The Joys of Building a Bookshelf: A Lesson in Spin

In my last blog I promised to return to my blogging bread and butter. That is to say, shining a spotlight on some mundane aspect of my ho-hum life, and maaaybe relating it to work, if, ya know, I feel like it and stuff. It’s my niche. It’s my brand. It’s what I do best. And I can think of no better place to pick back up than here. A bookshelf.

I made that. Well, my brother and I made that, and we had some help, which I’ll get to later. But for now, let’s all just bask in the glory of this impressive DIY project. See that water valve? That TURNS ON the lights! LIGHT. From a water valve! How cool is that?!

I could leave it here. And part of me really wants to. If I did, watercooler talk today throughout Lansing and across the state (Have I mentioned how exceptionally vain I am?) would almost certainly go something like this:

“Wow… I mean, I knew Joe was funny, but I had no idea he was so handy too. Seriously. What can’t he do??”

“I know! It’s crazy. Imagine how great it must be for his mother. She gets to talk about how amazing her child is and it’s ACTUALLY true. ”

That seems like a pretty good place to leave it. But I can’t do that to you guys. The unmitigated truth is this bookshelf dominated/ruined two whole months of my life, and in the homestretch it nearly did irrevocable damage to the soul and spirit of its makers. My brother is possibly the most unflappable, easygoing guy on the planet, and he flipped out multiple times over the course of this project. Seriously, that just doesn’t happen. His lifetime meltdown count honestly may have doubled over the course of a few short weeks.  And his childhood was spent dealing with me – a half-of-fame-level jerk older brother - so it’s not like he hasn’t been through the wringer.

Look at it again. A lot less impressive now, right?  

Needless to say, there were definitely lessons learned here, and I’m going to give you some of those brutal truths here in a minute. But before I do, I think I’ll exercise my PR muscles and first treat you to a heavily-spun version of my takeaways from this experience.

1.       Don’t be afraid to try new things. It’s the only way to learn and grow as a person.

My brother and I take a lot pride in homeownership and all the responsibility that comes with it. We genuinely like the work. When something breaks, we fix it. And when something needs attention, it becomes a priority. Weekends spent cleaning the garage and staining the porch are weekends I enjoy.

But for the most part, all the chores we take on are things we know we can do. Anyone can use a paint brush and a broom.

This project was completely different though. Almost every aspect of it (and we could probably break it down into at least two dozen components) was uncharted territory for us. The design, prep work, and actual installation – it was all one giant challenge. But ultimately, my brother and I persevered and came out on the other side with a really cool bookshelf and a lot of useful knowhow. Overcoming the struggle is what makes the work gratifying. 


2.       Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you get stuck.

There were exactly two things that actually went according to plan over the course of this project. My brother dominated the assembly of that valve/switch. And I placed and drilled the holes in the shelves through which the pipes feed with machinelike precision.

Everything else was a disaster.

Some setbacks were minor and some cost us days of wasted work. But I’m happy to say that we successfully navigated all these hurdles on our own.

All but one.

The electrical component was the stuff of nightmares. Literally. My brother actually had dreams about it.

Conceptually, it was easy. Anyone can wire an outlet. There’s really not much to it. But the act of feeding the wire through the pipes and making several safe and sound connections along the way that could then be stuffed back into the pipe proved to be beyond our ability. Bobby and I built this thing up and took it back down at least half a dozen times because the connections broke somewhere along the way.  And each of those failures was followed by an intense brainstorming session to devise a way to make it work the next time.

Six brainstorming sessions. Zero success.

Finally, we just gave up and called a friend capable of bailing us out. He came over one afternoon and did the whole thing in just a few hours. Looked like a breeze.

It was embarrassing, and I really wish we could have succeeded on our own, but asking for help was easily the best decision we made on this project. I just wish we had done it sooner.

3.       Strive for perfection but know you’ll have to settle for less.

It took me awhile to come to grips with this one but I eventually came around. This bookshelf isn’t perfect. In fact, the final product is riddled with flaws. The shelves are a little warped (we cheaped out on the wood), the paint job could be better, and the whole thing is probably slightly askew. And it’s not like these things were overlooked. In fact, we spent a lot of time and effort trying to correct or at least hide these defects, yet they persist.  

It’s impossible to do anything perfectly. At some point you just need to be satisfied with your best. That’s the lesson here. And you know what, at the end of the day, I have to say this bookshelf looks pretty damn good. Less than perfect is just fine.

Okay. Enough of that sappy garbage. Not to say there isn’t some genuine honesty sprinkled in the points above, but the raw truths listed below probably better capture my thoughts following this experience.   

1.       Trying new things is for suckers. Don’t be a chump. Stick to what you know.

You want to know why I’m not an engineer or doctor or a musician. Because I’m not good at any of those things. If I had the prerequisite talents or aptitudes to be a successful in any of those areas I would have gravitated towards one of those careers much earlier in life. I didn’t. And it’s for one simple reason: I suck at a lot of stuff.

And throw general contractor into the mix. I’m not one of those either, and for good reason.

Life just naturally funnels us to where our natural abilities can best shine. For some that’s performing neurosurgery. For others, it’s flipping burgers. Me? I get to be a wordsmith, which isn’t bad at all, especially when you consider I’m actually being paid to write this cathartic rant. Seriously. I’m on the clock right now. For this. Good luck finding a heart surgeon that has a sweet deal like that?

2.       Pay for help before you get stuck. In fact, just pay someone to do the whole thing.

Don’t be a moron. That new thing you’ve never done but you’re going to try anyway. You can’t do it (see above). So just pay someone that can. Who knows, you may even save money. I have no idea what it would cost to pay a contractor to do this project, but I do know it felt like I spent a minimum of $15 dollars a day at Home Depot for 60 straight days, and my brother was even looser with his wallet. (Bobby and I could figure out what this cost, but we both adamantly refuse to look at our recent credit card statements. The total figure would be both sickening and embarrassing.)

Had we just paid someone at the start there’s a good chance I may have enjoyed parts of the spring of 2017. Instead it will be forever marred. An entire season. Ruined. And I’ll probably be forever reminded given that I now suffer from screwdriver-induced PTSD. Awesome.    

3.       Plan. Don’t plan. Whatever. Either way, you’re going to screw up, or your plan will be wrong in the first place, so who cares?

I was going to take a picture of all the stuff we bought for this project that we either didn’t use or didn’t need, but that didn’t happen. I decided it would have taken too much effort to round up that mountain of crap. I could probably run a moderately successful mom-and-pop hardware store out of my basement at this point.

Four trips to Home Depot and one to Menards for good measure became the norm for Saturdays. You want to know the hilarious part? Extras/contingency items were almost always purchased on that initial trip of the day in hopes that we could avoid coming back later in the afternoon. And we had a damn plan! The whole time! Mapped out! On paper!

You know what wasn’t included in the plan? The fact that behind the dry wall, there’s a whole other plaster wall (it’s even painted!). Or the fact that my wall has a giant dent in. And it wasn’t put it there anger. It just slopes in several inches in one particular spot. You really can’t notice unless you’re looking for it. It took us HOURS to figure out that was why our pipe mounts weren’t fitting neatly on the wall.

When you take on a home improvement project you just have to be okay with the fact that it’s going to suck the entire way. None of it will go the way you envisioned. There’s just no way around it.

So, with all that being said, if any of my loyal readers want a custom-made, less-than-perfect bookshelf, that’s finished late and comes in over budget, my going rate is $5,000. You know how to reach me.