the knob theory of the universe

I have a theory of the universe. And that theory is, apparently, that if I change the butt-ugly doorknobs on my kitchen cabinets, the entire universe as I know it will somehow have to be remodeled. I am not exaggerating here. I’ve been knowing this since the year 2000, and I have been killing myself to not change them to save you all time and expense.

You’re welcome.

Here’s how it goes: Every so often, my husband will forget that he’s married to a relatively introverted person and, without warning me ahead of time, he will volunteer our house for a party—usually a big one which entails about sixty or so people all in our living-room and kitchen area. Now, individually, I like all of the people. And, individually, I like having them over. I’m just not so great at the whole crowd thing, though I can do it from practice now. He typically announces that he has already volunteered the house for the time and date (usually within two weeks of his pronouncement—he doesn’t like giving me much warning because the head spinning might get a little intimidating… short notice means I have to suck it up and deal). (After twenty-five years, he’s unreasonably confident that I’m not going to kill him.)

At any rate, this announcement of a party starts a dead panic for me because (a) I typically haven’t visited the kitchen for anything except for diet cokes and to use the microwave (I think I used the stove top twice this year, and that was only because the microwave was busy) and (b) since I am usually buried in writing or reading, I have no clue what the house looks like and am appropriately appalled at all of the projects that didn’t magically finish themselves. (To hell with the tooth fairy, why can’t there be construction elves?)

About this point in the process, I start worrying about how the house looks and I want to get it back up to speed. What I can see in my head—its potential—is sadly lacking in the reality and I know that I could make a few small changes and it would be greatly improved. We’re contractors, after all. We should have a finished house (you’d think). This is when I zero in on one of the main offenders: the kitchen knobs. (These are some of the ugliest knobs on the planet. I swear to you, the people who built this house went to the Ugly Store and picked out the cheapest looking crap knobs in the place and then thought, “Hey, why just ruin the kitchen! Let’s make the bathrooms as ugly as we can, too!”) I typically focus on them because I think, “easy fix!” and inevitably, my husband sees me looking at them and sighs, because he knows what’s coming next: the knob theory of the universe.

Or, better known as, “When Toni loses her mind.”

Because in spite of the fact that there will be sixty or so guests showing up at our house about two weeks from the point of the discussion, I decide I can go buy new knobs. But I don’t want cheap knobs, I want something pretty. Something that will make a statement. Something stylish and current, I think, and then I go find knobs that I like (online, because I hate to shop) and that’s about the point that I realize that the knobs I like are $10 each. Which wouldn’t be bad if there weren’t 78 knobs. This is when the adrenaline has started to pump (because there are PEOPLE coming OVER and the house is a WRECK) but I am ignoring the adrenaline, happily skipping into denial because this is an opportunity to fix the damned knobs. This is the part where Delusion piles on… I really look at the kitchen cabinets and think, “Gee, you know… if I’m going to spend that much money on knobs, I don’t want to put them on these doors the way they look. They need to be painted. I could paint them.” Then, because I am very good at painting, I think, “And age them! A couple of layers of paint, sand one off a bit to make them look like old furniture!” (Yeah, because that’s a lot simpler.) Which then leads to, “I also need new hinges, because these look out-dated.” About five seconds later, up pops the, “But those countertops are ugly and won’t go with the new knobs or the new color of paint (which I haven’t picked out yet, but I CAN because I am INSANE)” which of course leads to me saying, “but if we’re going to put in new countertops, we’ve really GOT to replace that stove top because two of the burners can no longer be resuscitated,” and almost immediately, next, is “that oven has got to go because it’s just too damned small for anything bigger than a postage stamp” which then has me scampering down the road of insanity to “but if we’re going to get new appliances, we might as well go with the range option with the six-burner top instead of the four burner top, seeing how we’re always having people over here for parties” which THEN leads to “but that means we have to enlarge the opening in the cabinets to fit the range, which means some demo and construction,” which then further leads to “but if we’re going to go ahead and do the range, we might as well redesign the kitchen and put the pantry over there and the range over here so that we can put an opening in this section, which means chipping up and replacing the tile floor” which forces the next idea of “but if we’re going to have an opening there, we might as well go ahead and build the porch off the side of the house that we’ve always been wanting,” (which then means changing the roof and the driveway and the back door entrance) at which point my eyes have gone glassy and my head is spinning and I am probably frothing at the mouth because I am somehow trying to figure out how to get it ALL done in two weeks before people arrive. Not to mention the minor little detail that instead of spending $780 for knobs (which is, I will admit, nuts), I am now contemplating work that will cost upwards of fifty grand and I am, at this point, COMPLETELY CONVINCED it can be done in two weeks before the party. It has to be all or nothing, because my entire identity is wrapped up in those fucking knobs and how my kitchen looks (when everyone who’s coming to visit knows me and knows I don’t use the damned thing) and when my husband tries to point out that I could just go get knobs, it’s as if he’s yanked the rug out from under my demented little world and I’m usually furious with him that he won’t go along with this terrific plan. How dare he be practical and pragmatic when there are PEOPLE coming OVER.

This is about the time he makes me margaritas and I calm down.

(Okay, there may be a little more ranting on my part about how I never ever get the stupid knobs I want, which we now refer to as the “great knob debate,” the reference of which cuts off about two days of me being annoyed.)

Here’s the thing I will tell you: it’s dumb. The whole process of stalling out and not doing anything because I can’t instantly have the whole thing is dumb, and luckily, confined mostly to the knob argument.

The thing is, as dumb as this example is, it’s not that far off from what a lot of people do when they’re trying to write. I see the parallel in people every day who hope to accomplish something with their writing, who feel overwhelmed, and as a result, they don’t move forward. They are deeply fearful of something (people coming over)(or the writing equivalent, worried about what people will think of the finished project) and so they sidetrack themselves (construction projects)(or the writing equivalent, listing all of the reasons they can’t write “right now.”) I’ve watched over the years as people have discussed online why they’re having trouble writing and there are always some good reasons mixed in there: work constraints, kids, family, tragedy, depression, financial… There are always obstacles. Big obstacles. You can let them stop you or you can find a solution. The solution is rarely, if ever, magically done in a moment. It’s step by step, bit by bit, or as Anne Lamott would say, bird by bird.

Books don’t happen overnight. Careers don’t happen in one move. It takes whittling away at it, a little each day, to create something like a book or a script or a career. Every single day you don’t do a little bit toward your dream is a day you lose.

We aren’t getting these days back. They aren’t a dress rehearsal.

I realized early on that in spite of my frothing over the whole knobs issue, that the bottom line was, I didn’t really care. The knobs aren’t important to me because if they were, I’d have done something about them long ago. I recognized the whole debate over them was really over fear; focusing on the construction was a way of keeping myself busy so I wouldn’t have to face the reality, that having a crowd here made me a little apprehensive and wanting to flee until it was over. Ultimately, though, the only real choice I can make is to deal with what’s at hand: clean up the house, do what I can, get ready for the party.

Then enjoy. And no matter how traumatized and fearful I am prior to a party, I always end up enjoying the people, once they’re here. Not a single one of them cares about the knobs or the countertops or the kitchen; they’re typically having fun, eating great food. As much as I feared these times, I look back on them now and know my husband was really the smart one: he kept our friends and family together through these events. He kept us all interacting and part of a bigger family unit than my introverted self would have managed. These memories I have of everyone laughing around the table, people eager to come over… would have been lost, if I had waited until the kitchen was “just right” for guests. These people would have been absent from my life. And I am glad to have been pushed a bit out of my comfort zone, to have these memories.

It’s the same thing with the writing. Sure, there’s the Platonic ideal in my head that I fear I’ll never live up to, but there would never be anything to show if I don’t start somewhere, keep working and strive to improve. No matter how afraid I am for the reception of my writing, I am always glad I did it, that I stuck it out, gritty detail after gritty detail. I do what I can, to the best of my ability, day by day. I’ve been lucky in the reception of it, for the most part, but the bottom line is, I love what I do. I wouldn’t have accomplished it if I had waited to have enough “time” to write, or the right office or money or work circumstance or calm and quiet or lack of pain in my life. Maybe it’s insane to plug along every day, not knowing what the outcome can be, but I’d rather think of it as tenacity. I know sometimes new writers sort of look at published authors, wondering what the secret is to getting from there to here. Maybe tenacity is a big part of the answer. Maybe, though, the secret lies also in recognizing that we all have fear, and we do it anyway.

So tell me, what accomplishment are you glad to have (besides writing), in spite of what it took to get there?

10 thoughts on “the knob theory of the universe

  1. pari

    Wow, Toni. What a wonderful inaugural post for your Sunday slot. Thank you.

    When I started reading it, I wondered if you were going to bring writing into the equation. I’m glad you did because it rings so true.

    Okay . . .I think in many ways, my Tae Kwon Do fits this bill. In the beginning, I thought about quitting, oh, say, every five minutes.

    If I couldn’t do the kicks right, then I’d never be able to do the forms right and I didn’t know how to punch and everyone was always correcting me and I couldn’t do anything worth a damn.

    But I’ve stuck with it, chipping away at all the problems bit by bit, bird by bird, kick by kick.

    You see, the technique is important but, even more than that, the doing of TKD — the showing up and trying — has changed my entire image of myself for the better.

  2. a Paperback Writer

    First of all, let me assure you that I truly understand your whole knob issue; it is for this reason that I don’t repaper the upstairs bathroom, even though the old paper is beginning to peel in the corners. Basically, when I finally do repaper, it will involve painting and re-doing the entire upstairs of the house, and I will lose a whole summer of writing time.Secondly, a husband who invites people over without asking you first may very well be considered abusive in some people’s minds — even if he does placate you with margaritas.

  3. Robin Burcell

    Oh m’gosh! It’s like you were HERE, in my kitchen four years ago. Let me tell you what happens when you get new knobs. You get the new counters, and the new tile, and the new carpet. And then when it’s all done, you look around and think… damn, I should have gone with the other color scheme. And now I count the days until I can change it all out. And after my 50,000 dollar knobs, I figure I should wait at least ten years. So I have six to go. And this damned book I’m working on still sucks, and the writing does NOT get any easier when you have pretty knobs in your kitchen. But I do like my new microwave. It heats up my coffee real fast, which helps me get back to the computer. So maybe there is an advantage to changing those knobs out. I just never knew it had a name until today!

  4. Louise Ure

    Hi Toni,

    For me, whenever any worthwhile project is done — dieting, writing, building a deck, learning a language — I forget how many little baby steps it took to get there. All I can remember is the accomplishment.

    I only have four excuses for not writing (stolen from Elizabeth Hay’s “A Student of Weather”):

    • Interruptions• Timidity• Bad Temper• Loss of nerve

    They keep me from changing the kitchen cabinet knobs, too.

  5. toni mcgee causey

    Pari, thanks. I hoped people would hang in there. 😉 And TKD takes so much perseverance, so many little steps to finally get to the accomplishment, I am in awe of those who’ve gone so far with it.

    Paperback, yep, it’s that whole “losing writing time” issue that makes it easier to procrastinate between parties. I know if it really mattered, I’d have done it after the party when there was time, but I happily went back to writing. As for the abusive part, if he was hurting me, I’d have made him stop. I’m pretty tough. Thing is, if it weren’t for him, I’d have never learned to step out of my shyness. (Aside to Rob: yes, really, I was terminally shy.) I still don’t like the surprise, but he’s learned to ask and I’ve learned not to wig. (as much)

    Oh, Robin, you just nailed the other reason I hesitate. My color choices change every single time and I realize I would be stuck with something I just spent 50 grand on and I keep thinking, “One day, I’m going to have the exact right color combination I’ll be happy with forever.” Which so far, has never happened. (I want one of those designers, like that Candace Olsen to just show up here and do the kitchen.) (I would love to have that talent.)

    Louise, LOL… yep, I agree with those four. Everything else I can shove aside, but when I am particularly out of sorts over something, get interrupted, or feel timid about what I’m trying to do, I end up stopping myself dead and I have to step back and regroup. Usually, that means going off and doing something fun or better yet, doing something new that requires a little bravery, and then I’m ready for a better perspective toward the writing.

  6. billie

    Oh my god – would you please ask your husband to teach my husband the part where he calms you down with margaritas???

    Because mine expects me to calm down all by myself when my head gets to spinning like that and it is Way Too Hard.


    Wonderful post. I’m sitting here at my writing retreat doing the bird by bird thing and when my head starts spinning… it’s time for a gin and tonic!

  7. toni mcgee causey

    Billie, LOL on the Way Too Hard. Yep. Carl’s finally seen enough of the before / after to realize that when it’s fear talking, it’ll just keep going in harmonic motion unless I’m distracted. 😉

  8. Fran

    Ohmygoodness. I forgot about the writing part for a bit, because that’s Lillian and me! “We need to redo the tile in the bathroom, but if we’re going to do that then we should put in a new tub, but if we do THAT…”

    Are you sure we’re not related?

    And of course it makes perfect sense from a writing standpoint too. I’ll wait to get my house/book/story in perfect shape before I let anyone in to see it. And it’ll never be perfect so I won’t ever have to deal with rejection, but then no one will reject it if it’s perfect so I need to…

    Man, what a wicked cycle. Thank you!

  9. toni mcgee causey

    Thanks, Dusty. (Of course, now everyone officially knows I’m nuts.)

    LOL, Fran… we must be, because I swear, I’ve also had that bathroom discussion. The bad thing about buying a house that you know you can eventually flip is that… somewhere along the way, there’s all this work to be done.

    And yep, wicked cycle. I have to remind myself often just to let it go.


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