Den of felicity

There’s nothing like a plumbing disaster to motivate a little remodeling


A. Kam Napier
Sometimes, you hear really optimistic people say things like, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade," or, "There are no problems, only opportunities." Usually, such people are full of it. Lemons are sour and problems are, by definition, problematic. But then again, sometimes the optimists have a point. Otherwise, there's no way I can explain the glee I felt over a recent plumbing disaster. A single, slow mystery leak, a homeowner's problem if ever there was one, gave me the excuse I needed to do something I'd always wanted to do.

For a decade, I've wanted to remodel my den at home. Part retreat, part library, part home office and part stereo listening studio, this room is my Fortress of Solitude. But it seemed only a superman would ever get any remodeling done there. All I ever had time for was slowly stripping layers of ugly paint off the nice mahogany door frames.

Then, it happened-water began seeping out from the double wall between my den and my bathroom, leeching into my carpet and up into some bookcases. This occurred slowly, over weeks, if not months, unnoticed until my foot one day went splash! Dens, typically, do not splash.

Just to find the leak, the maintenance guys in my building had to tear apart the drywall. Its source was a mystery. Inside the drywall, everything seemed, well, dry. Turned out the water was overflow from the drain pipe for the washing machine in that bathroom, and only leaked when doing laundry.

Solving the leak, and throwing away all the waterlogged, mildewed shelving and carpeting, meant emptying my den. That's when I realized this problem, this lemon, was really a big opportunity. Now I could finally refinish those door frames, free to make a mess in the now empty room. What's more, I could at last redo the flooring, repaint the walls and, most ambitiously, build all my own bookcases. Like lemonade, the work would be fun and refreshing.

Illustration: Scott Thigpen

It was that, mostly. There's a limit to how much metaphorical lemonade anyone can drink. For example, the first half-hour of sanding 22 pine shelves is kinda fun. You run your fingers over the wood and say, "Ooooo! Smooth!" Ten hours later, when you're caked in sawdust, hands numb from the buzzing power sander, you say, "Oh, smooth enough already."

And who knew lemonade could be dangerous, if made without the proper safety precautions? For instance, we tend not to wear shoes indoors in the Islands. A perfectly pleasant trait, most times. But at one point, I had two power drills going, one with a bit for drilling pilot holes, another with a countersink. Whichever one I wasn't using, I'd put on the ground nearby. Once, I looked at a drill on the floor and thought, "If I'm not careful, I could step right on that."

Twenty minutes later, I wasn't careful. Kicked my bare toe right onto the jagged little tip of the 1/16th-of-an-inch drill bit. This was the sort of thing that had my wife peeking into the room, surveying the assortment of hand saws, chisels, power saws and scrapers at my disposal, and repeating two words of warning: "Tetanus shot."

I learned a lot, too, about such things as load distribution. I didn't want a plain boring bookcase with the traditional straight sides. No, I designed a stack of different-size, separate boxes I'd then attach together. This would be visually interesting, I thought.

It was that. Unfortunately, it wiggled like an 8-foot-tall accordion. A complete structural failure, some poorly made lemonade indeed. I didn't trust it to hold up its own weight, let alone 24 linear feet of books. Fortunately, the fix was easy. I just stuck little scraps of wood into the darn thing until it ended up with exactly what I wanted to avoid, traditional straight sides. Then it was rock solid.

Finally, I learned that if I can survive the nicks and cuts of a week's worth of sawing, chiseling, drilling and scraping without getting lockjaw, then I didn't really need a tetanus shot after all. See, I really am an optimist.

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Honolulu Magazine July 2020
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