Toni: Reconstruction Thursdays — The Knob Theory of the Universe

When I first wrote this back in 2007, I thought I had conquered the stall… the ultimate whacked out delay tactics I convince myself must be done before I ____. Have fun, have success, whatever. I have a finely honed stalling technique, let me tell you, so when I came across it today, I thought it might make for a good topic here on Reconstruction Thursdays. Keep in mind when you read this that I am talking mostly to me.


You see, 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 other thing that I needed to pay attention to–and had failed at–was to recognize that the whirling away into gargantuan-sized anxiety over having to have everything just so was another way of distracting myself from a problem I was facing with the writing. Whether it wasn’t going smoothly or I had hit a plot bump or whatever–I tended to only spiral into out-of-control project-mania when I was afraid. Afraid of failing, afraid of not living up to my own ideal. And in doing this, I gave myself a lot of distraction… but I also prevented myself from dealing with whatever the real underlying problem was.

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 or accomplish any personal goal. I see the parallel in people every day who hope to accomplish something, who feel overwhelmed, and as a result, they don’t move forward. Or they let the fear of failing at one goal send them into multi-tasking frenzy, because they desperately want to make sure they’re accomplishing something, and by God, they’re going to accomplish the hell out of a lot of things… and then they’re not facing the real issue.

There are always obstacles. Big obstacles. Real obstacles in life will always be there, getting in the way of whatever your personal goals are. 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.

Most accomplishments don’t happen overnight. It takes whittling away at it, a little each day, to create something like a book or a script or a career or a painting or beautiful pottery or… whatever it is that you’re trying to do. 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. But the real underlying issue was that I was afraid of not being perfect, of not having the perfect house, of not being able to show off the perfect career… really, of having a way to justify the time I had been spending not taking care of my home, little lady and, gulp, writing instead.

(Note: no one ever actually said that to me. I am still not sure how I managed to internalize that feeling that I had to do everything, perfectly, all the time, or I had failed.)

The funny thing was, no matter how traumatized and fearful I was 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.

And none of them were sitting in judgment of me for spending my time on my own goals. Even if they had, it wouldn’t have mattered. What I finally had to own was that I only had a set amount of hours in a day. I wasn’t ever going to be Martha Stewart, nor did I want to be. I had to choose how I spent my time, and then organize everything else around it–whether it was cleaning, projects, or even other fun events… it was okay to prioritize the way I wanted my life to be.


Now, six years after having written that, the kitchen finally got remodeled… but only when we were prepping the house to sell it. And you know what? I don’t think anyone will make any better memories in the new kitchen than we did in the old one. I still have moments when I over-schedule, over-commit… and nine times out of ten, it’s because I’m feeling inadequate in some way, usually career-wise, and I’m looking for that instant gratification that a quickie project will give to me. But it’s superficial, and I know that, now. Generally, whenever Carl sees me doing it, he’ll just say, “Knob Theory” and it’ll knock me in the head: I’m doing it again. Or I’ll be tempted to do all the projects and I’ll think, “Knobs” and say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that.” Or really, just plain old “no.” Because really, I have limited time. I want to do the things I can, while I can.

How about you? What are your stalling tactics?


24 thoughts on “Toni: Reconstruction Thursdays — The Knob Theory of the Universe

  1. Interesting. I’ve been surprisingly productive lately (especially on non-writing projects), and I’d been sort of wondering where I got all that energy. I hadn’t put it together with an upcoming (self-imposed) deadline for finishing a manuscript this week, so I could start querying it.

    Now that I think about it, though, the heightened non-writing productivity could be masking my fear of querying. (If I don’t finish the revisions, then I can’t query, and if I can’t query, I can’t be rejected.) So far, it hasn’t kept me from staying on schedule with the final revisions, but I’ll have to keep an eye on it.

  2. Great blog, Toni and incredibly timely for me. I swear I heard you saying my name as I read this. My stalling tactic is to accept more editing gigs than I can humanly do in order to avoid getting the book done that Lani has created a gorgeous cover for and is practically ready to go…I’m terrified I can’t get it right. That it will suck and then I’ll be a disappointment to my readers, my editor, my friends, my family…and oh, okay, to myself. I can do this, I know I can. I’ve done it before. And if I stop jacking around and stop accepting work because I think I need to be paid for something if I’m not going to write and sell books…then it’ll be done and I’ll be selling books instead of working on other people’s messes.

    To that end, this morning, I turned down a project…I’m finishing the one on my table today…then I’m writing…

  3. Toni, you are right about Knob-bery. My neighbor is starter home-ish (nevermind I’ve been starting here for 25 years), so high end finishes are not the norm because the value will never be that for the area.

    So, when I decided to redo my kitchen, I decided I needed beauty for my soul, but practicality. I went w. laminate wood flooring instead of tile or hardwood, high density textured laminate counters instead of granite or quartz, and repainting the cupboards instead of replacing.

    I did two things for my soul. I put in a 6-inch horizontal glass backsplash the the counter guy tried to talk me into all the way up to the counters, but I told him “Trust me.” The backsplash is iridescent colors of greens, blues, etc., and goes well with the white counters, black countertop and light gray walls. He thinks it’s gorgeous.

    Then I found and decided that I was going for it. The knobs were $9 each and set off the cupboards I smile every time I go into the kitchen. The cost was worth it.

    Your blog on knobs made me smile.

  4. Karen in Ohio says:

    Toni, we are sisters under the skin. Except that I’m the one who decides to have 60 people over, and then drive my own self nuts trying to get everything together.

    Fortunately, after 28 years in this house, I’ve done enough major projects now that not much remains to be done. Until it needs to be redone, of course.

  5. Hellion says:

    So spot on, it’s almost like you’re looking in my kitchen. Even though I *REALLY* don’t care about knobs, but yes, can’t stand crowds of people (even if I’m friends with all of them) and I can’t stand “hosting” because my house is a wreck and everyone knows it.

    I’m sure I do something similar to this in writing…but it usually involves me reading books rather than committing to a keyboard.

  6. denise says:

    You hit the nail on the head with my writing problem. I am my own worst enemy. It’s the one thing where I force perfection on myself. I’m glad I have the diagnosis–Knob Theory.

  7. Yep, it’s the fear. It’s always the fear. I remind myself that fear is just really, “False Expectations Appearing Real.” Sometimes it helps and sometimes it doesn’t.

  8. Nan, as a fellow editor I know exactly what you mean. At the rate I’m going, by the time I publish my garden book, the technology will have moved on, and no one’ll be able to read PDFs any more! And I get so fed up that I can only survive by midwiving other people’s books (which often don’t seem to be saying anything new!) But I know that’s off – I just need to get my act together.

    Here’s wishing us both an actual career switch, to making a living as writers!

  9. Love this.
    I’m was so overwhelmed for awhile that I wasn’t getting anything done. Then I said, “Divide everything into smaller tasks and all you have to do is finish that task, the rest of it can wait for tomorrow.” But that didn’t help because sweet Jesus there was so much stuff. So I triaged: the house, McDaniel, writing. Anything else would have to be an emergency. Then of course there were emergencies but I’m much better. I think I’ve said, “No,” four times this week to requests to do something. No. Unless you’re my house, my teaching gig, or my writing, no. Emergencies have to BE emergencies ($700 at the dentist, thank you), or just no. Huge help.
    Of course, now I need drawer pulls for the pantry . . .

  10. Oh yes! In college I learned to juggle while I wasn’t doing chemistry. I’ve been focusing on riding horses lately, while the artwork responsibilities languish. And I have had that same EXACT spiral over my kitchen – up to and including widening the doors and creating the back porch and… all from the stupid knobs. I finally got the simplest knobs I could bear, and they are FINE. The rest of it; will be FINE. Now I’m going to go make some art.

  11. Hi,
    That reminds me. I haven’t picked cabinet pulls yet. Wish I could use knobs, but I need pulls. The knobs all look so much more interesting and fun.
    I did use one of Jenny’s tips this week — vinyl sticky tile!! OMG, it’s great. And so easy. (You can cut it with scissors! Even more easily with heavy utility scissors, and then you just stick it to the floor.)
    And it’s so pretty, so thick. I think it will last forever. It looks like tile, but it’s not as cold. I hate a cold bathroom floor. Did it myself which makes me even happier, so I have a new bathroom floor, and it cost less than $100.

  12. @JaneB, I’ll drink to that! How about a glass of Wente Riva Ranch Chardonnay–at last a chard I can get behind!! 😉

  13. I do this and call it Grandiose Plans. When my job ended in 2007 and a friend said “Well, you could take a trip to Europe”, I managed to turn it into a few months in Europe, then a year in Europe, then MOVING to Europe, then total paralysis and eventually just selling my stuff, putting the rest in storage, and ending up in Houston. Never even a visit to Europe. I could have so easily have done a month in Europe if I hadn’t’ let it balloon into the Grandiose Plan.

    Before moving to Seattle, I let my plans get grandiose in the manner of how I would network and find jobs and get in shape. Paralysis again and very little done (but at least some) on the job front and nothing on the changing insurances and getting drivers and car licenses and all.

    I like the concept of Knob Theory. I think I’ll try to make peace with it and start moving along. 🙂

  14. I love this. Not that you do it, but that you’ve got a reference for the pattern of madness. I do the exact same thing, and it’s a huge stall for pretty much everything. Also, a ridiculous waste of time. I’m going to use your term for it as a reminder that it ain’t gonna get any better no matter how much I fuss 😉 Thank you!

  15. That might have to wait until I’ve written a bestseller and can afford to visit the US again – but meanwhile will do my best with what’s available locally. I’m sure between us we can make it happen.

  16. Jill says:

    If I have an overdue project or a party coming up I stall by doing piddly stuff. Like clean out a cabinet, replant aloe–those just today. Or I will decide the night before Christmas that everyone needs individual silverware holders and napkin rings. Stuff like that. I drive myself crazy and end up feeling frazzled and tired. The house has had more that it’s share of remodeling so that worry is over but it just in the last couple of years that I do not feel that everything has to be perfect (I was raised military when things did have to be company perfect all the time). Now guests can write their name in the dust-no biggie.

  17. Micki says:

    Oh, that is dumb, but It Is Exactly The Way Things Are. For me, it’s about efficiency for some reason. I can’t possibly start on tiny project A because if I don’t have all my ducks in a row, it’s going to take twice as long to do the whole project. I can’t possibly wash the kitchen floor until I take up those grody mats — but they need to be shaken outside then hosed down, oh, and if I do that, I’ll need to include time to wash down the hallway because I’ll be trailing crumbs . . . don’t possibly have time.


    Flylady helped me recognize this tendency, and sometimes I am able to “hit a lick at a snake” as she charmingly puts it. (ie: Swiffer the major pathways, or just wipe up that one spill of soy sauce in front of the cupboard). But I still do this Do All The Things all the time.

    Parts of my brain are yelling at me about how illogical it all is (AND inefficient — I spend three times the amount of time PLANNING than I actually do doing), but there’s that huge rock of perfectionism right in the center.

    That said, I’m better than I was, so I’ll count that as a victory.

    (Pssst . . . you deserve to buy knobs for your new house RIGHT NOW. Or arrange to get them for Christmas (-:.)

  18. Kelly S. says:

    “that feeling that I had to do everything, perfectly, all the time, or I had failed” <— THIS, this is my problem

    Also, the whole spinning out of control thing, I've done that. The time I remember best was in collage. Couldn't understand anything the prof had said for the last hour despite writing it all done. I thought I'm going to fail the class. I'm not going to be able to do this as a career. I need to change majors but I don't like the other options at my college. (It was a small engineering school. Limited options.) Next, I'm out of college with no degree, no prospect of a job and living in the gutter. I therefore have no choice but to figure out what the prof is trying to teach me or else I'm going to be homeless. The whole thought process took about a minute. It kept me in school, in that major, and I graduated with honors. So, sometimes spinning out of control is a good thing even if completely illogical.

  19. toni says:

    Those are beautiful knobs (pulls?) — and what a terrific site. Thank you! I hadn’t seen that one yet.

  20. ruthie says:

    Oh, I have to laugh. When I was still at home, early in college, my mom (who worked) would say, on Wednesday, “I’m having eight people for dinner and cocktails on Friday. What are you making?”

    Being used to this — kids whose moms work either learn to cook or live on junk food, I give her a menu. Then the fun begins. It seems like the woodwork could use a wash. So, I wash. Hmmm. A paint touch up would be better. So, there I am, totally on my own, mind you, with only two evenings and afternoons to get ready for a dinner party, and I am going around painting all the woodwork. I even wallpapered a wall once.

    Those were the days, where wacky choices were limited to woodwork. 😉 Now I’m at the point you’re at, with so many things that need doing, and telling myself I can do this thing or that thing that I really want to do, but first I have to do this, and well that leads into something else, and I get farther and farther from my actual goal. Sigh.

    It’s easy to get in that whirlpool (not the good kind), but it takes some real effort to drag myself back out. Good to know even seemingly sane people do this. 😉 Thanks, Toni.

  21. German Chocolate Betty says:

    Late to this party, but, Toni, we must be sisters under the skin — you hit sooooo many hot buttons in my own psyche. I can so relate to the “but if I start here, then I want this too, and this, and this, and while we are at it THIS…”).

    And, bizarrely enough, the only really sore spot in the whole house is the damn kitchen. Other small stuff (new faucets in the bathrooms, new curtains and rods, some minor tiling in the lower level, etc.) I have done myself, generally informing DH after the fact. But knobs wouldn’t even begin to improve my kitchen, mostly because there cabinets from at least two, and probably three, different manufacturers, and different two-hole pulls, etc., meaning the holes in the doors have different widths.

    I can’t repaint the cupboards because they are cheap-o IKEA laminate stuff (I actually want to replace them with IKEA, but better quality and a nice country-style that I like). Doors open on the wrong sides and cannot be flipped. The counter on one side is higher than on the other side because of the differences in cabinet origin. GAAACK.

    Sorry for the hijack. Plans are all ready. It’s the $12,000 that’s not there.

    Do love your columns, so glad you are here!

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