The Continuing Saga of This Old House

I have an old house. Those of you forty-five and over will find this disconcerting as your age is equal to or greater than that of my old house. It’s disconcerting for me because the house was still in its infancy when I was born. As I’m currently trying to whip it into shape to sell or rent it out, I’m discovering the downside. We didn’t buy a newer house because I was told they were popping them up so fast in the area and taking short-cuts that sometimes ended in tragedy–like burying construction debris in the backyard so that it formed a ticking time-bomb for a sinkhole to swallow up unsuspecting children at inopportune moments–as opposed to when you want them to be swallowed whole by the Earth.

Given that the life expectancy of a house–theoretically–is as long or longer than a person, what makes my house old? It’s the fact that half the time I have to get custom replacement parts because “they just don’t do it like that anymore.”

Our built-in wall oven is tiny by today’s standards. People buying houses in the late 60’s were often children of the Great Depression. They, therefore, didn’t know that a respectable house had to have an oven big enough to prepare Thanksgiving turkey and all the accouterments for the Second Infantry Division. This creates an intriguing problem. If I want an oven that will fit our cut-out, we have to pay $2,500 because they are only made by German companies with names like “Gruber & Kafarfignugen” for tiny apartments in Amsterdam or Munich–and thus have to be sailed over special order.  Or I can buy a new style wall oven for $800, but then I have to pay the other $1,700 to a carpenter to modify our cabinets.

They just brought two brand-spanking new exterior doors to my house yesterday that I had bought the day before. Then they took them away because: a.) they were the wrong size (somewhere along the line someone decided that  four of the inches of width were extraneous, but we needed one extra inch of height.) I understand the height thing, Americans have been getting taller in the post-War period. However, Americans have also been getting fatter; so why are the doors getting narrower?) b.) they have no idea how to install the door frames because the construction methods were different 45 years ago, and they only know how to replace doors on new homes. QUESTION: “Why are people replacing doors on new houses so much more than on old houses that the company doesn’t even think to consider one might have an older house?”

It’s true, in some cases the old ways were crazy. We have two fluorescent light fixtures in the kitchen, one was original and one is newer. The old one was designed to never be taken down by an amateur–I think the electrician’s union was in cahoots with the lighting manufacturer’s union, because the design was truly crazy and not the least bit customer friendly. The new one could safely be put up and taken down by a bright five-year old. However, the downside of this all this user-friendliness is that the “professionals” often don’t seem to know more than we do about any situation that is the least bit out of the ordinary because they are used to using the same customer-friendly products.

One thing has gone smoothly so far, and that’s the electrical bit. At least my house was born of the circuit-breaker era. I’ll try to end on that up-beat note. I could use it.

TODAY’S RANT: DIY Home Improvement Videos, or Vishnu Wallpapering

So, I’ve been doing a lot of home improvement lately. My life, largely divided between having my nose to either a laptop or a book, has prepared me to  find out how to do any task in record time–in theory. Give me a few minutes and I can find out how to–in theory–install a cardiac shunt. That’s from a starting point of not knowing what a “cardiac shunt” is or even if it’s a real thing. The problem is that this background has in no way prepared me to interact with the physical universe. (So while I can find out everything one needs to know about cardiac shunts in a short period of time, and even probably understand [or look up] all of the arcane language in the scientific journals, I wouldn’t offer me $100 to install your cardiac shunt if I were you.)

I ramble. So I know how to optimize my search terms to find out how to do exactly what I need to do. Then I watch the video and I’m filled with great confidence, having seen exactly how easy it is. And then I wallpaper myself to the wall. The whole time the experts in the video are doing the task, they are filling my head with false confidence. “See how easy that was?… People think this requires an expert, but…”

It occurs to me that this might just be a strategy by such experts. My training as an economist invariably leads me to ask one question–from an economist’s perspective it’s the root question about any human behavior.  That question is, “What’s the incentive?” What is the incentive for a professional wallpaper hanger to make a do-it-yourself video? We don’t see travel agents (if such mythical creatures still exist) doing videos on how to use Orbitz, Kayak, or Travelocity. My training as a human has led me to be skeptical of munificence in all its forms. I think the strategy is to build false expectations. If one went into a home improvement chore knowing that it was going to be a hellish nightmare, one would have the right state of mind to get through it. However, if one thinks it’s going to be easy-peasy, then one ends up ripping one’s hair out and creating holes in the wall for an expert to–lucratively–repair.

That’s just one theory.  I have others. Now, I know that you are familiar with the common adage, “It’s a poor workman who blames aliens or Hindu deities.” Still, I can’t help but feeling that the wallpaper hanging experts in the YouTube videos had extra appendages that I couldn’t see due to some sort of psychic block or CGI erasure (i.e. like when they take the wires out of kung fu movies.) It’s my contention that one would have to have extra arms, like Vishnu, to keep the paper that straight and perfect as it’s applied. At one point I thought I’d made a breakthrough in string theory when I saw my wallpaper curl into more than three dimensions simultaneously, but it may have just been rage-induced brain hypoxia.

So why would multi-armed aliens, or Vishnu, make home improvement videos? How should I know. I can speculate that Vishnu might enjoy practicing Shakti, which–as I understand it–is the ability to make the impossible possible, the impossible in this scenario being effortless wallpaper hanging. The aliens might just be testing whether our species has the fine motor skills to challenge them in their impending takeover.