|Well, this situation looks fairly straightforward, doesn't it? I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in. The rain, and mice, spiders, stray cats, chipmunks, squirrels, snow, mud...|
[If you just toddled in, Ive been describing how I jacked up part of my ramshackle house in Maine and put a foundation under it. I have done so without mentioning anything about my house, Maine, or jacks and foundations, for almost a week. I deserve a trophy or a beating, I think]
Now, then. The Point.
I've been coming to The Point for quite some time now. I thought I was on its scent about a week ago, but I came up empty when I checked the traps. I put more thesaurus urine on the legholds and put them back in the river of words where I like to go trapping, but haven't had any luck since, either. I thought I had The Point up a tree a few days after that, but I got cold and wandered off after waiting for it to come down. In my defense, I waited almost fifteen minutes before I got bored; I'm not made of stone, you know. I don't have a pointer to hunt The Point with, so I left my cat at the base of the tree with The Point in it. He turned out as useless as a fat clerk in a Victoria's Secret.
I thought if I pretended not to be interested in The Point, he might show himself, figuring that he'd outlasted me, so I looked off into the distance a good bit, and pretended to write about other things instead of telling you about how to slip a basement under a house rather than doing it the other way 'round, like God and the building inspector intended. But instead of coaxing The Point out in the open where we could club it to death in the comments, I just ended up with a sort of Dumb & Dumber edition of Palladio's The Four Books on Architecture .
I don't know Mr. Palladio; I think he went to public school, and I had the nuns, so we're bound to travel in different circles, forevermore; or perhaps he's full-blown Presbyterian, and no one like me gets to talk to any of those. But I'm pretty sure he wouldn't approve of me putting out a version of his book with so many fart jokes in it. Worse, after a while I got tired of changing all those Latin "V"s he favors into plain old "U"s, so it wouldn't be so easy for his publisher to catch on that I was plagiarizing him, and so I pried the Vs and Us off my keyboard and tried to swap them, the duct tape I used didn't hold, they both fell off, and now I'm trying to make The Point using only 24 letters, like a drunk reciting the alphabet for a State Policeman by the side of the road.
Oh, yeah. The Point. More than a few years ago, I took the Massachusetts Construction Supervisor license test with hundreds of other schlubs at the UMASS Dartmouth campus-cum-abattoir, handed it in, and went outside. I knew no one there. Once again, I was all alone, because everyone there knew each other, were standing outside in a kind of park that looked more like a black ops landing strip than a place for humans to congregate, and they were all talking furiously to each other. Right there, I got the only education that I was likely to get from the whole episode.
They all knew each other because they had all been taking that test, and attending those stripmall classes together, forever and a day, over and over. They always failed. They failed long. They failed hard. They failed often. They failed regularly. Miserably. Spectacularly. With bangs. With whimpers. And no one that passed finished before I did. They left forty-five minutes before the allotted time was up because they were only on the second question at that point, knew their answer to the first one was wrong anyway, and figured there was no point in continuing.
I didn't bother to introduce myself to anyone. I didn't need to, after all -- I was famous. I was the moron or genius without the tabs; a celebrity of sorts. I simply walked up to the closest big gaggle of hangdog expressions and they adopted me immediately like a pound puppy. They were all comparing notes on how exactly they failed. I gathered that they met so often that they had formed softball teams and dart leagues and began to marry each other's sisters. I didn't quite understand how it could be, I didn't think the test was that hard, but they all assured me it be.
They were all framing carpenters. They had reached the period of their careers where they had to take over for their old man the framing carpenter, and let him move to Florida with the seven fingers and one thumb he had left and be retired for at least fifteen minutes before he had his complimentary myocardial infarction. Of course their fathers never had to pass the test; they were grandfathered in, and the Building Code was small enough to be printed on an index card back then, anyway. But they had to, and they couldn't. One man, who had the rangy look and laconic voice common among framers I have known, said nothing for a good long time, and when pressed, came to The Point in one, brilliant, heartbreaking sentence:
"Not a lot of questions about wood on that test."
Unlike people like me, who are inoculated with a phonograph needle, he was prone to saying very few words and stuffing them with meaning. He was right. Dead right, and I mean that every which way. He knew, by instinct, and training, and custom, and experience, intergenerationally, exactly how to build a single-family house in the State of his birth. And that knowledge, experience, and desire was worthless to him, because there's not a lot of questions about wood on that test...
Listen to me. If you're reading this, you're the person that test is geared towards. The meek have not inherited the earth. The meek have been sent home to tell their father that there's not a lot of questions about wood on that test. The test, and the whole industry, was being geared up to be the province of people that are willing and able to wade through fens of text bogged down with legalese, much of it contradictory, a great deal of it useless, in order to have anything to do with building or altering a single-family home.
No one that reads this blog can't understand how to build a house, or anything else, for that matter. It's statute turtles all the way down now. You're all intellectuals. You're all used to traversing minefields of legalese to get to your porridge. You're smart, in a very particular way.
And so, we come to the second part of The Point. As I said, you and I are smart, in a very particular way. And that way of being smart is completely useless to the problem at hand: What makes a good, sturdy, liveable house. Being that particular kind of smart has become worse than useless. It's become antithetical to good housing. It's a trifle to figure out the structural problems presented by a single-family house. The things that make a house pleasant to live in are subtle, not complicated. There's nothing subtle in the CMR.
We drove out every single person that built good houses to live in, guarded by common-sense, not statute; produced by tradition, custom, habit, or by accident --what difference does it make why someone is right? Everyone that knew what they were doing are all gone, driven out in a tide of superfluousness, and we're going to have to do it ourselves if we want it done at all. I can tell you that "the experts" in these matters don't know squat about what makes a pleasant place to live in. The "experts" built UMASS Dartmouth, and teach there. By the mark of that beast you should know them. You've been told that building and repairing a house is an arcane, complicated business left to professionals. You're warned never to try anything substantial to repair your house. They tell you to change out the kitchen counters and the tile like they're underwear, spending the same money over and over again, but the rest of the house is as complicated as the building code is. No it's not. In my experience, if it's in your house, and it's fussy or complicated, it's bad and you don't want it. A good house is simpler than a bad house, and that rule of thumb gets truer every day.
You're plenty smart enough to know, or at least figure out, everything you need to know to build or fix anything worth living in. The only question is whether you have the sense to know what a dullard used to, and stop building and buying and living in houses a dumb person, in recent memory, knew enough not to build, buy or live in.