Home Improvement Saved My Sanity During the Pandemic

I will start by admitting that our fixer-upper involved far more time, money, effort, and mess than we expected; and we’re not new to the home improvement scene. We started at the end of October 2020, and it doesn’t look like we’ll wrap up the first round before April of 2021. I know some homeowners have had worse experiences, but this reno dragged on and on. Of course it included all new windows, external doors including sliders, all new HVAC and ducting, opening up the kitchen, a complete reconfiguration of the utility room, a full kitchen update, a tankless water heater, a complete bathroom remodel, all new interior paint, and a host of other minor tweaks to the house.

In addition to the problems the house already had, we had contractor issues, got magically (and massively) overcharged on more than one job, still haven’t found a reasonable electrician, and the back yard is a desert oasis complete with weeds, a patio cover that needs to be torn down and rebuilt, and pool plumbing issues. Plus we need to patch various holes outside, and paint. There’s also the roof, but I can’t even. Nope. Not right now.

All that being said, I have come to realize that if it had not been for project managing the rehab and designing our new home, I would probably be eating chips on the couch watching endless reruns of mediocre television, with no idea what day of the week it is. Drool and hair shedding might also be involved. (okay, in honor of full transparency, there is a lot of drool and hair involved as it is, but the drool and 90% of the hair isn’t mine)

Despite our best efforts to achieve our pre-retirement relocation to Arizona in 2019, the Universe had other ideas. As a result, our pandemic experience was bifurcated by the move to Tucson, into a house that needed a lot of TLC.

For the past twelve months folks have been discussing the mechanics of COVID transmission, what kind of mask to wear, how to keep the grandparents in contact with the kids, what Antifa actually is, the best way to homeschool without losing your mind, how often to make a grocery store run, what was really going on with the BLM protests, climate change, how badly our Democracy was being compromised, whether a COVID vaccine would be safe (or at least safer than actual COVID), and other stress-laden topics.

It’s not that The Wife and I have not pondered those things. They just haven’t been the center of our attention. This is how home improvements helped us stay sane (ish).

The need to make our new house a home served to dilute the despair, fear, and hostility that permeated social media and the news. Like so many minimum wage front line workers forced to show up every day at jobs that put their lives, health, and loved ones at risk, we simply could not afford to focus on the dangers of the pandemic and the impact of local efforts to mitigate risk to the general community.

In a perverse way I envied those people with the time, resources, and motivation to get worked up about the curtailment of their “freedoms”. We drove by street booths with banners demanding we recall the Mayor because of her mask mandate, marveling at their energy in the face of so much evidence supporting this basic precaution. Perhaps this was their way of coping with the pandemic.

We had no energy to spare. Today, and tomorrow, and next week were the main focus. What did we need to accomplish today in order to have someone repair or replace something in a week, or a month? Endless risky trips to Home Depot, Lowes, tile supply stores, and more… forced us to leave the semi-safety of our home – safety we endlessly jeopardized by bringing in tradesmen who jauntily wore those useless nylon gaiters, or masks under their nose – if they wore one at all. We spent our days discussing fun things like drywall finishing, how to hang a closet door properly, king studs and beam spacing, the reason door trim exists, soffits, outlet placement, insulation, and art studio flooring solutions.

Despite the endless list of distractions, the pandemic lurked on the perimeter, creeping into my subconscious, surfacing in my dreams. With no job, and contractors who arrived later and later, I began sleeping in – avoiding the day and all its attendant hazards for a few more precious hours. I could feel my patience fray like unhemmed burlap on a windy day. My wife, stalwart as ever, provided love and a seemingly bottomless well of tolerance. She trudged through rounds of physical therapy for her knee and back, various diagnostic tests for stomach complaints, and prepared for the grueling work of a knee replacement. We talked about depression, the allure of denial, and why crankiness felt so much healthier than pretending the world was better than it actually was.

Both types of conversation helped us make it through each day. Too often we occupied ourselves by planning for dates when every tradesman was available all at once. What needed to be rearranged in the house to make room for them to work? What materials would they need? What tasks could we complete while no one was around? Where could we store materials that weren’t scheduled for use for weeks… months?

Then suddenly the house would be swarming with men, all breathing one another’s air and working in one another’s space. We ran the house fan and opened the windows and screen doors to the winter air. Worrying about other peoples’ health helped me stop worrying about my own. We invested in N95 masks of several kinds, and wore them religiously.

At the beginning of March, my wife got her first COVID vaccine from the VA. By the middle of March I was eligible to register with the County Health Department so that some day I might be contacted to schedule my first shot. With vaccines of reasonably high efficacy on the horizon, it felt like we could almost see the goal posts of this marathon. Ever so gently, my heart rediscovered hope for a future. I tried not to get ahead of myself. We still have months before vaccines are fully distributed and dinner at a restaurant, airline travel, or time spent with family will feel safe.

Meanwhile, We’re 9 days away from our kitchen counters, 10 days away from getting the appliances installed, and 13 days away from a new bathroom vanity and three sexy bedroom doors. Next Wednesday the old vanity will be removed, a shelf hung in the kitchen, and some outdoor blinds installed on the patio. These tiny milestones give me hope and that hope squeezes out the dark clouds of fear, frustration, and despair. Sometimes life sucks. That’s just a fact. All we can do is focus on the moment at hand, and on building something better.

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