I'm not your "do things" type dude. I'm more of a "watch things" or "play things" dude. I'm not what you'd call "handy." Even making these "air quotes" with my hands right now is kinda wearing me out.
Don't get me wrong — I can, like, hammer a nail, but when one of my friends needs something built or hung or fixed, I am not their first call. Like so many of my generation, the siren's song of my couch and Netflix queue rings too loudly in my ears for me to resist. Weekends are what happens while you're busy making other plans.
When it fell to me to plan, prep, and build not just one but six DIY projects in a single day, it's fair to say I was a bit...daunted. But I gathered up my wife, Katie, and some ride-or-die friends (ride-or-DIY friends) named Jake and Sarah, took a couple deep breaths, spread our to-do list out on the coffee table, and got to work.
We got an early start. Well, early for us, which is about 9 o' clock. I thought it would be best to start off simple. How hard could window boxes really be? Not hard at all, it turns out! We were painted, planted, and ready to hang in no time.
Painting is an activity that always seems like a big deal up until the exact moment you start it. Then it hits you: "Oh, right, you just put the paint on the thing, and you're painting!" In fact after a few minutes watching the smooth wood panels gradually become the color you had in your mind when you stood in the hardware store, you become entranced by it. "This is actually really relaxing to just sit and paint," Katie said. "It feels kinda cathartic." I felt the same way as I poured potting soil into the citrus-orange boxes and then dug small holes with my fingers to plant the annuals in. There was something about these tasks that felt youthful, something that seemed refreshingly like play.
Once the boxes were hung, we took a step back and looked at each other in disbelief! Our lines were so clean! Our colors so even and vivid! How had we, mere millennial mortals, achieved such artistic precision? There was a flurry of pic-snapping and hashtagging as we rushed to be the first to post our unexpected artistic genius on Instagram. Then followed a moment of contemplative silence, during which I'm pretty sure we were all thinking about career changes to become interior designers. We had seen now what surreal beauty each of us was capable of, and we felt that we owed it to the world to share our gifts. Then someone mentioned lunch, and we got distracted by debating whether to order sandwiches or pizza. Artists can be fickle.
A brightly colored window box really makes the colors of flower buds pop. We decided to go with a matching color scheme, but we agreed that a flower-to-box contrast would appear equally sharp. Since we were now design professionals, we felt right at home using terms like "color scheme" and "pop."
I was feeling pretty gratified by our progress, but starting out simple also reminds you how much you've got left to do. Glancing down the list, I saw some of the heavier, more complex tasks left and relapsed into a spasm of doubt. That's when Sarah threw some music on, as if she'd sensed my struggle, and I shook off my misgivings. We had one item down, and it was looking damn good.
It felt like we were really hitting our stride. When I looked at my squadmates to see if they felt the same way, I saw heads bobbing to the beat of the music while we all focused on whatever task was in front of us. As accomplished painters with literally hours of experience between us, we were pretty confident we could knock out the terra cotta pots without too much trouble. After proving our painting abilities with the window boxes, everyone crowded eagerly around Jake in anticipation for the tape-pulling moment to arrive. And just like with the boxes, the pots turned out sublime.
My original plan had been to set them around my apartment and backyard as a sort of accessory to end tables, shelves, or the battered old picnic table where Katie sits in the sun and reads on weekends. Newly painted, though, they seemed way too handsome to be simple accessories.
Sarah suggested we group all of the pots in a little cluster on the back porch to let the colors play off each other, almost like an open-air art installation. Good call, Sarah. Real good call.
With two projects down, talk of lunch resurfaced, and we decided we had earned some food. We ate outside, and a breeze kicked up and cooled us off as we talked happily. Every few minutes I'd glance over at our finished projects and wonder to myself what I'd ever been so worried about. Someone mused that maybe we actually hadn't scheduled enough projects to keep us occupied all day. That, dear readers, is what we call "hubris."
What I should have been worried about was rain. Living in L.A., a person can sometimes come to take certain features of the Southern California climate for granted. You can develop blind spots, so to speak, about the inconveniences much of the rest of the country deals with on a daily, or at least yearly, basis. You might forget, for instance, that it's possible, perhaps even probable on some days, for big fat drops of water to fall down from the sky. When this happens on a day when you've planned to work outside from morning 'til evening, you're gonna have to think on your feet.
Our cool, bracing lunchtime breeze became a cool, bracing springtime shower. We scrambled to throw tarps over all of our in-progress masterpieces and retreated inside to reformulate the plan. Luckily, there was still some assembly required for a few of our remaining tasks. We built and sanded the adirondack chairs and the cornhole set while I calmly waited (desperately prayed) for the rain to pass. Pass it did, and we moved back outside to resume painting.
Game Of Two-Tone Thrones
We held our breath as we removed the tarps, cringing at the thought of finding our art rain-spotted or worse, but the Behr paint we'd used for these projects held up like a champ. Even without proper time to dry before being subjected to the weather, the boxes and pots resisted the rain to the point it was impossible to tell they'd been tested at all. Relieved, we chalked the whole "rain in L.A." thing up to a freak accident or a bad dream, and Jake and Sarah got to work on painting the chairs while Katie and I moved on to cornhole. I looked at my watch — it was midafternoon.
Being a renter with no real aspirations toward home ownership, Katie and I tend to think of our apartment as a place to crash. We both work pretty intense schedules that have us running around town all day, every day, so by the time we get home at night — or have the rare weekend that's not totally booked — we're not really thinking about what understated hue to paint an accent wall. We joke that the apartment really belongs to our dog, Mudge, since he spends the most time there, and we're just subletters.
As the day went on, though, and project after project fell into place, we started to see our familiar living spaces in a different way. We felt a sense of accomplishment that we were DIYing, sure, but we also started to feel an unmistakable sense of ownership we hadn't even realized we'd been missing.
Whether we rented or bought, this little plot in the heart of Los Feliz was our home, and getting to make decisions about the styles, shapes, and colors that made up our home was a privilege we'd been ignoring. We started thinking carefully about where to place the things we were making, what went nicely together with what, and even tentatively making plans for other projects in the future to make the place even more "ours."
Crash the Boards
Of all the projects I picked out for this little experiment, the vertical herb garden was the one that made me most nervous. I had seen pictures of the thing looking great, if somewhat implausible, leaned up against walls, but the physics just didn't make sense to me.
How does the dirt not fall out? How do the plants not fall out? What kind of gravitational wizardry was at play here? I was discomfited. We selected a sort of neutral peach for our palette, reasoning that the green of the plants would be the star of the show here. After stapling permeable landscaping fabric to the palette and planting the herbs, it was time to stand this beast up. I remained convinced we were setting up a soil and herb avalanche situation.
Here's the thing about that: It totally happened, and it was epic in the bad way. The secret to this particular magic trick, as we discovered while cleaning up and replanting, is that you're going to need to use a lot more potting soil than you initially think you will. The safe bet is about four bags. Only when the soil is packed tight enough will the tension couple with the root clusters of the herbs to hold everything in place. If you don't get that right, then you'd better have a couple o' push brooms handy, 'cause you're gonna need them. Ya live, ya learn...
We were completing our last project, the bench, as the shade of evening swept across L.A. This leads me to my next pro tip: starting out with the easy stuff is all well and good, but don't leave the biggest, heaviest project until the end of the day.
Also, make very sure you know where you want to put this thing before you glue the cinderblocks together. The bench looks great, the dark gray and seafoam green combination give off a super-beachy vibe really tying the backyard together, and after you throw some indoor/outdoor cushions on it, it's surprisingly comfy.
That's good because I needed to rest my back after moving seven cinderblocks glued together (it's about 200 pounds, in case you were wondering) at the end of a 10-hour day.
From my perch on the bench, I could look around and see the progress we'd made was truly stunning. My first takeaway was that completing this many projects in a single day was even possible, but once I got past that, I became convinced that we had proven more than just that. We'd proven that, as hard as it often is to get motivated, the rewards of a day like today are both immediate and long-lasting.
You don't have to do seven DIY projects in a single day to make a positive change in your life (in fact, I don't recommend it), and what positive change looks like will differ for everyone. For a lot of people, positive change won't be a badass, gravity-defying herb garden. But it is out there, and it is attainable, and you can do it. And getting off your couch once in a while is a good first step.