I believe that it all started with the toilet. I can’t say for sure as the process began well over a year ago, but the toilet hypothesis is the most logical. Let me give you some background information so you can make sense of this opening sentence.
My house was built in 1984, which makes it about 35 years old. Its style is what I would call standard suburban issue for its era. Two stories, four bedrooms, two and a half baths. I completely remodeled the upstairs bathrooms around 5 years ago, which incidentally is how I became best friends with Tom. He was the general contractor on the job.
My downstairs bathroom never got that love, although I did lamely attempt to update it around 10 years earlier. At that time, I was remodeling our kitchen and extended some of that work into the downstairs powder room. Its old dated oak sink cabinet was resurfaced with a cherry wood veneer, and a remnant piece of granite from the kitchen was added to the cabinet’s top. Due to the geometry of the granite piece, I had to use an odd round sink. The vanity never looked quite right, as the granite was too big for the tiny bathroom, and the sink was too small for the granite.
Above the cabinet was a cheap, oak-framed mirror that covered a tiny medicine cabinet. Above the medicine cabinet was an old fashioned wall light that projected from an oak base plate. In an attempt to unify the mirror and light with the cabinet, I sanded down their old finishes and applied a cherry wood stain. The result of my DIY staining job? When my sister Carol saw it, she tactfully suggested that a lot of people were replacing medicine cabinets with mirrors. Lastly, I had the room painted in a faux finish that was trendy at the time but now is hopelessly dated. I never was very pleased with my remodeling effort, but it was good enough, and I put up with it.
The old contractor grade toilet was far from perfect, although I replaced its innards. Over the last few years its ability to flush wholly deteriorated. This was evident when someone unfamiliar with the unit used it and didn’t wait for a second flush. The next person in line could be met with a little surprise waving at them in the loo. This loo wave became so common that replacing the toilet became a high priority.
As you know, I have difficulty asking people to help based on childhood issues. However, I have been working on this. In fact, I have a small handful of individuals who I’m pretty comfortable requesting aid and assistance. One of those individuals is my friend, Tom.
My hypothesis is that I didn’t ask Tom to remodel my entire powder room, that level of imposition on him would simply be too high. I believe that I asked him to help me replace the offending toilet. However, the project slowly expanded. The ugly sink cabinet had a large warp along its bottom side panel, and it was decided to replace that unit. Naturally, the dysfunctional medicine cabinet and old fashioned wall lamp were on the chopping block, then the beat-up door casing, and equally worn base molding, then the faux finished wall paint, and so on. Within two weeks, my simple toilet exchange had spun out-of-control.
I ordered the sink cabinet and the medicine chest a year ago, but they sat in my garage waiting for a sink. I wanted a basic porcelain top, as I thought it would look both lighter and cleaner in my very tiny powder room. Finding one proved challenging and required Tom’s personal connection at Kohler. The light and the faucet were ordered but had to be returned, and different ones had to be purchased. Other items, like a higher quality exhaust fan, were added at Tom’s suggestion. With a design plan and materials in place, the project began. This was when we faced real challenges.
For clarity, sake, I use the word “we” lightly, as the bulk of the efforts were Tom’s. I was the guy who helped move things, found the pencil, located the level, and did other menial tasks. With that said, I still learned a lot during the project. Of course, I learned a construction technique or two. However, the bathroom remodel also served as a metaphor for life, and it is those life lessons that I would like to share with you today.
Life lessons from a bathroom remodel
#1 Assuming is not knowing.
It is possible to go to a big box store and buy a complete vanity set that has both a cabinet and sink. In the past, I thought that these units looked OK, but my taste has been corrupted by my friend, Tom. He has shown me the glaring differences between cheaply made vanities and cabinets of higher quality. As I mentioned above, it took me a long time to locate the type of sink that I wanted. However, there was a glaring problem. The sink was several inches narrower and about an inch wider than the cabinet that I purchased. I had assumed that these kinds of items were of standard dimensions. We did come up with a work-around (more on that later), but my assumption cost me both time and money.
How many times do we make assumptions in life? Perhaps we assume something about a person based on peripheral facts. “He must be conceited because he has a lot of money.” “She must not be knowledgeable because she never finished school.” Most people will likely deny such biases, but they probably affect them despite their protests. Assumptions can shrink our personal world.
#2 The Internet does not make you an expert.
I like watching YouTube videos and TV shows on home repair as they are entertaining. Their simplistic explanations make it appear that every home project is a relaxed weekend away. My friend, Tom, is an expert when it comes to many home repair tasks. Time and time again, I observed how “simple” tasks required additional knowledge, tools, and effort.
I can remember instances as a doctor when a patient thought that they had more knowledge than me about a topic because they read something (often very biased) on the internet. I recall one middle-aged lady who I had been working with for over a year. I was surprised that she came to one appointment quite peeved.
“Doctor, I want to be on Paxil, and I’m upset with you that you don’t have me on it!” I was taken aback as she was doing quite well. Apparently, she had seen a few commercials about Paxil (an antidepressant) which prompted her to click on their website. She was convinced that my medical degree, board certifications, and experience were overshadowed by her 30 minutes of “research.”
I let her vent for a while, and then I asked her a few questions. “Do you remember that medicine that your first psychiatrist had you on?” I asked. “Yes, it was terrible,” she responded. “You couldn’t tolerate the side effects, and you didn’t find it to be very effective for your symptoms,” I said. “Yes, I have no idea why I was placed on such a horrible medicine, which is why I changed to you.” She said. “That medicine was Paxil,” I informed her. Silence was her response.
Becoming an expert in anything takes time and energy. There is a difference between knowing information and knowledge based on training and experience. This is not to say that we shouldn’t question the experts around us. However, it would be ludicrous to think that I know more about construction than Tom, or that 30 minutes on the internet would turn a consumer into an expert in psychopharmacology.
#3 Measure twice, cut once.
Despite concerted effort, there were times that we made mistakes in our bathroom remodel. Sometimes it was because we “remembered” a measurement instead of writing down the number. At other times we bought the wrong item, and then we had to retrofit or replace it.
In life, many problems can be avoided with just a little extra thought, and the examples for this are endless. A little planning almost always makes life easier. In life, think twice, act once.
#4 Many mistakes can be corrected, but always at some cost.
I mentioned that my vanity cabinet and sink were mismatched. This was a potential disaster as I couldn’t return the custom cabinet, and there aren’t a large variety of porcelain sinks available. Luckily, one of Tom’s subcontractors is an expert cabinet maker. He was able to trim the depth of the cabinet as well as its side panel. In addition, he cleverly used a piece of base shoe to optically widened the cabinet. Naturally, the fix cost me both time and money, but the problem was corrected.
We all make mistakes, but the fewer mistakes you make, the easier your life will be. At times avoiding mistakes is as simple as becoming a better planer. For instance, if you always forget items when you go to the grocery store, bring a grocery list. At other times it is essential to look deeper into a pattern of behavior. Do you find yourself “falling” for the wrong type of person? You may need to carefully examine your selection process, and you would likely benefit from the help of an expert. In this case, a psychotherapist.
I said that many mistakes can be corrected. However, some can’t. In those cases you have to live with your mistake. Here radical acceptance can help.
#5 Listen to what people have to say.
Tom has told me stories where individuals went against his advice and then regretted their decision. From my professional life, I have had many incidences where individuals took their treatment into their own hands (and against my medical advice) by stopping meds, radically increasing meds, or trying bizarre “alternative” treatments . Their outcome was typically poor.
It is OK to challenge experts. If we didn’t, we might still believe that the earth was flat. With that said, experts deserve our attention and respect.
#6 Seek experts when you need an expert, but become more expert when you can.
A bathroom is just a room. It is the decorating touches that change it from a utility space to something that we can call our own. Despite its diminutive size, I wanted to give my newly remodeled space a personality. I chose a blue-grey paint as I desired a more contemporary color (grey), but I also wanted some continuity with the rest of the downstairs, which is a shade of blue.
I also wanted to add some art to the room and decided that one larger piece was the way to go. I determined that a group of objects in such a small space would look cluttered. In my mind bathroom art should be interesting, but not engaging. The powder room is a space where people spend a short amount of time in an active process. It is not an art gallery.
The problem was that I could not find anything that matched my requirements. I had a similar problem with our upstairs hall bathroom and solved that problem by creating the art myself. I have never had training in art, and I have never studied the mechanics of art. However, I do seem to have a sense of balance and design. Also, I like to do creative things.
Creating a piece of art would only cost me my time and a little money for materials. If my project turned out badly, I was not obligated to use it. With all of this in mind, I made the piece that now hangs above the toilet. I like the way it turned out, and I learned a thing or two in the process.
Many of our behaviors tend to be repetitive, and we can see these patterns in everything that we do. In the above post, I tried to illustrate some of the lessons that I learned from a bathroom remodel. Lessons can be gleaned from just about any situation or interaction. Take some random event that you recently experienced and see what it tells you about yourself and the people around you.