Lady in a Hard Hat

Wiring My House If Mark could have watched, he would have been chuckling to see Kenny and me working together on wiring my new-old house.  Mark was fascinated by electricity; in all of his remodeling projects he enjoyed the wiring most.

He was also good at solving electrical problems—more than once he came home pleased, after he figured out the glitches in someone’s three-way switch.  Sometimes a client had called in numerous electricians and had never gotten it worked out. Mark would get a pencil and paper and draw out the circuit for me, explaining in detail how it had been mis-wired and why that didn’t work, showing me what he did to let the current flow the way it was supposed to. There was nothing more elegant in his mind than a switch that let light into someone’s darkness just as it was meant to do.

Mark’s love of electricity started when he was young. As a junior in high school, he went out with his father to see the new wing of the Dembi Dollo, Ethiopia hospital that was being built. “I’m going to teach you how electricity works,” his Dad said. He had been a missionary builder before he was a missionary pastor before he was a missionary doctor. “This will be your summer job, wiring the new hospital.” Mark glowed, even as an adult, remembering the subtext of love and trust from his dad.

Mark already knew electricity could be put to fun uses. When he was about ten he had rescued an old electric razor from the dump. He mounted a propellor from his erector set (his favorite childhood toy) onto it. Then he mounted the razor on a little toy car. When he plugged the razor in, the propellor whirred, the car started moving, picked up speed, and zoomed across the floor to the end of the cord. It yanked the plug out of the outlet; the prop slowed, the car coasted to a stop. Can’t you just see a young Mark and his brothers collapsing in heaps of little boy laughter over the contraption?

So Mark wired the Dembi Dollo Hospital addition when he was sixteen.

In about 2007, we agreed to buy a fixer-upper in Albany, Oregon with our son Kenny and his wife. The idea was to find a three-bedroom one-bath house where we could add a second bathroom and enhance the value of the house beyond the investment in the remodel. It didn’t really work out that way—we found a house that maybe should have been “scraped,” and brought it back to life instead. Before we were done, hours had been spent in the basement, jacking up and leveling the floor. The stairwell had migrated from the middle of the house to a side wall, opening up floor space. The huge chimney had come down. And every internal wall had been moved.

When it came time for the wiring, Mark said to Kenny, “I’m going to teach you how electricity works, and you’re going to wire your own house.”

And that, in turn, is what Kenny said to 3 (1) copy

Wiring involves drilling and pounding, but there were also long stretches when Kenny and I could talk as we worked. Then we cleaned up and went ballroom dancing together after supper. Kenny complimented me on my improvement in dance—he said I was able to follow everything he thew at me. He will always be the natural, though, with far more creativity and styling than I can can access, starting as late in life as I have. He’s also a kinetic learner. I’m so cerebral, and that doesn’t help me dance. “Stop thinking and just follow,” he has to say.

What fun days and evenings we had, wiring my house.

And I find I’m proud, out of proportion of the effort it took, of having done part of the remodel myself. I’m pleased that my new house will have been one more family project.

As we finished up the wiring, Kenny and I tried to look with objective eyes and see what the inspector would say we’d done wrong. Kenny coached me not to expect to pass inspection the first time.

photo 2 copy 5I was terribly nervous the day the inspector came. I was afraid he would scold me, shame me, accuse me of something. I was afraid I would cry. And sure enough, the appointment started off badly. The inspector was gruff. He didn’t bother with niceties. “You don’t have a permit,” he said. We’d forgotten that step. My face burned. I started to feel miserable.

“I stopped by anyway,” he said, “because it’s easier to tell people what they’re doing wrong face to face than over the phone.”

He looked at the wires sticking out of the boxes and said, “You need to bundle the grounds.” Then he looked hard at me. “You know what that is?” I shook my head, feeling like a little kid in trouble. “Well, it’s easy. But it needs to be done.”

He went over to another box and pulled on the wires. “Who did this work?”

“I did. My son and I did.”

“Well, anyone who is willing to work this hard, I’m willing to help.”

I wasn’t even sure what he’d said, at first. Later, another contractor admired our wiring job and said it was really professional looking, really clean. That was Kenny’s influence. He made sure all the wires were running straight, not twisted; that the holes he had me drilling in the studs were orderly and even. That every wire end was marked with a sharpie.

The inspector cruised through the house, still talking really fast, still using his loud, abrupt photo 3 (1) copy 2voice. There were some framing glitches he told my framer to fix. He called the city and found out that that in an old house, since I hadn’t touched the headers, the too-small-for-code windows were grandfathered in and I didn’t need to change them. Then he made another call, and ran out to his truck.

He came back with a form—the permit application. “I’m going to take care of this for you,” he said, gruff as ever. He sat on the front porch and filled out the application, told me where to sign, and stuck it in his briefcase to turn in for me, saving me a trip downtown.

By that point, I had realized he was a friend. We chatted about pets. I offered him some of the almonds I’d been snacking on as I waited for him to arrive. He told me about the health benefits of radishes and turnips. I could have hugged him! But I restrained myself and acted like the cool lady in a hard hat that I’d been calling myself.

photo 4 copy 2Only after he left did I dance around the dusty living room, shouting and waving my arms in the air. I drove home still laughing, saying, “ThankyouThankyouThankyou!” all the way.

Early in the process of the remodel I had decided to use my building project as a spiritual discipline. I wanted to work with people who would be blessed by the work, who would bless me with their work, and who would be my partners in blessing my friends who would visit, the neighbors, and the neighborhood I would be moving into.

I got three to six bids for everything—plumbing, roofing, framing, insulating, drywall, gutters, painting, windows, refinishing the floors. Every time I drove over to meet a contractor and get a bid, I thanked God, as though I already knew which would be the right partner for me. I listened for people who were like Mark had been: who took personal pride in their work, who often were in business for themselves and depended on their reputations to stay in business; who gave advice but didn’t condescend to me. I didn’t always take the lowest bid. I often didn’t know quite why I was choosing one contractor over the others, but thanking God as though the decision was already made helped me relax and follow my instincts. I’ve had good relationships with these men who have helped me rebuild my house.

I hadn’t thought of my prayer for partners applying to my inspector, but it did. When he came back to pass the next phase he tramped around, gruff as ever, but nodding at everything he saw. “You’re doing this up right,” he said.

By this time, the finish details have almost swamped me (and they’re not done yet). I’ve moved in, choosing to live in remodeling chaos rather than wait—it was over two and a half years since I lived in my own home. To get this done, I’ve had to make dozens of decisions, and I’ve learned to listen to myself more often. I’ve gotten more confident, and learned how to be firm and business-like but also warm. It’s been a good six months, and now I have a new home. Come and visit me! 

Here are some before and after pictures to tempt you.

Paint job:

A little less flashy!

A little less flashy!

The lovely house I bought.

The lovely house I bought.


A bathroom! YAY!

A bathroom! YAY!

The bathroom space ready to go.

The bathroom space ready to go.


All these decisions! Butcherblock counter tops and white cabinets.

All these decisions! Butcherblock counter tops and white cabinets.

I tried to keep some of the 1926 look, with checkerboard floor.

I tried to keep some of the 1926 look, with checkerboard floor.

Living room:

Okay, I'll set up some furniture--but at least it's getting finished!

Okay, I’ll set up some furniture–but at least it’s getting finished!

The living room of my new house--a 1925 bungalow that hasn't been touched since 1925.

The living room of my new house–a 1925 bungalow that hasn’t been touched since 1925.

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