Paint-the-House Fail: my first botched Big Day

A coroner’s report would likely chalk up the spectacular collapse of Big Day #6 to overreach and underplanning – a deadly combo.

The goal was to paint the house. Inside, not out. And just the main floor, if time got tight. How hard could it be?

Originally I’d sold this as a summer family event – a team-building painting bee! – but because I took too long to get it organized, the “family” part fell away and the project devolved into something I promised to take on solo. As the leaves began falling and I still hadn’t written a date on the calendar, Jen begin leaving lists of painting supplies on the fridge, gentle reminders that she really didn’t want this thing hanging over us till Christmas. We agreed on a hard deadline of Thanksgiving.

Now, “Paint the House” is a great Big Day in theory, since painting is one of those jobs that – because you create a hellacious mess that you don’t want to have to have to walk away from and then return to — is well-suited for a cradle-to-grave effort. It doesn’t seem as if it should be too time-consuming. These days premium paint is so good you often get by with single coat, and if you apply it correctly (by making big Ws with the roller and filling in the gaps, according to a YouTube video I watched), it dries to a snazzy uniformity; gone the coloring-book brush strokes of old. Professional painters charge a king’s ransom for this? What a scam!

I soon learned better. Painters are expensive partly because painting isn’t just about painting.

The lion’s share is actually prep. You’ve got your sanding, your spackling, your swabbing the walls with a trisodium phosphate solution so the paint will stick. Removing the fixtures around wall outlets and light switches (the pros mostly skip this step, I believe). And the taping. My god, the taping. I ended up using enough of that green frog tape to mummify a big man.

Pretty quickly the morning was gone. Then half the afternoon. I realized I didn’t have the right shade for the kitchen, or enough paint for the bathroom, and so scooted down to Benjamin Moore. Got the ladder out, the dropsheets down, the paint poured: showtime.

Jen arrived home. She looked around. Sniffed the air. The kids came in from the car. I resumed my merry painting — for about a minute. “You’re not painting with people in the house,” she said.

“But …”

“The fumes, right?”

No, you don’t understand, I explained. I’d gone and got this expensive Zero VOC paint. “There’s no offgassing. It’s totally safe. You can practically eat this stuff for dinner!”

“Well serve it for dinner, then,” she said, “because you’re not putting it on the walls while our children are in the house.”

A Big Day is technically 24 hours long; so I was still not even halfway into it. I decided to push pause on the painting till after the girls were asleep, and Jen was home from her decluttering workshop and safely snugged into bed upstairs. If I blasted through the night, I reckoned I could git ‘er done.

I explained my plan. Which part of “You’re not painting with people in the house” did I not understand? “Look, this was supposed to be a summer project,” she said, “when you can throw open every window.”

The truth began to sink in. This was not going to happen. It was not going to happen because, for the first time, I had failed to really commit to a Big Day, to make the arrangements and clear the decks and think hard about the scope of what was involved. House painting is, for me, I now know, an “eat the frog” job. In other words, it’s something that has to be done, will feel great to have done, but that I don’t particularly want to do. I’ve also learned that there’s something worse than eating a frog. It’s eating half a frog – with the other half on tomorrow’s menu.

In the morning the girls left to run errands, and I snapped into action, furiously painting the kitchen, splashing paint beyond the taped lines and onto a nice pair of shorts. In a crazed effort to have this job done as promised by Thanksgiving, so that we could enjoy this family day together in the bright light of a freshly painted sanctuary, here I was actually painting on Thanksgiving Day. It was soon dinnertime; we’d been invited out. The girls went on ahead. I promised I’d be there lickity split. I resumed brushing the trim. My hand soon started to cramp. What does failure look like? Sometimes it looks like arriving an hour late for Thanksgiving dinner resembling a member of the traveling cast of the Blue Man Group.

“Well, look on the bright side,” Jen said, later. “The money we saved on painters we can spend on marriage counseling.”

Not long ago Will Ferrell hatched a plan to earn one million dollars for charity in a single day by playing ten positions for ten major-league baseball teams. The result was the documentary film Ferrell Takes the Field, a tour-de-force of deadpan shenanigans. As I watched it on an airplane recently, what struck me about this extravagant Big Day is just how much advance planning must have gone into it: the chain of vehicles on standby to get him from ballpark to ballpark, the briefing of the managers on what to say, the security details. Even the Civil-War-style beard made of nacho chips that Ferrell wears in the dugout: someone made that. That he pulled it off owed as much to the thinking that went on in the War Room beforehand as it does to the energy Ferrell himself, an almost-fifty-year-old man, brought to the enterprise on the day itself. The more ambitious the Big Day, the more work has to be done pre-game — simple as that.

There’s a scene in the film where Ferrell, in the pre-dawn, goes into his kids’ bedrooms and kisses the groggy moppets goodbye in their beds, explaining that he’s about to go try and break “a fifty-year-old marketing record.” And then he’s gone, off to slay the dragon, not on his steed but in the waiting Town Car. It reminded me that a Big Day is another country. You clock out of your regular life to do it. You can’t just fold it into one of your regular days.

Teachable moment: check.

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