Storytelling & Community: I’m Workin’ Here…

Yesterday my family painted two newly finished rooms in our basement (one a bedroom, the other my new office).

I have six kids ranging from ages two to fifteen, so trying to accomodate everyone’s desire to participate required some planning. Since the bedroom was intended for the 12-year old and 4-year old to share, they got first priority and got to pick their jobs. We needed to paint corners (my job), walls (open season), ceilings (Matt, the 12-year old called that), and baseboards.

Since the rest of the house is already finished and my garage is packed wall-to-wall with either empty boxes (the box graveyard) or assorted woodworking equipment (and three projects in various states of not-quite-done–a dresser, a workbench, and the barest start of a trebuchet), the only place to put the unpainted baseboards was in the room itself.

The logistics of trying to deal with eight people, six long baseboards, three rollers, two paint brushes, gallons of paint, and a roller tray in a single 14 x 14 room were something of a challenge. So we subdivided the task and assigned crews–simple, clean, organized. Start with the baseboards and let them dry to touch (about 30 minutes), then move them to the other room and do the walls and ceiling after.

The problem is that Ben (the four-year old) desperately wanted to help, and Griff (the two-year old) was equally desperate to see what was going on. The effect was that Griff spent most of his time putting his fingers in the paint and busily relocating all the painting supplies as Ben glopped jade green paint unevenly on one end of a baseboard while Diana (the oldest) and I tried to keep order. Eventually, Ben gave up and just started running around the circumference of the room with Griff, leaping over the baseboards as a game.

Of course they eventually crashed and wiped out the end of a newly painted baseboard, leading me to suggest in fairly stern tones that they needed to clear the room now–which immediately set Ben to crying because he wanted to help. I was unmoved and kept the banishment in place.

We finished the baseboards, let them dry, moved them to the other unfinished room, and started on the corners, walls, and ceilings. Griff remained banished, but we let Ben back in and he tried to use both the paintbrush and roller to work on one wall–with limited success. Still, he was helping and happy for about ten minutes before he got bored and wandered into the family room to watch Robin Hood (Disney animated version). Of course Griff broke in and went straight for the paint.

Still, we were making progress–me with a paintbrush on the corners of the ceiling/walls, Diana on the wall/wall corners, and Matt using a roller on a stick to start the ceilings. Will (the 14-year old) was playing bagpipes at a parade in Spanish Fork, and Alex (the 10-year old) was content to watch movies with the little ones, so it seemed like we should be able to settle into a good working rhythm.

Except that Matt couldn’t get leverage on the roller and was both leaving unpainted streaks and drippy overlaps on the ceilings–as well as kicking the roller tray about every thirty seconds (hard to see the tray at your feet when you’re looking up)–and Diana couldn’t actually reach up into the tops of the wall/wall corners, leaving about a foot unpainted. It looked a little patchy, but it was still workable, and everyone who wanted to work was involved (Ben came in about every ten minutes to see how he could help, then wandered off again a few minutes later).

After about two hours we had half the ceiling, all the corners, and nearly two walls done, and it became obvious there wasn’t enough paint to finish. I also noticed that I needed two more baseboards to finish the other room, and I had completely failed to get door trim. Right then we got a phone call from Will saying he was done with his parade and needed to be picked up. I was tired and a bit sore (it’s amazing how hard it is to stand on your toes and paint corners), so I welcomed the chance to break.

Of course part of Will’s parade is that he dressed in full Scottish kilt and sporran. I offered to take him home first, but he thought it would be okay to go to the Home Depot as he was. Not surprisingly, kilt-wearing teenagers was a bit of a mismatch at the home center, but it worked out with only one person actually asking if he was Scottish. We bought the paint, baseboards, door trim, and a quart of designer paint to use for the baseboards in my office, then headed out.

I bought my pickup about a week ago (well used, but new to me), so I haven’t quite learned the logistics of traveling on state highways with 12′ long wooden trim in the bed. when I bought the first set of baseboards everything went well, but in the mean time I had bought a new plastic bed liner, and was also carrying 14′ long door trim. I almost made it home, but the long hill leading up into Santaquin combined with the slick plastic bed liner to conspire against me.

We first realized it when a guy in a Harley pulled up next to us and started waving at the back of the pickup. I looked in the mirror and saw a length of door trim pivoting off the end of the tailgate. It was nicely balanced, so one end would tip down until it hit the street, then it would bounce back up  and lay flat for just a second before dipping down again. I slowed down and pulled to the side of the road and hoped I could save the load.

When I hit the rumble strip, the balancing board lept out of the bed and took one of the baseboards with it. I was still going fast enough that they caught the breeze and flew sideways into the left lane of traffic, one on top of the other. Five seconds later the first car hit them and shattered the door trim sitting on top. The baseboard underneath survived. I eventually secured the load, went back and picked up the baseboard; it was about ten minutes to find the next exit, turn around, and come back, so by the time I finally plucked it off the blacktop it had been run over dozens of times and featured thick black tire treads all over the factory-primed surface.

We went home, Will changed out of his kilt, and we finished the room. It was a bit of a zoo with four of us working in the one small room (now with door trim that needed to be painted and which we had to step over to finish the walls and ceiling), but we got it done. Time to move on to the next room.

So I brought the baseboards into the finished room, laid out the door trim, and got out my one-quart can of metallic designer paint. Turns out it was just paint base with no tint; something I hadn’t noticed until I was back in my basement ready to paint. My original intent had been a silvery look to trim to offset the blue paint I’d chosen for the walls (Star Command Blue, officially sanctioned by Disney and Pixar). I was tired and cranky and decided that plain white base with a hint of mettalic shimmer would be good enough, so I went ahead and painted a length of baseboard. Toward the end there was a little black smudge and I saw that the paint base wasn’t covering it at all–it just made the black smudge pleasantly shimmery.

Since I was also one length of door trim short of a success, I climbed back in the truck and headed back to the home center to get my tint and my trim. Other than feeling a little silly for not getting tint put in the paint in the first place, the trip went off without incident. Problem is that it’s a one-hour round trip (I live out on the edge of civilization), so I had now lost two full hours to supplies runs that did not meaningfully progress the actual painting.

I was now about four in the afternoon, the time was painted, and we were moving toward the other room. My wife was back, so it was me, my wife, and my daughter packed into a 10 x 10 room (Griff pounding on the door the whole time) with three rollers, two paint brushes, paint, and roller tray. Hot and close, but we got it done by about 8:30, just in time for friends to come over so we could go shoot fireworks for Pioneer Day here in Utah.

As I stood on the street watching fireworks sparkle into the night while three large families sat on our front lawn and watched, a couple of thoughts occurred to me. First, there had to be more efficient ways to paint basement rooms that didn’t involve so many trips to the home center, so many tears from the four-year old, and so many paint stains on the floor (and door, and head, and arms, and light fixtures). I had planned it all out in advance, but still ended up short on supplies; I had coordinated the children into work shifts, but still ended up doing most of the work with just me, my wife, and my daughter.

I thought about being unhappy at the project that had used up my entire Saturday, but I realized two things–the rooms were successfully painted, and everyone had fun. Not a model of efficiency, and more than a few mitigation plans to make up for both failures of planning and unexpected problems. But we got it done, and it looks good. Within a month we will be able to decompress the bedrooms and get it down to one or two per room while giving the two oldest their own bedrooms.

Sometimes the work doesn’t go as planned; in fact, it seems to me that the work rarely goes as planned. But if we have a clear goal, willing hands, and the fortitude to follow through we can get everything done we set out to do–and some stories to tell afterward.

My three oldest did the pioneer trek to Martin’s Cove last week and experienced both joy and hardship. Though it can’t compare to the challenges faced by our pioneer forbears, our little glimpses into cooperative journeys remains real, and powerful, and instructive. I can’t imagine the challenges of planning a crossing only to be caught off-guard with inadequate supplies and unexpected challenges of weather and the trail. There was pain, frustration, lost property, and needless death. But there was also a hope of success that came only because they worked together and shared both the costs and rewards.

So as I watched vivid sparks of fire leap into the night sky with my family and the families of my two closest friends, I couldn’t help but feel contentment at challenges overcome together. Not always pretty, and not without difficulty–but overcome nonetheless. Logistics, frustration, and false steps fade into stories to be told because together we worked it out, and that bond of community changes many frustrations into fun anecdotes. Could it have been done more efficiently? Almost certainly. But *we* did it, and we did it together. Both as pioneers crossing the plains, and as a family painting rooms in a basement.

And as a literary community. It’s easy to see the best work that others do and lament our lessor efforts, or false starts, or incomplete plans and to feel somehow weak or paltry or inadequate. But we can and will succeed, because despite the challenges we are unified in a few key hopes and a willingness to work together to do as a family what only a few of us could do alone. Maybe not as polished (at first), maybe not as flawless or efficient in the execution, but every bit as good in the end and with the benefit of being something that we did together, and that we can share satisfaction in as a community.

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One Response to Storytelling & Community: I’m Workin’ Here…

  1. Melinda W. says:

    What a good story! I remind myself of that when something with my preschooler takes four times as long as I think it should take. We’re working on something together; and that’s important.

    Your application to literary efforts is encouraging. I haven’t published anything yet, so I’m still in the beginning stages, but I still like to count myself as part of the community. Like Ben, wandering in to see how the work is going, then wandering back out without contributing anything tangible, but always feeling like I’m somehow included.

    (Sorry if this posted multiple times. It didn’t show up, so I clicked "save comment" a few extra times.)

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