Jessie Raymond: Of marriage and coffee tables
Last weekend I decided to refinish our old, banged-up coffee table.
“You’re not going to do a great job,” he said. This was true. He’s seen me tackle all kinds of projects, only to lose interest in the process and, in the end, fudge them.
“I don’t have to do a great job,” I said. “I just have to make it better than it was.” I reminded him of an old saying: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”
He reminded me of his own old saying: “Don’t be lazy.” The nerve.
But he had a point. In my eagerness to go from “before” to “after,” I get bored with the in-between stuff — the prepping, the work, the finishing. I consider it a win if the completed project looks, in the right light, like an improvement.
This drives Mark nuts. He thinks you must be willing to spend several sleepless nights working on a project until a magnifying glass couldn’t reveal any imperfections. Since even he admits that’s nearly unattainable, he rarely starts anything at all.
It’s kind of an issue with us.
Take the coffee table. It didn’t start out as a coffee table. It started out as a counter-height Shaker-style work table. When we no longer needed it in the kitchen, I suggested we cut the legs down and use it in the living room.
“Why mess with that old thing,” Mark said, “when I can build a really nice coffee table in a day or two?” (Lesson learned over many years of marriage: “Can” and “will” are not the same thing.)
When the really nice handmade coffee table failed to materialize, I got to work on the old table. With a measuring tape and a saw, through some miracle that has yet to be explained by science, I managed to cut the legs to exactly the same length. (The more likely scenario was that I’d cut one leg short and find myself taking an extra eighth-inch off each leg in turn, again and again, until I ended up with just a large cutting board on the living room floor.)
We’ve had the table for 25 years now, 15 of them as a coffee table. And Saturday morning I decided that it needed a new finish on top and a fresh coat of paint on the legs. Immediately.
When Mark pointed out my lax attitude toward quality control, I said, “You’re right. Maybe you should refinish it for me.”
“Why would I want to waste time on that ratty old table,” he said, “when I could build a really nice one in a day or two?”
“You said that 15 years ago.”
He shrugged. “I’ve been busy.”
He left me with two choices: I could (a) live with the coffee table as it was and seethe with marital resentment until one of us died, or (b) refinish it myself.
I changed into my work clothes.
When Mark sands, he makes it a days-long affair, methodically going over the whole surface with a coarse-grit paper and then working his way to finer papers in single-grit increments until he reaches a smoothness that can be measured in nanometers.
I just like to get the sanding over with as fast as possible.
Having accomplished that tedious task — in record time! — I opened the can of polyurethane. I dreaded the laborious process of slowly applying the finish to avoid generating bubbles.
Long story short: I generated bubbles.
A lot of bubbles. The pebbly finish didn’t even meet my low standards. Oh, well. I’d keep a runner on the table, and maybe no one would notice.
Mark wasn’t having it. He tolerates many of the annoying things I do by ignoring them — or by being genuinely oblivious, which requires much less effort — but he could not let this pass. Griping but resigned, he re-sanded the entire top and put a smooth, bubble-free finish on it, so all I had to do was paint the legs. What a guy.
In the end, the coffee table looked just like the “after” picture I had envisioned, except for a few runs on the legs where I had gotten sloppy with the paint.
When Mark pointed them out, I said, “I don’t care. I refuse to let perfect be the enemy of good.”
“I get that,” he said. “But maybe, once in a while, you should try letting good be the enemy of crappy.”
Sounds like way too much work to me.
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