I have often repeated the words of a wise teacher, who has now passed on from this dusty earth straight to heaven. (nonetheless I will still continue to send prayers up for his soul in grateful memory of the benefits I received from him.)
He said, “One can’t trust a thinker who lacks the ability to work with his hands.”
of perhaps he said,
“Beware of the thinker who has no experience with his hands.”
I like this second one better. Whether he said it precisely like that or said something else with even greater eloquence I cannot say. But the fact of the matter is that I have always attributed the idea to him, and he cannot deny it anymore.
Educators and intellectuals who have no ability to work with their hands in some practical way are to be suspected! I don’t say that those folks should be bodily banished or cast out or shunned completely. I merely assert that the ideas of philosophers and theologians who have not planted their feet firmly on the earth and who have never imposed order and form into things like wood, tile, and brick, (who have never even constructed say a wooden box or even a pair of saw horses!) will thereby merit a closer scrutiny than the ideas of thinkers who have some manual experience!
And this is, of course, why university and college professors and high-school teachers and students, and really just anyone who is of the academic persuasion, are granted an annual summer break which always appears appallingly long to the rest of the world.
In other words, lengthy summer vacations are necessary for teachers and thinkers.
Summer vacation provides a time for fledgling philosophers, like my students and me, to re-ground our teeming intellects in the raw ingredients, the base matter, the hard tactile “stuff” from which we might, as from a sturdy platform, soar to new and greater intellectual heights!
Now all this is especially true for the teacher at a prestigious secondary school devoted to imparting a liberal education to its students.
Summer is a time for gaining “manual experience.” And this summer I have tried to do that in at least two ways.
The first way is by playing the organ, many of which have three manuals mind you! And a pedal board to boot!
Here is a grainy photo of my organ and its three manuals!
The king of instruments! The instrument most preferred by our Holy Mother the Church in all of her liturgical worship only excepting the human voice. But enough about this. Suffice it to say that every church organist ought to be granted a generous time allowance for private practice.
The second way I gained manual experience this summer was by actually using my hands to tear apart my kitchen; tearing down old dry wall, tearing down ceiling joists, tearing down cement, tearing down wire and pipe!
All this tearing down in order to recapture the kitchen space before it was besieged by the bourgeois renovators of the 1980s and 90s. All this tearing down in order to restore the original forms and integrity of the original kitchen before it was beset by the ugly but efficient forms of a more pragmatic yet less transcendent age.
The whole theme of tearing down in order to build back up is of course central to the Christian life. As Our Lord said in John,
Amen, amen I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone. But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.
and again in Matthew we read,
And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled: and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
In both passages I take it that Our Lord is very clearly affirming the idea that in order for there to be a building up, there must first be a tearing down.
For the home renovator, there must be demolition before there can be new construction.
My main attempt was to recover the original ceiling which was at least a foot and a half above the dropped ceiling that was installed probably in order to make the space more efficient. Efficiency is more often than not something which is opposed to beauty, as my wife’s father used to say. Now I know that there are some of you that think efficiency should be held on a pedestal and worshiped. But not so did John Schmitt thus think!
I think it is safe to say that John Schmitt thought that the banner of “efficiency” is the hobgoblin of little minds, and probably a mantra originating from those in the pink insulation and vinyl replacement window business.
Here is a montage of the kitchen ceiling before we ripped it down.
Kitchen before demolition…
note the missing door on the oak cabinet. You will see that there is a brick chimney behind this.
note the apron around the ceiling – clearly constructed to hang ordinary cabinetry under
Now let’s get the hammer out and start taking off all that dry wall! Rip it down! Cut it into small pieces and hide the remains in black plastic trash-bags! Always a mess! Who invented dry wall anyway? I hate drywall.
If you look carefully you will see that above the ceiling joists are the old thin flat strips of wood or “lath” from which the old horsehair plaster had already been stripped. That old wooden lath is a far more noble substance than drywall. One becomes aware of the fact that there used to be artisans who could mix and apply horsehair plaster and achieve a real interior wall with some integrity and substance. No one applies wooden lath and horse hair plaster to achieve some short term effect. No, those plasterers were thinking long term!
Well, after working for days, carefully removing those long ceiling joists one by one, pulling out nails, removing the lath and vacuuming the dust of a 100 years out of crannies and interstices, it was time to start thinking about a new lighting plan. And of course reinstalling the scary 220 outlet that goes to my fancy “dual fuel” oven. I did not take any photos of the work we did to move the gas line in the basement.
Interestingly, you will note that the upstairs oak flooring is nailed directly to the 2×8 ceiling joists! Now I really don’t understand why the builder back in the 1920s would do such a thing. One simply does not lay down a quality wood floor directly on joists. One always applies it to a sub-floor. I suspect that my builder was trying to get the job done quickly and had probably run out of sub flooring materials. Oh well.
Now let’s get the cold-chisel out and a hammer and start uncovering the chimney behind the wall. This was much more difficult than I expected given the inch thick mud/concrete layer covering the old brick! Good thing I had some help.
Those builders back in the 1920s thought nothing at all of covering brick with cement. I suppose they had their complete fill of brick and probably were all too happy to cover it up. On the other hand, I am still wondering if that cement also acts for some other useful end aside from hiding the brick.
Summer vacation is also all about the multiple trips to places like Lowe’s and Home Depot where one can just stand looking upwards at lighting fixtures for hours. After about 45 minutes of gazing ceiling-ward my neck cramps and forces me to come to a decision.
I didn’t like any of them. But finally I saw these!
We installed two of the bell shaped pendant lights above the sink and five of the jar-shaped ones strategically around the ceiling. The new filament bulbs are expensive but very nice. Our kitchen now has a warm yellowish glow with all the lights on. As you can see, we started installing the bead board as well. I found a beautiful white pine 1x4x8 bead-board at Lowe’s which has nary a knot in it.
Actually I am kind of amazed at how nice the wood is and to be perfectly honest…I am not quite certain that it really is pine. Seems harder than the pine I am used to. Douglas Fir? I don’t know. Someday I hope to be a master in the field of lumber species recognition.
Now I should say that it took me exactly 30 seconds, trying to nail the bead-board up with some 1.2″ silver finish nails and a hammer, to determine that I needed a to buy a pneumatic air gun!
I’ve never owned a nail gun before or even a compressor. These are the kinds of tools that everyone needs to own. I wish someone had told me to get one twenty years ago!
As a matter of fact if you don’t have one go get one right now! No more bending nails. No more denting the wood with incompetently aimed hammer strokes. No more incessant pounding and holding nails in one’s teeth!
No sir! The pneumatic nail gun will simply revolutionize your hammering experience and bring some joy back into your life!
Am I the very last person to have realized this? I don’t know.
As you can see, after we removed the dropped ceiling there were a couple of challenges to face in the form of some unsightly plumbing fixtures that had been installed after the dropped ceiling…or perhaps because they were the reason that a dropped ceiling had been installed. Fortunately I had a plumber come and move a couple of the water lines including one that had been dripping very slowly for the last ten or so years. But there was simply nothing that we could do with the 6″ PVC drain and trap. There was no re-routing option.
At first we were all for just leaving the pipes exposed and maybe painting them red or some prominent color. Then we thought that perhaps we should wrap them in rope-a very hip idea. Finally, we decided that we just had to sacrifice some of our newly discovered vertical space and employ a “dropped box” to hide the pipes. The following pictures show the “box” in various stages of completion (although it is still not complete!)
You can see some simultaneous green board work in the background. The secret to obtaining a really smooth finish with dry wall and Spackle must always include multiple coats and generous sanding between every coat. But alas! I am just not willing to do all that sanding. I am not willing to abide the endless and insidious dust that it creates. (i.e. actually the dust is not “created” but is rather a byproduct of the sanding). Instead, I opt for the moist-sponge-method whereby all the bumps and irregularities in the dry wall are scrubbed off. And then this process of applying and scrubbing and applying a scrubbing just goes on forever.
I have never been satisfied with my own dry wall technique…nor that of anybody else for that matter. I hate drywall.
One interesting detail of this work came with the whole issue of installing a range hood for my oven. I had fortunately kept the original “range-master” range hood in my garage for about five years, but I was really not certain how to hang it. But after an entire morning of thought and some lucky electrical circumstances ….voila!
Now of course the question is: How will I complete the duct work between the range hood and the pipe leading outside? Well, stay tuned! I happen to have a very special friend who is going to help me through that process with a nifty custom crafted stainless steel duct/pipe system that will be exposed- and in fact will be a very interesting conversation piece when it is finished!
And so even though there is still work to do, I am ready to get back into the classroom. My students will know that they are in a class of a teacher who is not afraid to rip cabinets from the walls. My thoughts and teaching will be above suspicion because I spent my summer vacation working with my hands!