tech things!" she'd wail, before I'd said a word. That was her default posture: an aggrieved full-body shrug. Unsurprisingly, she hardly learned to turn her devices on and off.

I tried to reframe the issue. She hadn't been born knowing how to boil eggs or drive cars. She'd learned via curiosity and an open mindset. And this was no different. But she was, shall we say, unreceptive to this analogy.

Mom never learned to turn on/off her computer, but the pathway was clear enough: invest the time, put in the work, get serious with learning to do stuff that doesn't feel like stuff you (i.e. your persona) would be able to do. Evolve, gradually, into a whole other person who's good at tech stuff.

Adults lose their ability to learn when we stop entertaining the possibility of change - specifically, changing into someone able to do the thing we've convinced ourselves we can't do. Our "story" about our persona becomes a choke collar. In freezing perspective, we preclude the lithe, easy changes fluidly available if we simply stop self-strangulating for a nanosecond.

What It Takes

Local house prices had begun soaring, compelling me to consider selling. This injected hot incentive into my veins, and, with newfound clarity, I realized I needed to do way more. The meek forays into recruiting a white knight who'd Fix It All (preferably inexpensively) were comically insufficient, so I became project manager and designer... with lots of help. In the Internet age, help is always available, but you must move the ball. I girded myself to "give it a shot" - aka "fake it till I make it" - but with lots of advice. Including from clueless people (in life one must learn how to productively triangulate and select advice from low-value sources).

I posted incessantly to Facebook home improvement groups. I didn't wail "WHAT DO I DO?" (i.e. more hunting for a white knight), which would only unleash torrents of random low-value opinions. I broke it down into finite chunks. At long last, I'd seized responsibility. Even though "I'M NO GOOD WITH HOME STUFF". I stopped wailing and self-strangulating, and stepped courageously into the typhoon.

My head spun a lot. Needing to make a hundreds of consequential decisions in realms of no interest to me, I blasted forward without an iota of natural facility. Which is an unfamiliar sensation for me.

I'm used to swiftly pulling off hard things by operating on talent. In realms where my natural talents don't apply, I'm like Samson post-haircut (read this, it's a goodie). I'm not just diminished, I'm helpless. A writhing gelatinous puddle of mess. As I wrote in that last link:
I have no facility whatsoever for operating talentlessly. Those with no particular talent, familiar with doubtful flailing, enjoy an incalculable advantage.
Most people learn to grind talentlessly, an essential life skill I lack. But grind I did, and I messed up things which needed to be redone. I wasted serious money (including $1600 worth of dumb materials I needed to throw out). And I took a full year of essentially full time work to get it all done....and even then only because I got lucky in finding a dandy carpenter (though it was manufactured luck; I found him only via obscene persistence, plus he has innumerable quirks I've had to learn about and work around).

I adopted the rallying cry of "no half measures". My weight loss success had taught me that you can't just dip your toe. You can't fiddle your way there. You can't take a step or two and demand that the world gratify your minor effort with success. You must go all the way - whatever it takes! - like a driven maniac. Like Fitzcarraldo.

One sometimes must elevate some narrow slice of life into The Only Thing There Is for a while. Confronted by obstacles offering no easy workarounds, you've got to ramp up a benign and finite obsession.

Finally, I did buy those overpriced tiles. My previous self screams, from the back of my head: "You blew that sum on shower tiles???", to which I calmly reply "You spent a stressed decade living in a construction site and showering downstairs just to save a few bucks?"


Flash-Ahead to a Successful Dismount

Very very very very long story short, bathroom's nearly done (and the rest of the house is close). I am now someone who's good at home stuff! I still can't swap out a light bulb, but I have a crew of loyal workers*, a phalanx of fans in Facebook home improvement groups who've followed my travails, and, most of all, I've learned that the quantity of effort that must be invested is way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way, way more than I'd previously assumed.
* - My main contractor is a Guatemalan genius who I've made locally famous via postings on NextDoor (a neighborhood forum) recounting his epic heroics. Now, the guy's phone never stops ringing, he's raised his hourly price, bought a new pickup, and given his kids dental work, and, if a bird craps on my roof, he's here in like 20 seconds.
I now write big checks like I put quarters in parking meters. Big checks are the grease that lubricates the system, and restricting that flow makes things exponentially more difficult. I'm not saying problems can be solved by throwing money at them. That's completely false. But even great outcomes by loyal workers laboring at a reasonable price add up, and you need to fulfill your role.

When Guatemalan Genius and his small army of eager hammer swingers complete shoring up your ceiling joists in a hot August attic for 1/4 the price of the arrogant anglo "top" local contractor, you still must write a four digit number on that check. Get over the fear and loathing. Making your dreams come true - even if it's done fast and thriftily by a Guatemalan Genius (i.e. the best-case scenario) requires writing tons of big checks. So build that in. But don't expect this, alone, to kickstart the process. It's lubricant, not firestarter. Paying is just a tiny part of your commitment.

What's more, it's not always best-case scenario! Sometimes my painter has a slow day and doesn't get much done. That's ok, Kurt! Come have a beer and a sandwich, and relax on the porch! You'll knock 'em dead tomorrow! Oh, and here's your $300 with my intense gratitude!

For example: See that floor?

We swapped in a bunch of new tiles, matching the vintage color, but could not match the grout. Many hours have poured into this floor, and it's crazy no one saw this coming, but I won't waste a nano-calorie getting indignant. We'll simply retile the floor. No problema! Let's do this!

Get the idea?


Home Repair is not impossible, as I'd previously concluded. It just demands far deeper wells of commitment, persistence, effort, and expenditure than you'd begin to imagine.
The inescapable dynamic of this universe is entropy. Opposing entropy to compel things to serve some intended purpose requires enormous energy. Like salmons thrashing their way upstream, it's possible, but you can't fiddle your way there. The universe desperately yearns for your house to dissolve into sawdust.
I thought it was sufficient to recruit contractors and pay them (hopefully not much!). I'd conceived of this as consumerism: I pay, and you make all my problems go away. Wrong. That's the same fallacy that makes us suppose that cutting out soda and hitting the gym twice a week will make excess weight fall away. Same with my mother figuring a quick fix from me makes all tech problems go away.

You can't fiddle your way there. It's not enough. Not nearly enough! Just as weight loss (unless you have the metabolism of a humming bird) requires skim milk, meticulous nutrition, daily gym exhaustion, and 5 mile walks - $1000/pound worth of effort - home repair requires the strategic skills of an Army general (your contractor is the colonel, who takes orders from you, and who must be supervised and periodically overruled). You need to work tirelessly, making thousands of decisions in dorky realms, tolerating missteps, and flinging loads of money freely, even jubilantly. And those are just the prerequisites. You need to reframe it this way.

The familiar aggravations of home improvement are laughable. My house has been overrun with tarps, paint cans, cut tiles, black trash bags, various tools, unidentified doodads of hardware - and all my possessions pushed into stacks - for literally longer than I can remember. I am only distantly aware of these things, or of my perilously dropping bank balance. I am at war. Distract me not with trivial concerns, for I am he who opposes entropy.

Home improvement "costs" $1000 per inch. I don't just mean currency. Your time, work, patience, and obsession all have economic value. And all are required. No white knight will appear - and, if one does, he'll mess everything up while charging an order of magnitude more than I just paid.

I Constantly Forget My Own Hard-Won Lesson

One of my favorite postings was "Why My Cooking Isn't Great". If you read it there, you'll see a nice photo that sets the scene, but I've pasted in an abridged version below, because it ties in an essential connection:
From my seat at the counter in front of the open kitchen, I watched Nudel Restaurant's highly-skilled chefs churn out plate after flawless plate. Since I've been on a quest to boost my cooking skill, I paid careful attention, hoping to pick up some pointers.

What I noticed was the softness of their hands. They weren't wrestling ingredients into submission. Their actions were gentle and sweet. They coaxed rather than compelled. And pains were taken. Vast concentration, vast attention, vast levels of caring. It’s not that they were projecting an image - impressing others or themselves with their theatrical intensity. This was a deep and non-self-aware sense of commitment, period.

It was inspiring to see, but highly ironic that I’d be struck by this at such a late date.

I used to teach jazz improvisation workshops around Europe. Among my clever exercises and useful bits of advice, the thing that most helped students was a simple, exasperated and brutal observation:
You guys are sitting there, slumped in your chairs, mopey and dead-eyed. You're honking out jazzy notes like it's the latest dreary task in your daily grind, along with vacuuming the living room or tying your shoes. You're not working hard and you're not particularly trying...even though you absolutely need to, because you're not good yet.

Now, consider me. I'm a professional. I'm good. In fact, I'd sound good even if I sat back like a mope, treating this like some dreary task. Yet I don't. Look at me here, trying phenomenally hard. I'm sweating bullets and considering every note as if my life depended on it. Why are you working and caring so much less than I am? Does it make even the slightest bit of sense?!?
It struck them like thunder. Every time. And it often stuck with them.

As I said a couple of postings ago, it's devilishly hard to distribute insights evenly into all aspects of one's life. I needed to learn the power of commitment twice; once with music and then again with writing. Now, after a decade of effort to improve my cooking, and feeling that I was still missing an essential piece, it turns out that that piece was my very own signature hard-won lesson. Sigh.

Why is my cooking delicious and not devastating? Because I'm merely super-hyper-mega committed, which makes me a piker. Seeing the chefs at Nudel, I instantly flashed: they could cook better than me without even trying. So why do I try so much less than they do?

I could have written a perfectly acceptable version of this in ten minutes flat. Instead, I've sat here for hours, fiddling with every word (and fretting over that last comma) as if the fate of the universe hinged on perfect, seamless clarity. I'm a much better writer than a cook. This is why.
Again, with home improvement, I’d made the same mistake. I underestimated the requisite commitment, perseverance and resilience. Which is weird, because I have an abundant supply of all three. And I constantly urge readers to cultivate these things. Yet here I am, at 58, still relearning my signature lesson. Sigh.

But What Am I *Really* Doing Here (in this essay, this bathroom, and this lifetime)?

I wrote here that
"Shitty", "adequate", and "great" are not neighbors. Greatness is a quadrillion times more demanding; a separate realm above and beyond.
I never thought I was trying to do a "great" home improvement. Really, I just wanted to be able to take a shower! But, now that you mention it, I was more concerned about this going right than the average person. Maybe, now that I think about it, like a quadrillion times more. I can't separate the perfectionism from the breaking-of-paralysis. I lack self-awareness on this. But the result, come to think of it, was kind of fantastic in some ways.

Here's the bathroom. Need to de-wrinkle that shower curtain. And buy a new light fixture. And lord give me patience re: the floor tiles. But it's close.

How much water escapes from the shower? NOT ONE MOLECULE finds its way to the floor or the window ledge. All that wood by the window I was panic-stricken about soaking? Dry as the Gobi freaking Desert. Because I wasn't building to "keep it reasonably dry". I worked it like a holy mission.

The Unexpected Magic Afterglow

Home decoration is way easier than home renovation, though I'm ill-suited for both. In a posting titled "Home Decor for the Visually Incompetent", I noted that...
It took nearly three years to furnish the house, but I lavished great care, and, in the end, the place had the magical power to make anyone stepping into it feel absolutely comfortable and relaxed. The place didn't make a grand impression; there was no particular design "impact". But neither did things look sloppy or mismatched. What hit you was the Vibe. I'd nailed it!
This bathroom has a vibe, too. Maybe you can see it a little in the photos. Taking a shower is an almost mystical experience. I know what you're thinking: "Of course it does, you lame-brain! It took you nine years so what you're feeling is just your own immense relief and self-satisfaction!" But nyuh-uh. It really is a magical shower (I'll have friends try it out and see what they report). When you put this much love* and effort into something, trippy stuff happens.

* - I should note that I don't actually give a rat's ass about bathrooms (which explains my utter lack of natural skills). I'm just trying to whip the house into shape so I can sell! So it’s not love, per se, but, with apologies to Arthur C. Clarke, any sufficiently advanced level of caring is indistinguishable from love. And it took immense care for me to get this done. And when my care machine switches on...

The Kernel

In this posting I recounted a story from the Hindu vedas, which I'll paste in below. Most will read it and figure it's just Jim getting kooky/mystical and whatever. A few may understand that it speaks to the underpinnings of worldly experience; unconscious truths we distantly intuit but rarely touch upon:
Centuries ago, a teacher told his class to write the symbol for the number "one" in their tablets. They all duly scrawled a vertical line, save for one student, who sat with chalk poised, thinking deeply. "Just write it!" urged the teacher, but the student was frozen. Over time, the class had moved on to all the other numbers, but this one child remained lost in thought. Eventually, he was expelled for being too stupid to learn.

His family abandoned him, and he lived in the woods for thirty years, meditating and pondering. Finally, he returned to the schoool, naked and bearded, and, seeing his former teacher (now an old man) still in front of the classroom, he strode in, picked up a piece of chalk, and, with a godly sweep of his arm, full of confidence and grace, drew an enormous "1" on the front wall. After an awed moment, the entire school cracked in two along the mark he'd drawn.

I don't selfishly horde and hide my tricks. I desperately want you to surpass me (I mean with the stuff I’m actually good at) and make me look like a shmuck, and have been showing you how all along. It's counterintuitive, but isn't that inevitable? How far does conventionality get us?

1 comment:

George Reis said...

My quarantine 15 was a loss not a gain, in kilos not pounds, and all my health numbers improved and I reduces meds. After 49 years of up and down weight gain/loss, for the first time ever, I kept the weight off
How? With fewer interventions, not more. I did only one thing. I stopped eating dinner to go 16 hours a day without eating. And I often cheat, but not enough fo regain the weight. It's been 18 months now.
After a decade if avoiding carbs, pork, pizza, rice, butter, pasta, I now eat whatever I feel like for breakfast and lunch after which the kitchen is clised till the next day for breakfast. No patience for Keto, Park, or Whack-o. Just mindless fasting 16 hours a day and nothing else. Not even exercise. Worked like a charm and not that difficult. Take it from undisciplined, emotional griefbacon me. It's doable for anybody.DO LESS, and for godsajekes, buy nothing.

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