What They Don’t Show You On Fixer Upper

In keeping with the millennial stereotype of rustic appeal, my wife and I bought our […]

In keeping with the millennial stereotype of rustic appeal, my wife and I bought our first home this summer, a “fixer-upper” with a lot of character, wet insulation, and dead birds. We took a selfie out front, made a list of future projects, hired a contractor, personally knocked some walls out, and let some light into a house that had not been lived in for nearly ten years. We slapped a fresh coat of paint on the outside, with a green accent door, and voila! Home! Eat it, Chip and Jojo…got no time for that shiplap!

Of course, it has not been easy. Nothing is easy like TV. I mean, yes, we did do those things. But no, it is still not done, not even close. There is an air compressor for the nail gun on the floor by our bed (which is also on the floor). I have been doing a lot of the work myself in the evenings, pulling out cabinets, laying drywall, doing finish work, which, if you’re wondering why, comes from a mixture of my own dogged optimism and being not-rich. But the delivery of some long awaited, Fixer Upper unveiling has passed us by. We’re living on a jobsite. It’s been nine months of work, and the long-awaited baby has not come—the transfiguration to marble, new fixtures and hardware, and the big ass clock. Not even close.

Which has created some tension, as you might imagine, not just in myself but in our marriage. I am frequently asked by loving friends, “How’s the house coming?” a question I’ve found myself answering, “Slowly but surely!” with a surprising amount of venom. It isn’t a personal question, but to me it’s personal, with an answer too long and too embarrassing for the allotted space. To me, the questioner has effectively asked, “What were you thinking?” or “Bet they didn’t show you this kind of timeline on Pinterest, huh? Ha!” Under my breath, I wish them a painful death, and then I go, in my mind, to that monstrous new condo development next to the Trader Joe’s, the one I used to gawk at and say, “Who would live there?” I think of the new carpet smell and the LED lighting, the energy-efficient washer and dryer. I would live there in an instant.

Don’t get me wrong: we have loved working on the house, for sure. Much like the magazine, I’m geared towards long-distance projects and their payoff. And we have already made huge headway on this house, headway that feels more like us. Plus, it’s now a house that has real, authentic “sweat equity,” whatever that means.

But the question of an “authentic” fixer upper has certainly been on my mind lately. How can a project that basically sidelines the rest of your life—even in church and in bed you’re thinking about wainscoting and retaining walls—be moving towards authenticity, for the house or for the people living in it? Isn’t it instead some kind of commercial self-help religion?

Over at Curbed, Kate Wagner, says that yes, it is. She asks, “Are Home Renovations Necessary?” Her answer is that, most the time, the answer to that question is no. It is something we have been made to feel is essential for the house—and its owners—to be “right” (ht BS).

While older media, like early issues of House Beautiful, discusses the process as mastering the careful art of interior design, newer media is more neurotic and self-loathing, describing houses in need of renovation with words like “dated”, “immature,” or “wrong.” Whether presented as a self-improvement project (update your house lest you be judged for owning a dated one) or a form of self-care (renovate because it will make you feel better), the home remodel is presented as both remedy and requirement.

Wagner makes the point that most of the things “wrong” with a house are aesthetic. With so many renovations on TV, the roof is fine, the structure is fine, the electric and plumbing are fine. What remains are the identifying signatures that you must draw forth from within (Pinterest or Magnolia Homes) in order to fix it. Wagner says that in so doing, these HGTV shows like Fixer Upper actually strip houses of their true authenticity because it is out of keeping with the American command to make it yours.

A fixation on the ills of one’s house is cultural, and has come in many different forms in as many centuries. House-positivity is seen as bizarre. Consider the HGTV series Love It or List It, in which the show’s hosts, a realtor and an interior designer, compete to sway a family to leave or stay in their current home. Always, one member of the family (and it’s usually the one who manages the finances) wants to stay, and defends the home—and the family’s life within it—even if it is a little dated or cramped. This person is almost always painted as being wrong or in need of fixing, and though the house is changed regardless, either renovated or discarded, the person who wanted to stay is always a downer and always the loser. Though the show plays on the rivalry between the two hosts, the stay-er is always the most despised character.

Our therapist friend caught on quickly to the fact that the house renovation was going to be a kind of crucible for us. She predicted the house would be a metaphor, to some degree, of our marriage. The problems that cropped up with the tile or the recessed lighting—these were problems to pay attention to, lessons in communication and patience and prayer.

I thought this sounded terrible. Our marriage? A fixer-upper? A marriage based on improving and renovating some raw material? Hannah and I had already been like cats and dogs since the beginning of the work, precisely because we were implementing a similar controlling vision in our marriage. So if this renovation project was representative of our marriage, I thought, there wasn’t much hope. If this house foreshadowed a renovating life together, life could be summed up as: constantly vying for rights in the minutia of floor stains, blaming one another for daily tasks left undone, and generally not wanting to invite people in to catch a glimpse of the shitshow.

This line of thought brought me back to the fabulous NYT essay CJ wrote about a couple years ago, written by Rachel Cusk, about the heaviest difficulty of a home redesign: you. You are foisting an image of yourself to the world, an image which, if you look closely enough, is filled with a pressure cooker of tiny deliberations.

The domestic, in other words, is ultimately more concerned with seeming than with being: It is a place where personal ideals are externalized or personal failures made visible. These ideals, as well as the forms of failure they create, are ever-changing: The “search for happiness” is a kinetic state, and it follows that the most seductive of all the illusions of homemaking would be the illusion of permanence.

The illusion of permanence: it would make sense why so many paint colors express timelessness. Classic. Simple. Heritage. And of course, permanence and authenticity are the illusions we hope to project from within our marriage, too. Even if we can’t be the ideal couple, we can work tirelessly to seem it. Just like the house, you enter the pressure-cooker of small, daily deliberations. You exhaust yourself and your spouse with more visions of “the real us.” And the house, despite all the tasteful improvements, is never actually a home. Cusk describes this perfectly in one sentence:

In Italy once, I was given a private tour of a beautiful castle, led by the owner through room after impeccably furnished room, only to glimpse at the end through a half-open door a tiny, cavelike space crammed with all the evidence—a gas stove, a television, a tatty sofa—of daily life: This was clearly where the family spent their time.

In short, I think I heard my therapist friend wrong. The house is a metaphor of our marriage, yes, but not in any ambitious sort of way. She wasn’t instructing us to be “good stewards” of one another. She wasn’t likening marriage to a vision you cast for your future. She was describing how marriage is: unfinished, frustrating, and illuminating. Marriage, like this stupid house, is a crucible: it has the capacity to show you the transience of your visions and all your pitiful and pitiless vanity projects. And for all the shiplap, distressed farm signs, and big ass clocks you can finagle into a house, a home is absolutely impossible without a place to cram all the evidence. That, after all, is where you will actually live.


6 responses to “What They Don’t Show You On Fixer Upper

  1. Duo says:

    Oy – the stress of home creation has direct proportionate fear inducing and pain threshold testing to child-creation – I can only say this because I have helped build 800 things and 2 humans….

  2. Austin Storm says:

    TOO REAL. My forbearing wife and I have lived in our 1883 farmhouse for almost a year and we almost, almost have a working kitchen sink.

  3. David Zahl says:

    This is so funny and wise, E.

  4. Rob Jirucha says:

    Timely. Loved it. Would be cool to end the article where the “after” photo is exactly the same as the “before” photo 🙂

  5. Tom F says:

    Once you finish with the white shiplap, white farm sink, white…, make sure that you trade in the black lab for a no-shed golden doodle. A modern home renovation is not complete without such.

    If you haven’t already, you eventually will have to empty the home of a deceased or retirement-center-bound parent. Verses from Ecclesiastes will be ever-present as you drive the pick-up to / fro the dump and Goodwill.

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