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Level vs Flat: The Revenge – Continuing Adventures in Home Improvement [California Seething]

You’ve probably seen the commercial. A pretty young woman wakes up in her young person’s cheaply-decorated apartment bedroom. She smiles, stretches and leaps from the edge of the bed and in one effortless motion she pulls off an unsightly lighting fixture from the ceiling and reveals the stylish ceiling fan hidden underneath. She returns to the room, dressed as a bride, carried over the threshold by a handsome groom. She spins out of his arms, peeling off all the ugly old wallpaper and revealing the attractive yellow paint job underneath. In a graceful cascade of never-ending movement, they flash through their lives- dad lifts the young kids off a dingy, toy-strewn rug, mom pulls up the rug and, with the help of her now-teenage boys, rolls out a new carpet and serves them lemonade without missing a beat. Her gracefully aging husband comes down the stairs and joyfully dances as he pushes the kitchen wall back, opening up the space and revealing French doors.  The scene shifts and the much older couple are hosting a family gathering on the patio. The husband asks the wife to dance, evoking the courtship of their youth, and as they tenderly move around each other, their two grown sons dance around the perfect green lawn with wives and children of their own. The camera pulls back and the sun begins to set on a perfect American day as the Lowe’s logo appears on the screen along with the slogan “Never Stop Improving.”. Throughout it all, that song keeps playing- you know the one cause it sticks in your head like gum under a theatre seat (trust me, I’m an expert): “Don’t stop doing what you do”

It’s a great commercial, right? Brilliant and inspiring and a total crock of shit.

Seriously, the guy who made this commercial should fucking die. He should be beaten to death with his Clios or forced to eat them all, so that his stomach explodes and he dies really painfully and then gets eaten cock first by a gluttonous gangster and, by the way, if you haven’t seen The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover then do yourself a favor and DON’T. It’s soooo not worth seeing just to get that reference. Wikipedia if you must or just pretend I made a Hunger Games reference or something else current and that I’m not just some weird aging freakazoid who’s pop-culture reference points are still stuck in the 90’s (“Hunger Games”­ that’s a thing, right? I can’t keep up with all these new-fangled “books” you kids are reading today. Back in my day we didn’t bother with any of that “reading” nonsense. We just watched Ren and Stimpy on VHS in our dorm rooms and we liked it!)

Putting aside the back-breaking costs of home ownership and the Horrible Hamster Wheel of Debt that homeowners find themselves running on as they endlessly pursue happiness through home improvement (not to be confused, btw with the Horrible Hamster Wheel of Death, the futuristic game show which is a the center of my new children’s dystopia The Hamster Games  in which 24 adorably chubby critters are forced at gunpoint to run on a really big wheel until all but one of them die as the entire world’s fourth graders look on breathlessly. The Hamster Games is not to be confused with my other children’s dystopia 1984 in which a bunch of adults born in 1984 or earlier completely destroy the world through apathy, greed and neglect and as a result the children are all pretty much fucked from birth. Remember kids- your future is a coloring book and the only crayon is black!)

Putting aside even the superficial, materialistic and consumerist value systems which underlie this commercial’s message: that the secret to happiness is home improvement- the most shameful and destructive thing about this ad is that it makes renovation look like fun. That’s just evil and wrong. Like, Dick Cheney, George Bush, Yellowcake Uranium level evil and wrong (Why did they have to drag sweet delicious yellow cake into their filthy lies? That’s a war crime against Betty Crocker, man. I wonder if Dick Cheney regrets all the bad things he’s done now that he has Trayvon Martin’s heart? #conspiracy?).

The fact is, everything about this commercial is a lie. Renovation isn’t a dance- it’s a blood sport. It’s not effortless, fun or graceful- and it sure as hell ain’t romantic. The last marriage counselor to say “Hey, you know what you guys should do? You should build a deck together!” was sued for malpractice, posthumously. The only thing this commercial gets right is that home improvement can make you old fast- what they don’t tell you is that the entire commercial actually takes place over a three day weekend and that the grey, withered couple at the end are really just in their late 30s.

Here is the real truth about home improvement (SPOILER ALERT: Blech. Puke. Yuck. Gross. Icky. Poopy. Bad.):

It’s Stoopid Expensive

As a homeowner, one of the most important skills I had to master was making my Plumber Face. The secret to a good Plumber Face, as every home owner knows, is showing no emotion when the Plumber tells you how much some seemingly trivial job is actually going to cost, despite your overwhelming desire to laugh in his face, weep hysterically and run out of the room screaming leaving a home-owner-shaped hole in the wall (which you will then have to fix, and trust me, that’s gonna be really expensive. The Looney Toons gang practically bankrupted themselves fixing their drywall. No wonder Wil-E-Coyote resorted to cooking his shoes.) Here’s a demonstration of the Plumber Face in action:

Plumber: OK, let’s see- hooking up the dishwasher, garbage disposal and new faucet- plus reattaching the shower head- that comes out to, oh, just about $2300 for parts and labor. Plus tax.

What I’m thinking: HOLY FUCKING SHIT! ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MIND???  YOU HAVE GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING ME!!!! IS THIS SOME KIND OF JOKE???? IT’S A JOKE, ISN’T IT???  TELL ME THAT IT’S SOME KIND OF  FUCKING JOKE!!!! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! (weep, weep, weep) AAAARRRRRGGGHHHHHH!!!!!  (run out of room, leave hole in wall, call drywall guy for repair, freak out about drywall cost, repeat cycle.)

What my Plumber Face shows: $2300, you say? OK. Not Bad. Cheaper than I thought.

(Plumber Face actually comes in handy in many situations:)


Plumber Face: $10000, you say? OK. Not Bad. Cheaper than I thought.


Plumber Face: $10,000,000,000,000, you say? OK. Not Bad. Cheaper than I thought.

I mean, in most cases the Plumber Face won’t actually save you any money- but it will help you preserve a tiny shred of dignity while you’re getting ready to cook up your shoes and an empty can over a camp fire made from repeatedly revised estimates, credit card receipts and broken dreams (CAMPING TIP: Broken dreams make great kindling!). Of course, in some rare cases, your Plumber Face might actually save a few bucks:

What I’m Thinking: So… let me get this straight- you’ll paint and patch my entire house plus fix all the plaster in the ceiling for a total of $250? DUDE, ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MIND???? YOUR ENTIRE FAMILY IS GOING TO STARVE TO DEATH!!! YOU ARE THE WORST FUCKING BUSINESSMAN I HAVE EVER SEEN!!!!!  I SHOULD BE PAYING 5 TIMES THAT MUCH!!!!

What my Plumber Face shows: $250, you say? Yeah, that’s kind of pricey, don’t you think, pal?

So since everything always turns out to be more expensive than you expect- how can you possibly keep your renovation project on budget? Here’s what I recommend: First make a meticulous budget in Excel including the precise cost for every possible expense related to the project. Then, every time a certain aspect of the project ends up being more expensive than you thought, just go into the budget, revise that line item upwards and resave the Excel file. That way, when the project is done- no matter how expensive it turns out to be- you’ll finish exactly on budget! Who says I’ve learned nothing producing 99-seat theatre (also works for weddings.)

It’s Mad Complicated

Last week I went to see Waiting for Godot. For the first time, it became clear to me that this play is less about sustaining a spark of humanity when confronted with the endless bleak monotony of expectation that occupies so much of human existence than it is about the desperate struggle of the conscious mind to be remembered- to have one’s existence validated over a period of time. That this is not just a play about the idle games we play when confronted with existential paralysis, but a primal scream of the soul to be heard, to be acknowledged, to know that the actions of today will be remembered tomorrow and that we are not merely slaves to the passage of time and the tyranny of decay doomed to wander the earth forever blindly or to awaken each morning beaten and alone and with no recollection of the day we lived before- “Tell him you saw me” – yells Vladamir at the Boy “You’ll tell him you saw me, won’t you? Tell him you saw me!” But the boy just runs away. No promises made. No trace left behind. No proof of having existed at all.

Anyhow, after I got home, my tile guy took me aside and explained to me in somber tones that, while it would be possible for him to put in a kitchen floor that is flat over my warped and gnarled floor boards, there is no possible way on God’s green earth that he could possibly put in a floor that is truly level, due to the age and condition of the house itself. It was a speech I had heard once before, when the installers were putting in the hardwood floor in the rest of my house. Unlike Waiting for Godot, I had absolutely no clue what it meant either time I heard it. What the hell is the difference between “flat” and “level?” Aren’t they just fucking synonyms for each other? If only flooring were as simple and accessible as Samuel Beckett.

There is actually a second type of Plumber Face that comes in handy in these situations:

Tile Guy: So, you see if I put in this Crack-Isolation System and then float the tile over that with the thin set then I can get your floor to go in nice and “flat”-but, you understand that I’m not going to be able to get this floor to ever go in really “level”, cause of how old the house is the state of the foundation. You understand that, right?

Plumber Face: Of course I understand! How impertinent of you to even ask? A five year old child would understand the difference between “flat” and “level”!

What I’m Thinking: Pardon me, kind sir, but I have absolutely no idea what on earth you are talking about. Now, if you’ll excuse me AAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHH!!!!!!!!  (run out screaming – me shaped hole in wall – huge drywall bill-weep,weep,weep.)

Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m some kind of reverse-savant (or “idiot”)- able to understand everything in the world except for how my house works. I just wish sometimes I didn’t feel like the guys who are working on my house were speaking a completely different language all the time (I don’t mean Spanish. That’s fine by me. Though I do wish the tile guys would stop pointing at me and laughing. Does anyone know what “idiota loco” means- and can I get it with a crunchy shell made from real Doritos?)

It’s a Serious Pain in the Ass but I Feel Like an Asshole Complaining About it

Last year, when we re-did our hardwood floors, I wrote a blog-post comparing the process of renovation to the Yiddish folktale where the man goes to the rabbi to complain how small and crowded his house is and the rabbi tells him to move all the livestock into the house and then move them out again so he will appreciate how good he had it in the first place. Turns out the Rabbi was kind of kind of a dick.

I thought of this folktale recently while I was desperately trying to shove a 28” wide fridge through the 24” doorway from the kitchen in to the living room as the tile installers looked on impatiently, eager to start ripping out the linoleum on the kitchen floor.

There I was, screaming and swearing and sweating, wrestling with the 500 pound steel behemoth that holds my Activia and beer, twisting and turning and wrenching it, hoping against all odds to find that one and only miracle angle that would allow me to defy the laws of physics and geometry and push it out through the goddamn doorway like shoving a Brontosaurus through a midget’s vagina. I mean, I got it into the kitchen, didn’t I? I didn’t take the damn thing back 80 years in a DeLorean and put it on some vacant lot in Palms so they could build the fucking house around it. Anyhow, I’m tugging and pulling and yanking and shoving- and now the tile guys take pity on me so they’ve jumped in with power tools and they’re taking off the doors and taking off the hinges and trying to help me shove it through and finally we realize that there’s this one random piece of plastic that’s clipped on to the bottom and seems only to exist to make the fridge exactly 5 millimeters too wide to squeeze through the doorway from my kitchen to my living room, so we snap that piece off and shove the fridge though and scrape off all the paint that was left on the doorway and didn’t get scraped off when I shoved the thing into the kitchen in the first place and as we’re wrestling with this beast to get it into place in the living room, while trying to be as careful as possible not to ruin the hardwood floor, which of course, I just put in last year, and didn’t that experience just absolutely fucking blow? And so, just then, I think of this smug little Yiddish folktale about bringing the goats into the house and I just want to scream to the heavens “I GET IT! I GET IT! ALRIGHT ENOUGH ALREADY! I KNOW I’M THE LUCKIEST MOTHERFUCKING, GODDAMN PERSON ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH.

I have a house. I have a wife. I have a dog. I have a job. I’ve already won the goddamn geo-political Powerball by being lucky enough to even have a kitchen to renovate. I’M HAPPY GODDAMN IT!!! I’M THE HAPPIEST, LUCKIEST, RICHEST MOST BLESSED MOTHERFUCKING COCKSUCKER THAT EVER FUCKING LIVED ON THE FACE OF THIS BLASTED, COCKSUCKING MISERABLE EARTH ZIPPIDEE MOTHERFUCKING COCKSUCKING DOO-DAH I’M SO FUCKING HAPPY I COULD SCREAM AAAAARRRRRGGGHHH!!!! So, OK, now that I get it. Now that I’ve learned my lesson, now that I appreciate just how good I really have it and I’m totally, absolutely thrilled to death about that – WHY DOES EVERYTHING STILL HAVE TO BE SO MOTHERFUCKING GODDAMN HARD????????? Why can’t I just count my blessings, fix up my kitchen and effortlessly move on with my life like that hateful happy couple in the Lowe’s commercial without having a nervous breakdown and a hernia and an existential crisis? WHY??????”

But, of course, there is no answer to my question. When it comes to renovation, even god almighty doth tremble in silence. “I got you out of Egypt” he seems to say with his silence “good luck with the reno, bitch. Dayenu.”

Home renovation sucks because home renovation sucks and like all sucky things- like standardized tests and kidney stones and Lou Gehrig’s Disease and golf on tv,  it’s gonna suck just as bad whether you learn some kind of lesson or not. Wisdom and enlightenment won’t make the fridge any lighter or won’t get me out of having to wash all my dishes in the bathroom for two weeks because the guys making my countertop are too busy not making my countertop to finish my countertop so I can put in the sink and hook up the water and live like a human being again instead of a refugee squatting in a house with a half-finished kitchen (a pretty nice half-finished kitchen, though- check it out! (just ignore the cardboard countertop. Why won’t you guys finish making the countertop already? Why do you hate me so? Wait. Don’t answer that. Oh yeah, also ignore all the banged up walls where the backsplash is going to go. That needs to get done, too. OK- so it’s still a big mess and it’s nowhere near done but just lie to me and tell me it’s awesome so I don’t start to cry.)).

Of course, wisdom and enlightenment do come in handy when I want to feel bad about myself for complaining about a series of problems which I essentially brought on myself and which, I’m incredibly lucky to even have. Look, I realize that to someone in Haiti today, this blog reads: “Blah, blah, dumb rich American, blah, blah, big whiney brat, blah, blah, oh my god I really hate this guy, blah, blah, voodoo curse.”

Still, just because from a global standpoint all of my problems are actually champagne problems, doesn’t make them any less annoying to me. I mean, if you drink too much champagne you’re still going to throw up all over your date to the prom in the back of the limo before you even get a chance to grab a tit and you’re still going wake up single and a virgin and covered in vomit with a massive hangover and a serious cleaning bill from one pissed off limo driver – so, you see, champagne problems can be every bit as real as actual problems. I’m sure the Haitians would be sympathetic with that.  Ouch, my leg! Sharp stabbing pain in my leg! #wentthere  #whatahack

It’s Super Addictive

At this point, the perceptive reader (if there is anyone left- Hello out there? HELLLO…hello…hello) might be wondering why I would possibly choose to go through the renovation process again if doing the floors last year was such an ordeal. The thing is though, a home renovation project is like a tattoo- they both look super cool when you see them on paper, the process of getting them done is unbelievably painful, they take a long time to recover from- but then when they’re finally done, you forget about the agony and all you can think about is how totally awesome they look and you can’t wait to rush out and get another one and another one and another one- so that after a while, you’ve got new floors, a new kitchen, new bathroom, a butterfly on your ankle, two dolphins kissing on your lower back, a white tiger on your left buttock and the Chinese word for “Warrior” (or is it “Potato”? ) on your neck and all you want to do is get the entire Gospel According to John tattooed on your forearm, a huge, crucified bleeding Christ complete with disciples and Mary and bad Roman soldiers to cover your back, track lighting in the kitchen, French doors and a koi pond (a koi pond is a cry for help.) Plus, tattoos and home improvement both go against Jewish tradition. And, like renovations, tattoos never look the same when they’re done as they did on paper- mostly because my ass isn’t level, it’s flat (actually, it’s neither, it’s discolored and bumpy- but so are my floor boards and the new tile floor looks amazing- just like that picture of Che! I still can’t sit down, though…)

The Secret to Happiness Might Really Be Home Improvement. Damn it!

OK, look, I know that this may be a superficial, materialistic and consumerist position by goddammit, I love my new kitchen! And why not? Why shouldn’t I? I got rid of my dingy linoleum, encrusted with decades of filth and my rough-hewn, log-cabin style piece-of-shit cabinets- so slanted and uneven that I had to slam the door shut so the peanut butter wouldn’t slide out and bonk me on the head. And if being happy about making that change makes my some kind of Ugly American Capitalist Pig-Dog than all I’ve got to say is God Bless America, Woof, Woof, Oink! Hell, we work hard for our money, why shouldn’t we spend it to make our life better. I don’t see why anyone would want to make me feel guilty or bad about that. Ouch, my neck! Sharp stabbing pain in my neck! Alright, I’ll cut it out with the cornball borderline racist voodoo doll humor. #whatcanisayijustlovetheclassics

Of course, the real secret to achieving happiness through home-repair is:

For the Love of God, Don’t Do It Yourself

OK, yes, Mr. IT Professional Know-It-All Super-Genius, you’re probably smarter than some guy who lays tile. You’re probably more successful, better educated, a better problem solver and better informed. But you know what you’re not? You’re not better at LAYING TILE. And that’s what you fucking need. So, just swallow your asshole-geek I’m-a-database-administrator-who-the fuck-are-you-arrogant-pride, tuck your manhood in your shorts, whip out your checkbook instead and hire a professional to do the job right. You’ll be happier, you’ll be saner, your kitchen will get done faster and it will look a hell of a lot better. Because at the end of the day, nothing beats the sense of satisfaction you get from a job well done by somebody else.

Plus, it’s Passover- and the story of Passover is how the Jews were liberated from slavery and forced labor and building stuff. So, when you think about it the whole central narrative of the Jewish people is freedom from manual labor- and there’s no way in hell I’m going to betray that by hanging cabinets and laying tile. That’s why God gave us the Torah, the telephone and Angie’s List. And- hey, maybe by next Passover I can invite you all over. That is, if we have our countertop by then. Come on countertop guys! I’m not asking you to carve Michelangelo’s David out of engineered stone, it’s just a fucking L-shape with a rectangle cut out. Even I could do it, if it wasn’t for my Bris and ineptitude. You don’t even need to make it level- just make it flat so it matches everything else. I’ll never be able to tell the difference.

Now…what am I going to do about that skuzzy, old bathtub?

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