One Bite at a Time

by admin | September 11, 2015 8:46 am

When not working at endeavors that help pay the bills, I burn daylight repainting our house’s exterior. The heat has abated to a manageable level, so I hope to finish before it gets too cold for paint to stick. This is a big project — a two-story dwelling with a couple balconies, several levels of eaves, and faded gutters. There’s a lot of surface area to cover. A commercial painting company likely would charge at least $10,000 to paint the exterior. I hope to get out for about $400 worth of paint. I’m using the same color, which makes one coat sufficient.

I have been painting houses, inside and out, since I was a teen-ager. My dad, a sign painter, put me to work coating out sheets of plywood for signs he was making in his studio. His workplace was an enclosed carport my grandfather flew down from New Hampshire to help enclose back in 1970. That was the last time I saw Grandpa Bourque. A massive heart attack killed him while shoveling snow off the roof two years later.

My dad enlisted me to paint our house on South Twelfth Street, more than once it seems, because my mom would get bored and demand a different color. In college, a friend and I started a modest painting business. I can still drive through Nacogdoches and point out the few houses whose exterior we painted. They have long ago been repainted, of course.

There is only one way to approach painting a house of our size without becoming overwhelmed. It’s the same way I approach long-form writing projects, using the old “How do you eat an elephant?” adage: One bite at a time. As I slog away on a biography that I have resumed researching and writing, it differs little in how I must mentally gear up to paint the house. If I allow myself to think about how much more needs to be done, what files must be perused, chapters written, libraries mined, it is easy to become discouraged. But one bite at a time and the task becomes manageable.

Writer Anne Lamott calls it “Bird by Bird.” Here’s her account. Her older brother had put off writing a report on birds for months. It was due the next day. “He was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

I love that story.

So on Labor Day I shortened the morning walk and started painting a bite-sized portion of the house, up on the roof before the asphalt shingles got too hot to walk upon. Music played, probably too loudly for the neighbors, and I was off in my own world, wearing my painting outfit: do-rag to keep sweat out of my eyes, paint-dropped T-shirt and shorts, and my lawn-mowing Crocs. My clothes are a timeline of past painting projects, multi-colored splatters from over the years covering the fabric.

My father taught me to hold a brush like a pencil to maintain control. I don’t worry about getting paint on myself, since it’s latex and washes off easily. But I am fastidious about not dripping paint where it doesn’t belong — on shingles, for example. Dad also instilled the moral imperative of properly cleaning the brush so it can be used repeatedly. Buy high-quality brushes and clean them thoroughly, he said. I have followed his dictum.

I like to paint. Most people don’t, but I find it both fulfilling and relaxing. I have solved many of the world’s problems while painting — and created a few more as well. It is satisfying to step back when done and visually feast upon a tangible accomplishment. It is also a blessing at this stage of life to ascend a ladder, crabwalk up a roof, spend hours painting and only be moderately sore the next day.

I quit painting on Labor Day just before lunchtime, climbed down, cleaned the brush and put everything up. Then, as all men do, I went back outside to admire my work. I walked around planning where next to attack, possibly this weekend. A cool front is coming. I might just make a day of it, knock out one of those balconies, with dozens of spindles on the railings. Slow going.

After a dip in the pool, it was back in front of the computer, transcribing correspondence between my biographical subject and a congressman. I have spent well more than 40 hours going through this material, for a single chapter.

Bird by bird.

One bite at a time.

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