Bringing new life to the old desk–or what writers do to avoid writing

Four coats of paint, one tweaked back and one trip to the walk-in clinic later, I’ve got a new-looking desk in my office making all the other furniture look bad.

It all started a week ago when I looked around my office and decided to reorganize. It was too crowded, too-right-handed for this lefty, and did not project a good image on Zoom. Every surface was covered with papers, binders, books, and miscellaneous electronics gear, and that old desk behind me looked like it lost in a bar fight.

I have had that desk since I was a child doing my homework with fat pencils on binder paper. My Grandpa Al and Great-Uncle Tony made it for my Uncle Bob. When he grew up, it came down to me as the oldest grandchild. It sat in the corner of my bedroom where the two windows came together, lace curtains blowing in the breeze. I didn’t just do homework on that desk. I painted, sewed, played jacks, and wrote my first poems on it. That desk supported my first typewriter, a blue manual purchased with babysitting money for $100 from McWhorter’s Stationery.

The desk, which moved with me to 11 different homes, was scratched, nicked and stained. It had tooth marks along one side from a teething puppy or two. By the time I had moved all the junk off the desk, I had changed my plan. I could refinish it and not put back the junk I’d been storing in it and on it for decades, only the things I would actually use. The rest of the office could wait.

I photographed the desk and put the question to my Facebook friends: colored paint or wood stain? The majority voted for stain. Sounded right to me. After all, this is the desk where Uncle Bob kept his Archie comic books and school supplies when he was a boy. I should respect its 80-year history.

I’m an impatient person. After watching a couple YouTube videos, I activated Netflix’s “Virgin River” on the computer and started sanding the desk. Yes, in my office. By hand. Without gloves. I had barely begun when I shoved the sandpaper across the edge of the desk with extra gusto and felt intense pain. Multiple splinters poked out of my right index finger. Most were easy to remove, but I suspected there might be something left. I poked at the red spot with a sewing needle and tweezers, getting nothing but pain. Maybe I’d already gotten all the slivers. Maybe not. I went back to sanding and “Virgin River.”

In the morning, my finger was red and swollen and hurt like crazy. This is not a good thing for a musician. Or a writer. Typing hurt. I took my finger to the walk-in clinic at Samaritan Pacific Hospital in Newport. Our walk-in clinic is housed in a portable building where there aren’t enough chairs in the waiting room, everyone hears everyone else’s business, and you can wait for hours to be called. Other patients complained of earaches, sprained ankles, stomach pain, and dizziness. One wanted her second COVID shot and couldn’t get it. I just had a stupid sliver in my finger. Or, in medical terms, “foreign object under the skin.”

I spent all morning at the clinic. Called into an examining room. Waited. Vitals. Waited. Doc numbed the finger with three lidocaine shots. Waited. Extraction. Dr. W. dug out a sliver so big we both said, “Wow.” At least a third of an inch long. Soaked in antiseptic solution. Waited. Ointment. Bandage. Released with a red, puffy and useless index finger. Forget working. I took myself to lunch at the new restaurant at the Embarcadero. Slow service, best French fries ever. And then I went to the paint store.

“ Have you ever done this before?” asked the friendly salesman at Sherwin-Williams.

“No.”

“Well . . .”

He loaded me up with advice, paint, polyurethane coating, a natural bristle brush, paint thinner for cleanup, and a couple of stir sticks.

I moved the desk out to the deck for the actual painting. The salesman had warned me the stain would stink and that I shouldn’t inhale the fumes. Playing bluegrass music on my phone, hands protected by gloves, I stroked the paint on, watching the old wood transform. Two coats of “amaranth,” a dark brown blend of black, burgundy and maroon, two coats of polyurethane. Magic. The old desk looked new and shiny. I had stain on my arms, and cheeks and possibly in my hair.

The paint store guy had told me I needed to sand the polyurethane to get rid of the “boogers.” I didn’t see any boogers. Now if he’d said “bubbles” . . .

Four coats. Four nights of waiting for the desk to dry. Yesterday, I dragged it back into the office and put the drawers back in. It’s not perfect. I can see some streaks and some “boogers,” but it’s not bad for a first effort.

I spent the rest of the afternoon sorting all the junk that used to live in the desk. Out with the carbon paper, graph paper, and old checks from a bank that no longer exists. Out with the foot-long Santa Claus pen. Now, what should I do with a hundred pencils and three dozen pens? I’d better get writing, I guess.

I can still smell the stain. My finger hurts. When Annie and I passed my chiropractor-neighbor on our walk last night, I warned him I’d be calling for an appointment. But hey, it was worth it.

It’s time to write. But the old rocking chair’s looking pretty dinged up, and I still have some stain left . . .

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Little House in the Back Yard

The shed as it looked when it snowed in Feb. 2019

It was just an old shed made of scrap wood. It had holes in the front and gaps between the shingled roof and the tops of the walls. Squirrels, rats, and spiders hid among the garden tools, cracked pots and bits of wood. The old door that wouldn’t stay closed looked as if something had chewed the bottom, and rain poured in with every storm. And yet I liked it.

The shed reminds me of the playhouse in my childhood friend Sherri’s back yard. Same raw walls, concrete floor, pitched roof. That shed had a couple windows. We hung pictures on the walls, set knickknacks on the two-by-fours, and spied on the boys next door through a hole we could reach by standing on a box. We played dress-up, held tea parties, and enacted scenes with our dolls in that playhouse. As teens, we sipped Cokes and had long talks about important things like white Beatle we loved best. I don’t know now if Sherri’s dad built that shack as a playhouse or for some other purpose, but it was our hangout. Maybe that’s why 40 years later, I’m so fond of the shed in my backyard.

I mostly use it to store garden tools, but at one point when my late husband was still around, I tried using the shed as a writing hideout, setting my laptop on a TV tray near the door. The shed had no electricity and was too cold most of the year. Still, it remains an option.

I recently exchanged the blinds in my bedroom for curtains. Now, when I look out, I have a clear view of the shed. Day after day, I saw that beat-up door and those pitted gray walls. I’m always looking for a project. What if I got a new door and painted the shed?

So I did. John the handyman found and installed a new white door with a real knob. It shuts with a satisfying click. I got in line with the construction guys at the paint store to buy primer and a blue-gray exterior paint, and then I set to work. I am not a neat painter. I soon had it all over my tee shirt and sweats, my hands and my hat. When I rollered the part I couldn’t reach with a brush, it splattered on my face and even got on my teeth when I screamed. But as they say in the commercials, I “got ‘er done.”

I fussed over every spot that didn’t get its share of color. It’s just an old shed, a friend said. Yes, I know. And the truth is, it doesn’t look that much different, just a little brighter, a little neater. The wood on the west and south sides is still pocked by wind, rain and hail. The roof edges still look like they were nibbled by raccoons. But it was one of the most satisfying things I have done in ages. I was out in the sun, getting lots of exercise. The repetitive motions–dip the brush into the paint, slap it on the wood, over and over–allowed my mind to wander and work things out at the same time as I was making something ugly and stained bright and new.

When I got done with the shed, I still had paint in the bucket, so I decided to try painting the battered white table on my deck. I had tried unsuccessfully to get the stains off, but maybe I could paint over them. If the paint didn’t stick, it didn’t matter. I planned to buy new patio furniture next summer anyway. It worked! It looked good. I was tickled pink. Or blue.

I had moved all the furniture to the grass for John to stain the deck—some paint jobs are not that fun, and I really made a mess of it last year. [see previous post] Annie seemed to approve of the new arrangement as she took her place on the lounge on the grass. Once I had showered off the paint and  put on fresh clothes, I joined her on the other lounge. Together we enjoyed our new location and admired the fresh paint on the shed.

What should be our next project, I asked the dog? She rested her nose on her paws and sighed.