For houses, the holidays are a needy time of year


THE HOLIDAYS are closing in on us, but your house already knows that. A house has a tendency to get very "needy" at this time of year, to make its feelings of neglect known to you at most inopportune times.

A major appliance might die this weekend, right in the middle of Hanukkah and with only two weeks left until Christmas. A piece of plumbing could erupt just as house guests hit the front door. The electricity could falter as you snap on the holiday lights, meaning that all will be not be calm nor bright.

It's not fair, but it comes with the territory of being "home for the holidays." The specter of the suddenly demanding holiday house is one of the dirty little secrets of domesticity.

Part of our family history, for instance, is the tale of the time we gave ourselves a clothes dryer for Christmas. It happened a few years ago when our trusty old dryer expired during a mid-December spin cycle. Not only did this mean that I had to shell out several hundred dollars for a big, boring appliance, it also meant I had to do this while all around me shoppers were buying flat-screen televisions and other indulgent electronic treats.

This "present" did not end up under the tree. Instead as Santa's helper, I lugged the dryer up three flights of stairs to the family laundry room. Instead of a "Ho, ho, ho!" scene it was more a "Gasp! Gasp! Gasp!" finale.

This season my house has already acted up. A few weeks ago I stood on my front steps and saw something floating down from the heavens. At first I took it for a snowflake, a sign of the season. It turned out to be a paint chip, one of several that had freed themselves from the front of my house and had descended to the sidewalk.

The departing chips left ugly blotches on the front of the house, an eyesore that even I, someone who usually comes and goes from our rowhouse by the back door, could not ignore. Moreover, these bare spots were situated just above "the Christmas tree window." This is the spot in our home, a bay window, where the holiday fir traditionally takes up residence, drawing the attention of passers-by.

As I gazed at the unsightly patches of missing paint, I imagined the kinds of comments gawkers would offer this holiday season as they walked past our house: "Don't these people own a paint brush?"

The bare spots were too high on the front of the house to reach with the help of my ladders, so I had to resort to pole painting. This is a painting technique that relies on a 15-foot extension pole and a lot of luck to get the job done.

First I had to sort through the collection of partially filled paint cans sitting in my basement, in the hopes of finding paint that matched the shade on the front of the house. Fortunately I had saved the cans that the house painters had left a few years before when they had completed their labors. That is what basements are for, to give guys, and old cans, a place to hang out.

The paint in the first can that I popped open was drier than last year's holly wreath. The second can, however, still had some usable, if semicoagulated paint left in it. After much stirring, a tedious process that vaguely reminded me of stirring a meat sauce or the eggnog, the paint was ready to apply.

The first place I applied it was on one of the old chips that had taken flight from the house.

Paint loses some its glow over the years. We all do. Yet when the dab from the can had finished drying I could see that if these two paints were not identical twins, they were very closely related.

My dad always preached to me that your paint job is only as good as your preparation. So before I applied new paint, I sanded the bare spots and the nearby surfaces. I did that with the help of the extension pole, attaching a sandpaper pad that screwed onto the end.

As I stood on the ground, rubbing the sandpaper over the chipped paint spots high above, I felt like I was in a scene from White Christmas. But instead of snowflakes, more paint chips were falling.

After the sanding was completed, I lowered the pole, removed the sander and replaced it with a small paint roller. Only three inches wide, it's the kind of roller normally used to touch up spots or reach distant corners.

Next the delicate part of the operation began, namely getting the paint on the house without dripping it on the windows, or on my head, and without knocking over the pan holding the paint.

Experience has taught me that the keys to success in pole painting are working slowly and putting little paint on the roller.

For an hour or so, I pole-painted, easing the roller into the paint pan, carefully lifting it toward the second story of the house, slowly applying it in thin layers, covering the bare spots. When I was finished, the bare spots were history and the front of the house was no longer an eyesore.

Admittedly my effort was a patch job, rather than a long-term fix. But the house seemed happy with my labors.

Maybe, just maybe, that is all the house will demand of me this holiday season. Yesterday, while eyeing the spot where the Christmas tree will soon reside, I looked up and admired my recent paint job. I had to admit that the house, though it might be temperamental, seemed to be getting in a holiday mood.

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