I am staining my deck. It is an old and honorable tradition. It is something a man does. In A Movable Feast, Hemingway writes of the shocking lack of decks in Paris, and of how the French compensate by staining poodles. This is not something a man does.
A man stains decks. Women could stain decks too, I suppose, but that would royally screw up this opening, wouldn't it?
First the deck must be prepared. The elements are not kind to paint, at least not the cheap stuff I buy. It is merry work, and as strips of pigment and chips of wood fly, I am wont to raise my voice in song, prompting random donations of footwear, most of which bounce harmlessly short.
My discerning eye soon identifies a problem. One of the deck boards is badly rotted and in need of replacement. This will be done today, for I am a man of action. I have grown heartsick looking at it decay this last decade.
Not much is known about the carpenter who originally built the deck, but he was obviously powerful, angry, and well armed with 4½" phosphorus-coated spikes. After an hour-long attack with prybar, hacksaw and hammer, the board finally gives up the ghost, as does the hammer's shaft, as does the skin on my knuckles. As befits a sensitive, if profane, New Age guy, I have hewn the replacement board myself, with an axe of obsidian, whilst on a woodland retreat, naked and unashamed. (Actually I found it in the garage, and I had all my clothes on, and I was plenty ashamed beneath them, you bet. Details, details.)
"Measure twice, cut once," goes the adage, and it is good advice, for the board fits snugly at one end and comes up an inch short at the other. You'll never see this common problem addressed on those yuppie carpentry shows on PBS. Now, most would attempt to conceal this minor flaw by dragging the chaise longue over on top of it. This, though, would presume that one's chaise longue does not already conceal an even more grievous deformity. In that case, saw off an inconspicuous part of the chaise longue, wedge it into the gap, and jump up and down on it until it seamlessly melds with the surface of the deck. Okay, so it's not the Sistine Chapel. Okay, so it sticks out a bit. You'd have to be an idiot to trip over it.
This is the nature of work. Work is good. Through work we define ourselves. Work is zzzzZZZZ interrupted by a bee. Have you ever seen one close up? I'll tell you, they're . . . inhuman. I am not afraid of bees. With a small shriek of welcome, I retreat to the kitchen to get a beer, pausing only to trip over my little construction project. Actually, after a few beers, bees look sort of friendly. As long as there's a double glazed window between us, I'm cool with bees. They buzz; I get buzzed. This is what the biologists call symbiosis.
I -- hic! -- wuv bees. If you want to see truly terrifying insects, go to Africa. I lived there for two years, mainly in my bedroom, in a comforting fog of Black Flag. I tried to buy a flyswatter there. The Africans had absolutely no idea what a flyswatter was. They thought it immensely amusing that anyone would waste time wasting the pests. I eventually did get a flyswatter, though it had to come all the way from Canada. Once I had it, I embarked upon an orgy of flyswatting such as that continent has never seen. But then one night I was on the veranda (obsolete colonial word, meaning, "deck"), resting from my morbid labours, when a goliath beetle whirred through the air -- these things fly -- executed a 2½ Double Axel, and came spinning to a halt at my feet, insolently waving at me with all of its 613 legs. A goliath beetle, I should explain, looks something like a vise-grip equipped cockroach, though much less cute. It's also about the size of your fist. A flyswatter is a poor weapon with which to engage it. An elephant rifle would be more appropriate. Gentle reader, avert your eyes, for the battle that followed was fierce: Whamwhamwhamwham whamwhamwham -- beer break! -- whamwhamwhamwham! And so on. End of bug. End of flyswatter.
Equally unsettling was a species of wasp, jet-black in color, about three inches in length, with a wicked, curving abdomen reminiscent of a scorpion's. If they have wasps in Hell, these would be the prototype.
Another day, another hazardous journey outdoors, having milk and cookies with some U.S. Marines. Okay, so technically it wasn't milk and cookies. It was beer, and more beer. (Details, details.) What could have been a perfectly bibulous afternoon was spoiled somewhat when one of these dreadful insects chose to land on my face. Politely excusing myself, I removed my glasses and hurled them into the next time zone.
The Marines were greatly impressed, if you define "impressed" as shooting beer out their noses while rolling around on the ground.
"If you could throw a grenade that far, we'd sign you up," one finally spluttered. I dunno. Something tells me I wouldn't be very good at creeping silently through buggy jungles.
I once asked one of the Marines if anything scared him. He thought for a minute and said -- only one thing, being hit in the head by a bottle thrown from a passing car. Apparently this had once happened to a friend of his. And I thought: O, great. Now I've got another thing to be paranoid about. I don't get out much these days.
When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove's door
When butterflies renounce their drams
I shall but drink the more!
-- Emily Deckinson
Well, what would she know about it? She never went out of her room.
One of the nice things about staining one's deck -- apart from the innate satisfactions of hard work, of pride in one's craft, and of enjoying the fresh air and sunshine -- is that this is perhaps the only sort of work that can be done quite effectively while legally drunk. Indeed, there is legislation before Parliament that would require deckstainers/dequstaineurs (in both official languages) to be stinking blotto, as opposed to simply stinking, which is the usual result of spending the afternoon crawling over a great big reflecting cedar magnifying glass being fried by UV rays.
But an emergency has arisen. The refrigerator contains no beer; it instead contains only an insipid liquid known as "light" beer. The Marines would have known what to do with "light" beer -- they would have called in an air strike on it. Well, cram this "nobility of work" masquerade, Jack. If I have to be sober, I've got better things to do.
As perhaps the world's leading authority on deck-staining (you had someone else in mind?), I am often asked to calculate how much stain will be needed to cover the deck. My standard answer is: Bugger off. I didn't get to where I am today by giving out free advice.
But when repeatedly prodded, especially with pointy gardening implements, I will estimate that completely covering the average 10 x 15-foot deck will require about 440 1-gallon cans of stain. Of course, if you choose to take the stain out of the cans and put it on the deck with a brush or something, you might be able to get by with considerably fewer.
If you do decide to directly apply the stain, first set aside one of the cans. Open this can and make sure it is thoroughly stirred. Then pour the contents of this can over your head. The reasons for doing this are twofold:
1. It is necessary to propitate the God of the Deck, who lives underneath. His name is Larry.
2. You're going to look like this by the time you're done anyway, so best to get it over with all at once.
Now, lie down on the deck and roll around vigorously. First coat done! Time for a beer!
While in the house, be sure to touch as many things as possible. Walls, TV remote, children, floral arrangements. You need to do this because the police will find it easier to later retrace your movements. They'll need to do this because your wife is going to kill you.
Because the finishing coat is of such critical importance, I recommend that you hire a couple of neighborhood kids who are ideally not afraid of bees.
And when it is completed, you can sit at the window and polish off a few well-deserved beers and use your megaphone to cry out to the neighbors: "See what I (or the neighborhood kids) hath Wrought!"
For what you look upon is more than a well-maintained and freshly stained deck, more than the altar of the smoking, hissing barbeque, more even than the symbol of stolid, bourgeous suburbia.
It is indeed the flat, rectangular, brown footprint of Civilization itself. Like a Colossus it rides astride the land and gazes unto the horizon. It represents Man's dominion over Nature, the triumph of Order over Chaos, the . . .
What? Go out and sit on it? Are you nuts?
Them's bees out thar!