The One About the Time I Varnished Over the Birdshit

ImageThe house where I spent most of my childhood was considered old by California standards. It was built in 1937. Yes, I know what you are thinking: that you are still wearing underwear older than that house. So? Get used to the idea that Holden Caulfield [1], my parents, and about two trillion other people didn’t even move to Cali until after World War II. No, seriously, if you refer to the most authoritative source on the subject (e.g., Wikipedia), you will learn that there were about 10 million people living in California in 1950. Guess how many live there now? Four quadrillion. Look it up, dude.

For all you authentic-style people in the Middle Atlantic states and New England who are living in and/or renovating stone houses built during the Revolutionary War in order to create your personal brand’s distinction, please understand that for the overwhelming majority of Californians, a house built in 1937 seems like a relic. A Californian will one look at your house and think it was built by Pope Innocent IV in the year 1245 A.D.[2] and wonder why? And because their home is about 10 years old and 5,000 square feet with cathedral ceilings (all work done by a architect, developer, contractor and illegal aliens) and your farmhouse (all work and cleanup performed by you) is about 900 square feet with ceilings that that would scrape Spud Webb’s head [3], they would pity you. Their pity might be reserved if their house has been foreclosed upon (which represents approximately half the population). [4]

But a house built in 1937 in a California suburb will never be considered a McMansion or have the word “compound” associated with it. My childhood home, a single-story ranch house built in the shape of a “U,” sits on a quarter-acre lot surrounded by similar homes. If you use Google maps, you can close in on the house and see for yourself. However, the images miss a lot:

  • The expert paint job completed by me the summer between junior and senior years in college when my father ordered me to come home. I had been spending summers during college working safely several thousand miles away from my parents, who could only hope to communicate with me via mail. That’s U.S. Postal Service mail. I painted the house a sage-y green in about six weeks and hightailed it back to the East Coast. However, the summer was considered a success because I read “The World According to Garp” in one sitting before getting on the bus. Yes, I rode on a Greyhound bus across the country. Not for the last time, either.
  • The absolutely crappy state of the front lawn, which had to have been an embarrassment to the whole neighborhood. Neither of my parents cared much for gardening and my only responsibility to the lawn was to mow it once a week. My father seriously considered installing Astroturf®. I never figured out why he never followed through on the threat. He loved Astroturf®. Maybe it was the threat of the buckling (c.f., Veteran’s Stadium, Philadelphia, circa 1996).
  • The orange tree outside my bedroom window. How many of you could open your bedroom window, reach out, and pluck an orange ready for eating? OK, I never actually ate one of those oranges, but I could have.
  • The garage door that I absolutely fucking pummeled with tennis balls as a teenager. My mother and I took some lessons from the public recreation department when I was about 15 years old. I played on the weekends with a lot of adults on the local high school court, but after I got home from school during the week, I smacked the living daylight out of balls against the garage door. Since none of our neighbors talked to each other, no one ever complained about the thwock! bang! thwock! bang! thwock! bang!
  • The adjacent yards filled with tennis balls.
  • The piles of dogshit deposited by the family dog and all the spots on the lawn burned out by the dog pee.

You will not see any of these features on the Google maps images of my childhood home. However, the most important feature of the property is the deck built in the backyard. You will not see this deck because the trees in the backyard obscure it. [5]

My father, the surgeon, and I built this deck with our own hands, a lot of sweat and strain, and his fucking swearing at me. After all the hours of planning, visiting hardware and lumber stores, and lessons about safety and the plumb line, I am pretty sure that the only detail either of us remembers about building this deck was the time I varnished over the birdshit.

OK, would one of you genius surgeons out there explain to me why someone who depends on the reliability and sensitivity of his hands and fingers for a living – to serve his patients and support his family – would decide to play at being a carpenter? Hammers and nails. Circular saws and jigsaws. Sharp, metal things that can pierce, slice and rip with extreme prejudice. I am positive that my father, the eye surgeon, had no previous experience with tools. I am positive that he decided that our house should have a deck for outdoor entertaining, that building said deck would provide us with an opportunity for father-son bonding, and that said deck would allow him to brag in front of his more “sensitive” surgeons.

My best recollection is that no limbs or fingers were lost. Together, we developed skills that I still use today. [6] I learned about the qualities of 2×4 and 2×6 and 2×8 and 4×4. I learned about pine and, especially redwood. God, redwood is such a beautiful wood. I learned about fasteners, nails, and woodscrews. I learned about paint and stain and varnish.

I learned enough to wonder why we were varnishing the deck after we had already stained it. Once you stain the redwood, it achieves a luxurious finish. A matte finish that is a bit tacky, even after it has rained. But the thing about varnish is that it makes wood look shiny, but it is also slick as hell. After it rains? Whoa, look out cowboy! You will be slipping and sliding on a varnished redwood deck. I think it was the shiny part that my father liked. What is it about parents and shiny things?

But before I knew about this quality of varnished wood, I varnished the wood under the admittedly casual supervision of my father, who liked to see me work hard and sweat. And on this particular day, I was making excellent progress, applying smooth strokes of clear varnish using a four-inch paintbrush. I was not being cheap with the varnish. I was slathering that stuff on. I liked the thickness and the way in glistened in the sunlight. Nice smooth, slathering strokes. No, this, uh, activity was not a replacement for masturbation.

In the middle of one of these smooth strokes, a bird shit on the deck. I never saw the fucker, only the evidence of his/her passing presence. Its aim was perfect. Not a drop touched me. The stuff landed inches from my moving paintbrush. No Holy Ghost dove jokes here, please.

I had to make a split-second decision: stop my stroke and clean up the birdshit before finishing the stroke or just varnish over the birdshit. I weighed several factors: 1) how much of a pain in the ass it would be to experience strokus interruptus; 2) how much of a pain in the ass it would be to clean up the birdshit; and 3) how much more interesting the deck would be to have a perfectly round dollop of birdshit become a permanent exhibit of my creative impulse. In that split second, I allowed my curiosity to trump whatever practical impulses I possessed and decided to varnish over the birdshit for the sake of posterity.

My father, witnessing only the outcome of this deliberation, went ballistic. In a single stroke – in his opinion – I had ruined the entire project.

“Jesus H. Christ on a bicycle!” he screamed. And then he proceeded to scream some more. Whatever punishment followed mattered so little that I do not even recall it. I had created something transcendent on our deck. Something beautiful visitors could visit and be amazed by for decades. Something you could probably still see on Google maps if the current owners cut down the trees in the backyard.

What’s the lesson here for parents? Your teenagers are thinking, they are just thinking different than you. And that’s probably not going to change.


1. Of course J.D. Salinger never wrote about Holden moving to Cali, which was the correct thing to do. However, we are free to conjecture that a post-World War II young man on the East Coast who is disaffected by institutions and his prospects with women might (might!) envision joining his sellout brother with money and opportunity on the West Coast if for no other reason than to get a new perspective on the matters at hand and perhaps get laid. This author grew up around millions of Holdens who fled the East Coast at the same time and who ended up fathering my schoolyard rivals.

2. Of course, the joke would be on us Coasties. Popes in the Middle Ages were are renowned for destroying, not building.

3. No disrespect intended towards the 5’7” Spud Webb, who is still the most frightening dunkenstein monster the NBA has ever known.

4. Visit:

5. I am grateful to Microsoft Word for taking this sentence out of the passive tense in which it originally appeared.

6. Most recently, my basement flooded following torrential rains and the storm water removal and sewage systems were overwhelmed. The result was three feet of raw sewage in my basement (c.f., me walking around avoiding floaters). When everything dried out, I had to replace some interior walls. You should have seen me doing some mad, motherfucking carpentry in the front yard! No blood shed, no costly professionals who would force me into awkward conversations (because they’d be thinking, shit, can’t this pussy even do this?), and a result better than what was there before the flood. My girlfriend is so in awe of me.

About Stephen Dedalus, Jr.

I am trying to awaken from the history of my ancestor's nightmare to comment on my Holy Trinity of Interests: art, literature, and music. Oh, and thoughts on dysfunctional families, which is to say families.
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