The great Spar Varnish Debacle started out simply (as these disasters so often do) with an offhand remark over breakfast.
“Between the birds and those ghastly berries on the trees,” I said, “our porch railings always look like they have leprosy. Isn't there something we can do?”
Paint store experts advised glossier paint; Rich applied two coats, which bloomed with fresh stains before the last brushstroke dried. The hardware store staff suggested spar varnish, a maritime shellac tough enough to repel barnacles. As Rich brushed on the spar varnish, I noticed with alarm that it was going on in great, blotchy, yellow streaks, giving the impression we’d drizzled the railing with maple syrup. After days trying to convince ourselves it didn’t look that bad, we agreed it had to be painted over.
Unfortunately, spar varnish doesn’t like to be painted over. Unable to repel the enamel paint outright, it craftily began infiltrating it. Soon our railings were sticky as fly paper; if you touched one, you instantly became adhered to it, and delicate negotiations were required to remove your fingers without leaving behind a layer of skin. Naturally the glue-like surface became a magnet for every bit of dirt, dust, berry, and bird muck around.
Normally we’d have ranted endlessly about this to family, friends, and the hardware store guys; we didn’t attend that Grumpiness Seminar for nothing! But the areas of our brains devoted to domestic disasters were, by this time, totally preoccupied with something more urgent.
The Beetles-Eating-Our-House Crisis began when a routine inspection revealed this shocking sight.
OK, maybe it’s not that shocking at first glance, but look closely at the middle board; can you make out teeny tiny holes in the wood? Kind of like nail holes? Apparently those may or may not be the warning signs of wood-boring beetles at work, either now or at some time in the recent, possibly distant past. “I’m not really sure,” said the inspector. “What do you think?”
“I think we need a second opinion,” Rich said.
Two sets of exterminators eventually agreed that we had a wood-boring beetle problem that could only be eliminated with considerable effort and staggering expense. Personally, I always feel that asking a guy who’s going to profit from a job to determine whether it’s really necessary is like hiring a lion to decide whether it’s time to cull the antelope herd.
Rich, thinking along the same lines, said grimly, “I’m going down there myself.”
This may not sound like a big deal, but you have to understand we never, ever go into the dark, cramped underworld that lies beneath the cottage. You can’t call it a crawl space because much of it can’t be navigated on hands and knees; thanks to the labyrinth of pipes, ducts, and tangles of wiring left by various owners over the last 121 years, you have to slither through the dirt on your belly like a reptile, or inch along on your back like Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel.
Rich prepped for the ordeal by reading about the telltale signs of wood-boring beetles. Apparently they like to burrow in new wood, something that hadn’t been seen beneath our house since it was built in 1900, and they usually produce a frothy white mix of sawdust and excrement known in the bug industry as “frass ” — a term which instantly became a cuss word around our house.
Rich spent half an hour inching around the underbelly of the cottage, then crawled out covered with dirt and shaking his head. “I can’t find anything that looks like the exterminator’s picture or that frass stuff we saw online.” Worried he might have missed the single board studded with holes, he descended again and then a third time into the nether regions. Each time, his grim determination was like that of Charles Bronson playing the claustrophobic Danny digging the tunnel out of the Nazi POW camp in The Great Escape.
Meanwhile, the exterminators were sending us quotes that made our heads spin and describing our part of the process as “really quite simple” when it was obviously anything but. First, we’d have to remove all edibles (including the contents of the refrigerator, the Apocalypse Chow food locker, and the medicine cabinet) to a safe location off the property. Then we’d need to drag all the potted plants to the far end of the garden; anything planted in the ground around the cottage would have to take its chances, which would clearly be slim to none. Then we'd have to leave for five days so the exterminators could tent our home and pump it full of poison.
“Well, frass,” said Rich.
In an effort to turn his thoughts to a more cheerful direction, I zeroed in on the upside. “Looks like we’re going on a road trip!”
I had the perfect itinerary in mind. As my regular readers will recall, Rich’s Science of Happiness course made us want to visit the world’s happiest countries, starting with the Nordic nations. Now I’m thinking the journey could begin closer to home. The Bay Area includes several top ranking spots in this year’s list of America’s happiest cities, including numero uno, the absolute dark horse in this contest, Fremont.
Never heard of it? That’s because, as everyone has been telling us, “Nobody ever goes to Fremont." Is it really Dullsville or are we overlooking something? I'm asking the same question about its near neighbor, the fifth happiest city, San Jose. For culture and glamor it can’t compete with San Francisco (what could?) and most Bay Area residents avoid it as if it were Fremont. I probably shouldn't have been so astonished to learn San Jose, the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley, is now one of the richest and most powerful cities on the planet. Seems like I ought to take a closer look at both cities.
Meanwhile, Rich has been in deep consultation with the exterminators, explaining we aren’t convinced we even have beetles, let alone enough of them to require tenting and filling the house with toxins. The exterminator’s attitude is, “Well, if you don’t value your home enough to maintain it properly, don’t blame us if beetles eat the sub-flooring and the whole place collapses into the ground.” I’ll let you know how that conversation turns out.
As for the Spar Varnish Debacle, by now the stickiness has subsided considerably, and while the railing will probably never regain its former sleekness, it no longer attaches itself to the unwary. As it happens, while this drama was playing out, we discovered that the berry-dropping, bird-attracting trees were dying and had to be removed, which neatly solved the staining problem.
Despite the gloomy predictions of the exterminators, I’m maintaining a positive attitude about the Beetles-Eating-My-House Crisis, too. Because as the saying goes, “A positive attitude may not solve your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.” Or as the 8th century Buddhist philosopher, Shantideva, said, “If you can solve your problem, then what is the need of worrying? If you cannot solve it, then what is the use of worrying?”
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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