I recently heard a podcast* about the use of incrementalism in British professional bike racing. Rather than blowing up the racers’ routine with colossal change—like mandating an all-goo diet, celibacy or transfusions of ibek* blood before a mountain race—this coach credits his success to dozens of small tweaks. For example, when the team travels, the coach brings the racers’ favorite pillows along for better sleep. He reduces colds by disinfecting doorknobs before the team’s arrival at a hotel. I assume he also wipes preschooler boogers on the doorknobs of the opposing team…
You’re probably thinking, “Great idea! But how can I apply the magic of incrementalism to my ugly upstairs bathroom?”
Perhaps, like me, you’ve inherited a bathroom this is perfectly functional for human waste disposal and hygiene maintenance, but drowns you in melancholy each time you plop down on the pink-brown toilet:
Or bathe in your matching brown-pink tub:
Combined with the jaundice-beige walls, you feel as though you’re trapped in a can of expired salmon, or working third shift at the Band-Aid™ factory. Perhaps you don’t have money to spend on an upgrade, because in three years you’ll have one kid in college and another kid in braces and a third kid in… uhhh…Somewhere.*** But there is hope in small changes.
Welcome to our Incremental Babushka Bathroom Makeover (I-Ba-Ba-Mo!)
As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis**** famously said, “Sunlight is the best of disinfectants.” And while I know he wasn’t telling me literally not to clean my toilet, Justice Brandeis understood that dark bathrooms are a total bummer. So when we had our roof replaced right after moving in the Babushka house, we splurged on a skylight directly above the toilet.*****
Next, we replaced the beige toilet seat with a white one. Not just for the color contrast, but because our 3-year-old (yup, third child) kept falling into the toilet.
We suffered in our 90% pink-brown bathroom for another two years. And then one chilly January night, I needed an excuse not to play board games (I call them “bored” games) with my family. So I slithered up to the bathroom with a bucket of TSP cleaner and my big orange sponge. After a nice scrub-down, I patched up the plaster pockmarks with joint compound. Finally it was time for a refreshing coat of white primer on the walls and ceiling. Feeling better already!
After priming, I applied two coats of high-gloss white paint. I can’t stress enough how important the second coat is to any paint job, regardless of primer. I’ve been working on a catchy, Illinois-Department-of-Transportation-inspired rhyme for my Advice to Paint it Twice: Be cool like ice and paint it twice. Don’t roll the dice, paint it twice. If you don’t paint twice, you’ll pay the price.” Too threatening?
With the walls and ceiling neutralized, I pointed my paintbrush at the hideous orange wood sink cabinet. I was positively paralyzed in choosing a paint color when I glanced over my shoulder at the blue painter’s tape on the wall. I delighted at the contrast between the prawn-toned tile, cool blue tape and freshly-white walls. At the paint store, I ordered up a can of oil-based “masking tape” blue paint.******
First, I gave the cabinet, door and drawers a light sanding and then a single coat of white oil-based primer:
The next day, I anxiously applied the first coat of blue paint. As it dried, I spun into a vortex of panic and regret. It looked terrible. Like a toddler’s finger painting, or something listed on Craigslist as “shabby chic.”*******
And since this was finicky oil paint, I had to wait a whole day to recoat. The second coat was an improvement, but it wasn’t until the third coat that I allowed my family to see what I had done to our bathroom. Luckily, personal hygiene isn’t a priority in this house.
Waiting for the paint to dry is a great time to take stock of your toiletries. Dump everything on your bed and gather the family to reminisce about health problems. Try a game called “Match the Family Member to the Ailment.” Lice shampoo AND pinworm drops? Somebody here likes hosting parasites! Which of you had excessive earwax? Does somebody still get constipated while traveling? Is Jock Itch even a real medical condition or just a backdoor brag?
With the sink cabinet painted, I turned my attention to the ugly dollar-store basket full of towels that is usually shoved between the sink and the window.
Since Babushka House was built before the invention of closets, we had no dedicated towel storage area. Always defending his title of World’s Most Multi-Tasking Dad, Scott installed a lightweight IKEA Grundtal shelf over the bathroom door while the kids took a bath. This may remind you of the old Rodney Dangerfield joke: I could tell my parents hated me—my bath toys were a toaster and a radio. Rest assured, he used a cordless drill. Safety first!
The remaining piece of the Incrementalist I-Ba-Ba-Mo Puzzle was Babushka’s Louis XIV French Baroque Medicine Cabinet. The golden swirls and twirls of the frame are perfect for catching toothpaste splatters, beard hairs and baby fingernails, and was clearly not designed by anyone who has ever cleaned a bathroom in his life, such as Louis XIV:
By this point, my only goal was to replace the cracked and yellowed light diffuser. At Menard’s, a friendly fellow who blurted the words okee-dokee and fiddlesticks in the same sentence walked me to the light panels section, where I grudgingly purchased a 2 feet x 4 feet-wide “Cracked Ice” acrylic light panel; the kind that normally live in the drop ceilings of dentist waiting rooms:
I cut the panel down to size and gave it a light misting of white spray paint to reduce the incidence of Nighttime Medicine Cabinet Blindness. It doesn’t quite fit into the original curved slot, but this is nothing that the average self-absorbed eyebrow plucker would even notice.
I must now confess my tendency towards faulermutterzerkleinerer, which is the German word that I just made up for avoiding a task for days or weeks, even though the task takes two minutes to complete. In this case, I faulermutterzerkleinerered replacing the battery in the clock on the bathroom wall, because the bathroom is on the second floor and the batteries are on the first floor and it was easier to just leave a note on the clock to alert my family to the situation:
Two months later, with the battery in the clock, our I-Ba-Ba-Mo is complete!
* When I say podcast, what I really mean is this is what I heard on NPR while doing dishes. Saying I heard it on a podcast makes me seem fresh and relevant.
** I assume IBEK is the singular form of IBEX.
*** The third child always gets the shaft. Trust me, I’m a third child. I married a third child. I’d like to starting a dating site exclusively for third children called DATEATHIRDCHILD.com, which is, by the way, a totally normal name for an internet dating site.
**** Ironically, Justice Brandeis is famous for establishing the legal notion of an individual’s Right to Privacy. If you’ve ever tried using the bathroom with small children in the house, you know that the concept is tenuous at best.
***** It’s quite likely that our neighbors can see us do our funny business, but somehow it’s never come up in conversation.
****** OK, the real name for this paint color is Sherwin William’s “Loyal Blue.” Our second choice was of course, “Backstabbing Blue.”
******* “Shabby Chic” is French for Intentionally Terrible. A style popular among economically comfortable people who want that “Grapes of Wrath” look in their bedroom.