The brush moves back and forth as if under its own power after a while. Painting is a kind of hypnotic therapy driven by nothing more stimulating the porch rail becoming a little bit brighter. The Canadian Pacific grey soot slowly becomes white and shiny, new and clean. Years of weather are buried by another layer of acrylic polymer, ready to start again. It may not be sexy, fun, or even worth writing an essay about, but basic maintenance such as painting the porch every few years is absolutely required if you want to have a nice porch to enjoy the rest of the time.
We aren’t a culture that values maintenance. Despite our rich inheritance of wealth and freedom, we still have a tendency to be more impressed by shiny new things. Some of our biggest problems come directly from a disdain for maintaining our roads and even our own health in a way that is pretty clearly irresponsible. We’d rather wait for it to fall apart and buy a new one, it seems, even when the “new one” is our own body.
“Planned Obsolescence” is the name given to cars that would literally fall apart after 4-5 years. GM was often chided for introducing the practice, as if it was some ripoff born from the arrogant belief that their customers would buy any crap they’d make. It wasn’t. GM actually called it “Dynamic Obsolescence,” and it was based on the observation that people generally wanted new cars with the latest designs as often as they could afford them. Cars that fell apart on schedule were cheaper. The whole concept was little more than giving the customer what they wanted.
Very few of the things in our lives are designed to be fixed because that is the way people like them to be. The theory is that if you can just buy a new one more efficiently, why bother fixing things? It allows you to upgrade to the newest version. All you have to do is give up any idea of being able to control your life beyond being a consumer, a relationship to the world that people don’t seem to mind all that much.
I admit that I, too, find maintenance like painting is a real pain, but after I grudgingly get started it’s something I can’t help but enjoy. A 150 year old house needs more than a little help once in a while, after all. If I’m going to stay here, there are things that need to be done. It’s nice to have it fixed up, even if a deck made out of real wood isn’t exactly the most intelligent thing when it comes to a Minnesota winter. There’s nothing to do but enjoy the therapeutic value of painting every few years.
My house isn’t the only thing that requires constant attention, of course. There’s an old legend that the Golden Gate Bridge is painted constantly from one end to the other, once a year, but it’s not quite true. There is a crew of 17 ironworkers and 38 painters who keep things patched together constantly, just enough to hit the trouble spots. Without them, the bridge would collapse after a few years in the salty spray and cease to be the great landmark that helps to define San Francisco.
Maintenance is, after all, what life is all about. Our bodies themselves require decent food, a bit of exercise, and a little attention to the trouble spots not unlike the structures we build. When we try to define our lives in a maintenance-free way we are denying one of the basic truths of our own mortality – things eventually rot or otherwise become useless, one way or another. The more we can understand this as a simple fact of life the more connected our life is.
Perhaps I’m writing out of the monotony of my day or the tiny bit of volatile solvent that even modern acrylic paints have, but I like painting. It’s hard to get me started, but it’s also hard to get me to stop. It looks so much nicer and my connection to the people who built the house long ago that little bit stronger. Things don’t become useless, they just need a little help once in a while. Like all of us.