(For those of you just here for the baseball, it begins somewhere Word 1782. I’ll meet you there.)
Like many people who consider going all the way over there to plug in my phone as the apex of manual physical labor, I enjoy sitting on my butt watching others be useful. The most sublime form of this is home improvement shows, which always begin with people waving their arms accusingly at kitchens which commit such sins as having non-granite countertops. Then, 59 minutes later, the electricity in the entire house has been rewired, all the appliances replaced, carpeting transformed to hardwood, and woodland animals airlifted in to cavort in the re-sodded yard.
Also all the walls have been removed. The first thing anyone does on these shows is find walls to knock down, whether they look kind of important or not. This form of floor plan is referred to as “open concept,” and it is every introvert’s horror. Open concept means that the many rooms of a house give way to one big giant room, also known as “a warehouse.” It creates a flow of living such that people standing in what used to be the kitchen can stare and natter at people all the way over in what used to be the master bath, and it is very, very desirable to everyone but those of us who pay many thousands of dollars to live behind any available locking door for the sole purpose of avoiding the presence of everybody else.
Since walls are the enemy, where there is a rare one, it must be treated as a visiting head of state come to negotiate surrender after a long and bloody war. This is where the backsplash comes in. HGTV exists solely to educate the general populace on backsplashes, and it regards its mission with the utmost seriousness. If you, like me, were living in a cableless hole until recently, a backsplash is an utterly useless wall of tile in the general vicinity of the kitchen. The function of any home is to provide a zone of existence for the backsplash. For the presence of a backsplash in all homes is enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and if you don’t have one, your civil rights have vanished and YOU PROBABLY DON’T EVEN KNOW IT YOU SHEEP.
In twenty years, of course, the nation will have presumably come to its senses regarding open concept, much the way we all woke up one day somewhere around 1992 and went, “Shoulder pads… why?” And, perhaps, we may overthrow our backsplash overloads, and what’s going to happen is HGTV is going to air 24-hour programming of potential homeowners wandering through once-freshly renovated houses going, “What’s with this weird tile over the sink, and why aren’t there any walls?”
My favorite form of backsplash education is HGTV’s Property Brothers, because if I am going to dedicate precious moments of life to draping on a couch eating cream cheese icing with a spoon, I am going to do it watching two dudes carrying around sledgehammers and saying things like “Buyers are looking for what’s on trend and want to envision themselves in the space.” The Property Brothers were imported to the US from Canada in exchange for William Shatner in retirement and an Olympic ice dance team to be named later. I say we won the trade.
I tune in to Property Brothers with special interest because they are identical twins, as is my husband, Josh The Pilot, and if Josh The Pilot ran a contracting business with his twin, one of them would find himself run through the table saw before lunch. So in case this goes down between the Property Brothers, I want to know the exact point at which the price of life in prison is worth never again hearing “You’re doing it wrong” from a former uterine roommate.
The way this show works is, with the aid of one Property Brother, Drew, a couple buys a sad house which is in danger of collapsing into a sulfurous pit of lava due to lack of backspash, and then the other Property Brother, Jonathan, rolls up with his sledgehammer and rids the house of its demon walls. At this point he usually finds some sort of DIY horror such as electrical wiring held together with wasp spit and Pop Tart wrappers, a previous owner’s transgression which he deems anywhere from “very illegal” to “totally illegal,” and that fixing it will cost the GDP of Belgium. This is my cue to put down my icing spoon and find Josh The Pilot to inform him that we will be renters for the rest of our lives.
Then the owners go away to be mostly unlikable, such as the father of two teenage girls in one recent episode who stated he wanted a space for his daughters to hang out. The Property Brother without the sledgehammer showed him a house with a bedroom which would have served the purpose quite well, but the father deemed this unacceptable, because his daughters, he said, would disdain a hangout space which was simply a converted bedroom. The Property Brothers then gently informed him that perhaps his daughters ought to lower their expectations, and that they would be leaving soon for college anyway, off to a home of their own to make some man miserable for the rest of his life.
In this sense the Property Brothers have improved my life by expanding my It Could Always Be More Terrible awareness; is there any worse job on the planet than contracting? It involves 1) physical labor 2) when it’s cold AND when it’s hot 3) with other people 4) whose daily work output depends on the competency and efficiency of other people 5) all in service of yet more people 6) who want to know why you’re not finished yet.
Home improvement moments such as this are when I re-grasp my icing spoon feeling very good about myself indeed, because you know what my parents gave me as a hangout space? A craft table and a folding chair on top of an orange tasseled rug in the unfinished basement, where I spent hours next to the boxed Christmas tree, inhaling what was probably lead-based asbestos. And I loved it.
At the end of every episode, the Property Brothers welcome the homeowners to their renovated houses, which are now spectacular wall-free palaces featuring furry throw pillows lurking about the backsplash like vaguely threatening small animals. The homeowners cry and agree that all the hard work of standing around carping at the brothers as they undergo real estate paperwork nightmares and cyanide-coated toilet excavations on their behalves was well worth it. Then, because they are not stupid, the Property Brothers go away.
Home improvement shows in general are interesting to me because Josh the Pilot and I have undergone, by my count, approximately eight hundred thousand moves in the course of our marriage, and I’m not even counting the time we rode a train to the summit of Pikes Peak and I announced that I now lived there because the bikes we were supposed to ride back down had brakes that worked, as a bonus excitement feature, only on level ground.
But the most difficult time we had finding a non-terrifying place to live was right here where I grew up. Since those of us who grew up in Cincinnati are required by law to live out our days in a fifty-foot radius of where they were born, decent turnkey housing is difficult to come by.
My time in Florida and Alabama have rendered Ohio winters an unbearable horror of frost-encrusted, unending night, so when we arrived in Cincinnati, we tried to find a property with as much natural light as possible. The problem is, the only places we can afford with such a luxury tend to be in neighborhoods where “light” is understood as “what you use to fire up the nearest available illegal substance.” We toured many apartments and homes with large windows, which were delightful, because they offered an excellent view of all the murdering and vandalism. Many of these houses belied the Cincinnatian stereotype of smothering dowdiness and offered, often right in the center of the basement, a toilet with absolutely nothing else around it to suggest a human understanding of what a toilet is actually used for. We pioneered open concept right here in the Midwest, and we did it without a single Property Brother.
Much as I enjoy watching the disintegration of Western Civilization from my forsaken backsplashless kitchen, what I wish we could do is afford even a tumbledown, wall-infested house and also hiring the complete set of Property Brothers to rush in and save me from all the plastic linoleum. I’m not averse to renovation, because my parents conducted one when I was in grade school; they put a dormer on the back of our little Cape Cod and added a family room. It took months and months and my sister and I alternated sleeping on the living room couch and our stacked twin mattresses towering above it. We also learned, against our wills, a great deal about insulation. I remember a lot of drywall, my mother bursting into tears when she discovered an entire floor of baseboards stained approximately four billion shades too dark, and the workers training me to hand out beer at the end of the day. (This is, I should point out, the only useful, resume-enhancing skill I have ever acquired.)
From my parents’ perspective, this was probably hell on a backhoe. The yard was rubble. Large sweaty strangers banged about the house while my sister and I attempted homework. Piles of bricks coated with decorative toppings of plastic sheeting sat around for weeks on end. One worker was wearing the same pink shorts every single time we saw him.
I thought it a grand adventure. And when it was done? Our house was beautiful. I thought it was beautiful when our tiny bedrooms consisted entirely of green paneling because that’s where we waited for Santa and cranked our Fischer-Price record player and watched for the neighbor’s dog to get into the above ground swimming pool. But now anyone would walk beneath the family room skylights to where the deck overlooked the impatients planted around the ash tree and think
it was beautiful, too (although, due to tragic lack of backsplash, the home is now unlivable.)
My mother, in the moment of weeping over the baseboards, probably had little thought of the flower beds to come. She saw the errors and the harvest gold refrigerator that appeared on Earth at approximately the same time she did. But she also got on the horn to the contractor, swaying with the balance of patience and vigilance. I don’t remember what happened with the baseboards. I do know, however, that there were no stain-related disasters after that.
I now invite you to look upon our beloved Redlegs, scattered before you in series losses and entire months mired in last place. We are in a season of construction. The tiles are cracked, there are holes in the wall, and the carpet has been peed upon by many cats. How we reconstruct from here is a matter of forbearance and diligence. Which walls do we knock down? Which backsplash (THERE MUST BE A BACKSPLASH) will best serve us? Should we focus on a quick resale or a forever home?
Rebuilding anything requires character. And also, sometimes, a sledgehammer. What’s important is how you use it, and how much happy crying there is at the end.
The site of the mess will, someday, be beautiful.
Proud aunt Mary Beth Ellis is a freelance writer and college teacher who lives in Cincinnati, OH. Her home site, BlondeChampagne.com, has existed in at least some form since 2003, and Mary Beth has been a regular columnist with one publication or another from the age of 16. Her first book, Drink to the Lasses, was published in 2006. She currently teaches college, runs personal wine tastings, gives literary readings, and stares into the middle distance.