As a Pirate crazy Clinical Psychologist with ADHD, it was fairly obvious to anybody who knew me that things were not going to go exactly as planned when I decided to completely renovate my 70’s era split-level home in Atlanta. What they didn’t know and what I didn’t imagine at the time was that I would soon be entering a supernatural realm that Rod Serling talked about at the beginning of every episode of one my favorite TV shows, The Twilight Zone. While he talked about a “journey into a dimension of mind.. limited only by ones imagination”, he failed to caution me that my home renovation would take me to a place far less wondrous and wholly inhabited by madmen, drunks, crack addicts, liars and thieves. Of course, like Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in Apocalypse Now, I turned out to be the chief Mad Man and the signposts ahead pointed not towards the “sights and sounds” of the Twilight Zone but instead toward two predominant states of mind, “Temporary Insanity” and “Total Chaos”.
As a single dad with three young sons and without the benefit of intelligent feedback from a spouse, a life partner, a licensed architect or a sober construction professional of any kind, well-advised precepts of home improvement such as “curb appeal”, “cost/benefit analysis” and “careful planning” were tossed overboard in favor of more appealing ideas like man caves, poop decks and secret passageways. Architectural treatments that would entice Tom Hanks in the movie “Big” or anyone with more imagination than good sense gained immediate favor over lesser considerations such as how much money I had in the bank. How much money you might ask in retrospect? Well, let’s just say that recouping my total investment in time, man-hours and renovation dollars is less likely than the chance of Captain Ahab pulling into port dragging his elusive Great White Whale behind him on a thin retractable doggy leash. I now understand why Hemingway chose to call his classic work “Old Man and the Sea”, one of my favorite classic books in high school. That weather-beaten totally exhausted old man Santiago probably started out his chosen adventure as a buff young stud with soft hands, endless optimism and a full head of long curly hair. Speaking of dog leashes, I currently have three dogs (two mini-dauchunds and a rescue black lab) and they are the only living creatures who use the custom designed poop decks and use them on a regular basis…to poop on.
Pirates of old were often considered to be individuals who rejected conventional thinking, spurned traditional approaches and had an abiding love for adventure, personal freedom and complete independence. If true, then my house could be considered CaptCliff’s flagship of rebellious home remodeling and architectural anarchy. In “Apocalypse Now” terms I was Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) , the blood-stained totally whacked out military leader who had seen too much and witnessed things so horrific and debilitating to the human mind and spirit that all he could manage to utter was “the horror, the horror….”. In my case I witnessed the horror of a home renovation so out of control that it made the movie “Money Pit”, also starring Tom Hanks, seem like a nursery rhyme. Still one must endeavor, even in their total madness to find a silver lining. So here are a few to consider when doing a large remodel of ones primary residence:
Introduction: Over the course of my long (and still unfinished) home remodeling, several significant insights occurred to me and are worth mentioning (not counting the primary insight about being really stupid and crazy to do it):
1) Renovations of this size and scope are not just a collection of finite tasks or ordinary home improvement projects like replacing outdated lighting or changing out the bedroom shag carpeting for newer and more resilient hardwood floors. Instead they are closer to epic ordeals and life-death struggles worthy of their own Opera or at least a biopic type documentary narrated by Werner Herzog in his signature monotone voice. Like Tim Treadway, the manic protagonist in Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” a guy who was literally eaten and consumed by his ill-fated obsession and love affair with Alaskan grizzly bears, I too failed to receive the kind of special skill training, psychiatric care or psychoactive medications needed before venturing out to tackle such an overambitious (quasi-suicidal) remodeling project. Like Walter Mitty on crack cocaine, I was interested and excited to find out what it would be like as a “regular person” not trained in architecture, design or construction to immerse myself in a total home remodel and do it basically all by myself (not counting my trusty but often jailed and deported personal assistant Jhony. If that wasn’t nuts enough, as a result of watching too many episodes of “Pickers”, “Flip This House” and other completely scripted and staged DIY television shows, I developed the additional delusion that I could accomplish this daunting task by using mostly salvage materials, “sustainable” second-hand building stock and leftover items stacked up and slowly rotting in my unfinished basement. Yeah, I know. I should have been watching more episodes of “Intervention” and “Hoarders Buried Alive ” instead. On the positive side, I was able to further my counseling career by identifying and diagnosing myself as suffering from a completely new psychiatric disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Renovation Disorder (OCRD).
2) Death, destruction, entropy, and financial ruin lurk like a gathering of hungry zombies around every major home addition or sizable renovation project. That includes the tortured ghosts of some very well-known architects, designers and visionaries like Frank Lloyd Wright whose own residence burned down not once but twice from arson, unexplained electrical issues and really bad karma. As a result, throughout the demolition, construction and remodeling phases of my home I attempted to remain keenly aware of the need to stay psychologically grounded, highly focused and well-organized. Of course that never happened and yet deep down I knew there was a certain method to my creative madness. Unfortunately that method along with everything important I just mentioned became lost immediately and repeatedly along with my car keys, my drivers license, my social security card, my prescription glasses and my wallet under an enormous and perpetually growing pile of papers, unopened utility bills, hand-drawn renderings and certified mail. The purchase receipts from Home Depot or Lowes alone eventually grew to closely resemble the Devil’s Tower prominently shown in the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.
3) When one takes forever to remodel their home, many popular design concepts and current trends come and go. Similarly, ones personal preferences change because, well, people naturally grow and change as they get older and mature…or at least “theoretically” mature in my case. Certain things one never ever considered viable before suddenly begin to cross their renovation “radar screen” or are not so randomly brought to our attention by deviously clever targeted Facebook ads, Instagram and Pinterest posts, etc. Through data mining, cookies and spyware these savvy advertisers use our personal information to “target” what they consider to be our preferences or greatest consumer needs. For example, am I the only one getting a spate of spam and tidal wave of pop-up commercials for Viagra, home catheters and adult-sized diapers? Sorry, I had to ask. Who knew that those electric chairs that take you up and down the stairs would start to look pretty good over time? Ditto with those walk-in bathtubs and thick stainless steel safety hand-rails. If anything, I came to view my original renovation design and preferred architectural style ie. “Contemporary Southwest”, as morphing into a more “international” or eclectic architectural stew. What started as single off white walls with open gallery-style niches for indigenous art and sculpture naturally transformed into something that incorporated various bits and pieces of different cultures, far-away places and exotic ports I had either been to or fantasized escaping to (since they lacked extradition agreements) in my slowly emerging crock pot/melting pot pirate residence.
4) While the design components, architecture and finished interiors I chose for my home are highly individual (particularly in terms of native art and aesthetics) they also represent a genuine expression of my admittedly eccentric personality. Furthermore, because of who I am and what I do for a living (a pirate psychologist/writer/humorist) my house attempts to communicate certain things to those brave souls who intentionally or accidentally cross my glass-tiled threshold and “come aboard” (symbolically speaking). This includes a number of key insights, core values, and principles I consider fundamental to “positive pirate living” living rooms, and quite possibly living in general. Such notions include relatively obvious concepts like seeking “inner peace”, tranquility (not counting all the shit in the basement), achieving “balance”, maintaining a sense of humor (with an appropriate amount of existential irony and sarcasm) and especially recognizing ones individuality, uniqueness and innate value in an unusually superficial, materialistic, “show-off” oriented society (think Kardashians, Trump, or literally any of the Wives of Wherever reality TV shows). Honestly I’ve already been there and done that and it really didn’t make me very happy. Well, ok, I was possibly temporarily happy until my AMEX card spontaneously combusted. At least my current home with all its many flaws makes me laugh quite often (mostly at myself) and reminds me of mankind’s perpetual folly in thinking that human beings have control over anything from unsavory subcontractors to unsafe supernovas. A very large home improvement project will most likely teach you these fundamental life lessons. Of course it’s also important to realize what a naive fool and total idiot you or I were and then forgive yourself for it. That’s not all that different from learning to look back on and forgive oneself for their lost time, reckless teenage years or even embarrassing mid-life crisis in which a grown man I know thought he could totally restore a broken down 1993 Jaguar XJ12 convertible in his garage even tho the classic car was in 378,298 pieces and he didn’t even have a garage door….because of his total home renovation. True story….and I am still missing a garage door.
Hopefully my home remodel does succeed to tell a very human story (my own) that is entertaining, artistic and possibly even psychoeducational. As a therapist I eventually learned that once you “plumb the depths” of most human beings they actually turn out to be relatively interesting characters with multi-faceted personalities. Without exception they all have their own story and personal adventure to tell with many applicable life lessons. Like Johnny Depp’s iconic Captain Jack Sparrow pirate character who’s rogue scoundrel persona is counterbalanced by a soft heart and rollicking sense of humor, most of us are a proprietary blend of positive, negative, and neutral human attributes. A complete or seamless integration of such disparate aspects of one’s total life and “whole” self is not always possible, nor is it necessarily desirable. Similarly, my house has many different parts, paths, levels and disparate leitmotifs but with a few common elements and themes woven throughout….especially if one looks and listens carefully and follows the many “keys” and clues scattered throughout.
My never-ending renovation and 15 year (and counting) home improvement project not only mirrors my many contradictions but also demonstrates my desire to improve myself, primarily from within. At 63 years old (and counting) my exterior or “curb appeal” has gone the way of my hippie-era long hair, bell-bottom jeans, and silver plated “ID bracelet” from 8th grade at Edgewood School in Highland Park, Illinois. In it’s place is a primarily “trial and error” lifetime that includes many memorable successes, multiple miserable failures, heartbreaking losses, regrets, redemption, romance and hopefully sustained resilience. Like my unfinished house and the groves of bamboo I planted in the untamed sloping backyard so many years ago, I have grown over the years and endured, often bruised and bent but still not broken.
Admittedly, life as a pirate parable or symbolic sea journey is not something often seen or expressed architecturally in a grown man’s leafy landlocked residence in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. That’s probably especially true when the homeowner happens to be a 60-something Jewish Psychologist who in real life gets seasick just standing on a fishing pier or riding in the backseat of a slow moving car. However, once authenticity and imagination are given the green light, ones self-expression and creativity is free to do as they please with their home or anything else for that matter. I chose to express myself and my inner pirate “CaptCliff” through a literal as well as metaphoric never-ending voyage of self-discovery through psuedo-nautical art, hand-crafted peace pipes, satirical sculptures, and through culturally diverse architectural spaces. If my very upfront and honest Jewish mother, Claire Mazer was still alive (God rest her soul) I could easily imagine her saying to me, “Wouldn’t a few pieces of Judaica and a nice painting or two from Safat or Jerusalem have sufficed?” Maybe it would have…but now that I think of it she did the same exact thing artistically speaking and let it all hang out both in Chicago and at her condo in Longboat Key Florida. She expressed herself fully in her living quarters and intimate spaces regardless of existing trends or current styles in vogue. Similarly, I fearlessly or foolishly forged ahead and created a pirate style palace where form and function coexist but are often superseded by personal meaning. Just like in my therapy practice, my home uses humor, metaphors, cultural symbols, and mental (cognitive) “anchors” to express both a colorful life narrative and a cautionary tale, depending on how one choose to look at it. I choose to see it as both sides of a valuable gold doubloon coin with my name on it.
Cliff Mazer, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist living in Sandy Springs, Georgia. He has three grown sons and three female dogs. His favorite Halloween costume growing up in Highland Park, Illinois was a hand-made pirate costume his mother made from scratch and a plastic sword. Contact: 404-932-7193 His blog can be found at https://captaincliff.wordpress.com