The Zen of House Painting
by Jerry DeNuccio
Every summer I paint a section of the house, methodically working my way around, until, by the time I arrive at my original starting point, it is ready to be repainted. Now, you might ask, why not paint the entire house and just be done with it? Well, for one thing, that stealthy huckster age, who promises wisdom has, instead, steadily fleeced my stamina. Muscling around and placing a 24-foot extension ladder equipped with a stabilizer bar, in sometimes tight and awkward spaces, on sometimes uneven ground, during days when the heat index loiters above 100 degrees, pretty much dwindles what diminished strength I still possess.
For another thing, I am a serial multitasker: I do a variety of things during a day, devoting several hours to each. There is laundry to do and carpet to vacuum and grass to mow and books to read and essays to write, porch floor boards to replace, grandchildren’s ballgames and concerts to attend. As Ishmael says, “I try all things; I achieve what I can.” But the main thing that confines my painting to a section at a time is that, given the process I follow, the summer does not contain enough days for painting the entire house—unless, as in Joshua 10:13, “the sun stood still in the midst of heaven and hasted not to do down.” Of course, house painting is hardly a holy cause, and the heat, being unbearable, would surely haste me to the house’s air-conditioned interior. However, as I do not anticipate divine intervention, I follow my painting process, which is not just finicky; it is finicky spiking the ball in the end zone.
Having clamored up the ladder, I first inspect the siding for what the experts term “paint adhesion loss.” Has the paint alligatored, blistered, cracked, flaked, chalked, ghosted, peeled? Each type of problem indicates some inadequacy in surface preparation or primer/paint application. Once the problem is assessed, the scraping begins. I use three different types and sizes of scraper, all carbide edged, each designed for a particular type or area of adhesion loss. I am a ruthless scraper, dissatisfied with removing just the obvious flakes and peels. I want the near-flakes, the perhaps or maybe-could-become flakes, too. The mere possibility of a flake is spur enough to prick the sides of my scraping intent.
Then comes sanding. I use my DeWalt finishing sander, fitted with 80 grit sandpaper, to remove rust from the nail heads, to feather out the edges of the scraped sections and to abrade the remaining painted surface, which provides a purchase for the new coat. I pull popped or loose nails, replacing them with galvanized wood screws, and caulk any gouges or apertures in the clapboard overlap. The next day I wash away accumulated dust and grime, using a chemical-free dishwashing liquid and a telescoping device originally intended to scour bathtubs. I hook two buckets of water to each side of the stabilizer bar, one to rinse the scouring pad, the other to load it with detergent. When that’s completed, I hose it all down, wait a day for it to dry, and then prime the bare spots, employing a kind of Goldilocks procedure: not to thin, not to thick, just right.
A day later, I paint, careful not to miss a spot, concerned with an even application and flowing brush strokes. The following day, I ratchet down the ladder and begin again, following the same ritual until the section is completed, and I can step back, take it all in, and pronounce it good.
Now, you may believe this or not: I enjoy the painting process, enjoy the discipline of it, the unwavering constancy and steadfastness of it, the essence of it. Lao Tzu advises us to keep our “mind from its wandering/ and regain first oneness.” I’m not sure what “first oneness” is like, or how to regain that which I’m uncertain I ever had to lose. But I do know that as my painting process unfolds, I enter a space within a space, a space wedged deep in the dense now, where I am gathered and mustered for the work at hand–though I allow that at times my mind meanders a bit. Sometimes, gazing at the hairline fissures in the paint I imagine them some kind of hieroglyphic that, could I decipher it, would answer the big questions that plague us all: how to create a just society, does life have an overarching purpose, how does one make perfect al dente pasta. Mostly, though, I am undistracted, fully focused and unfalteringly attentive. “When,” John Berryman asks in “Song 384,” “will indifference come.” My answer, at least while engaged in my painting process, is “never.”
I even like the fact that, having worked my way around the house to the origin, the natal section so to speak, of my painting process, I must begin again. Every end is a beginning. We are always setting off, seldom settled. Only as far as we are “unsettled,” Emerson maintains, “is there hope for” us. So, like a planet circling the sun, like an electron orbiting a nucleus, like clay on a turning potter’s wheel, I work my way around the house, on an errand that is always in progress, always to be carried out.