"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Leave It To The Handyman

I don’t do any man things around the house.  I don’t fix things, hang things, screw or hammer things.  I hate any kind of fix-‘em-up, do-it-yourself chores.  I have never grouted a bathtub, fixed a dodgy lamp, climbed on a roof, or repaired a toilet.  That’s what handymen are for.

We called Mr.Glenn Superman because he could fix anything and fix it quickly. We assembled a list of things that needed repair – sticky door jambs, running toilets, shelves to be put up, washers to be replaced, and linoleum to be laid – and when the list got over a page long, we called Mr. Glenn, a retired government worker who was handy and liked to stay active,   He came and went like a whirlwind. Jobs I couldn’t even consider doing he managed without a second’s hesitations.  He came equipped with his own power drill, tool belt, and flashlight, and slipped out to Home Depot if he needed supplies.  Before you could say Jack Robinson, Mr. Gould had zipped down the list and was asking for more.

When he first came to work, he asked to see my workbench and tools.  He wanted to take an inventory so that he could know what he needed to bring the next time.  “This is it?”, he asked when I took him to the back corner of the basement to the area where a few old screwdrivers and hammers were strewn on the half-rotten picnic table that had been left in the house by the previous owners.  I had no drills, and only a scattered, unorganized assortment of nails and screws.  There was only an incomplete set of wrenches and a stiff paintbrush.

I came by this indifference to fixing things naturally.  My father always called for help at the first sign of trouble.  He hadn’t worked his way out of the Italian ghetto to drop back down there and work with his hands.  That’s what the Polacks were for.  So, there was no long list of to-do items on the refrigerator.  If the toilet leaked, you called the plumber.  If the tube lights flickered, you called the electrician.  We had people to mow the lawn, trim the hedges, shovel the driveway, unclog the toilets, clean the gutters, and take the squeak out of doors, cabinets, and closets. 

As fate would have it, my wife comes from a family which is the polar opposite of mine. Her father never called for help, no matter how complex the task.  He could take apart a dishwasher and fix the heating element; dismantle the air conditioner and replace the condenser.  He could rewire the kitchen, reconfigure the garden, insulate the roof, and fix the garbage disposal. He was so ingenious about his repairs that he often jiggered the machine and jerry-rigged it to run perfectly well but only not the way the manufacturers had intended.  Every appliance had instructional stickers on it to explain to family and stray guests how it operated.  If you didn’t follow his elaborate instructions the appliance either wouldn’t turn on or the motor would never shut off and burn up.

When the managers of the Lake Bancroft community informed all waterfront residents that they were going to raise the water level by three feet, my father-in-law decided to raise the back forty himself.  This meant going to the C&O Railroad to buy used railroad ties, haul them on a rental truck to the property, spread the 1000 tons of topsoil up to the rebuilt seawall, seed the whole thing, weed and water it, all in time for the summer season. It was herculean.

He painted the house, regraveled the driveway, refinished the basement, and added a floor to the house all by himself.  His workroom was better equipped than the Stanley Tools showroom in New Britain, Connecticut.

Needless to say, my wife assumed that all men could do what her father did, and indeed her expectations were high.  I told her from the very beginning that I was no good at this kind of thing, and since we had the money, we could hire people who knew what to do.

There is probably no greater source of dissension in marriages than money.  The husband turns out to be a wastrel and spends his paycheck at the track.  The wife is a clothes horse who can’t resist another pair of shoes.  These weaknesses, however, are nothing compared to a much more fundamental issue – the valuation of things.  In my family, value was relative and opportunity cost reigned supreme.  The last thing my father would ever do would be to waste a perfectly good Sunday golf game fixing broken shit.  For my father-in-law, hiring someone to do something you could do by yourself was a dereliction of duty, an irresponsible act, and a waste of money.  It was almost immoral, he averred, referring to his severe Scottish ancestors, Cotton Mather, and the Puritans.

My wife finally gave up, for she soon realized that having something hammered on cockeyed was far worse than not having it hammered in at all; and so Mr. Gould entered the scene.

Andy Hines, writing in The Atlantic (3.28.13) grew up in a family just like my wife’s":

Up until the time my parents were approaching retirement age, I can hardly recall a "professional" ever working on any of the houses they owned over the years. Dad built walls and sidewalks, installed woodstoves, laid tile, added electrical circuits and plumbing fixtures, fixed furnaces, and, at the cabin, ten years after it was first built, contrived an indoor plumbing system featuring an elaborate pump rig that sent the waste up the mountain to a septic tank. His only training in construction and mechanical work had been summer jobs on the railroad and growing up in a time and place where men didn't own things they couldn't fix.

Hines followed in his father’s footsteps and became as adept at building, restoring, and fixing things as his father. As he grew older his skills became a hobby and then a resource for his friends. He was more than happy to go over and fix a toilet for a buddy.

The more he offered his assistance, however, the more he found that men were ashamed of their inability to fix things:

There are three reactions I've grown familiar with that suggest there's often anxiety about letting another guy do your "man jobs." The first is sheepishness and self-deprecation. I don't know how many times I've had men apologize to me for being inept at home improvements. I reassure them that hanging cabinets and repairing termite damage is not supposed to be encoded in their DNA. I've also been in the position of taking over a project that a man had started and then aborted once he realized he was in over his head. This can be particularly shameful and embarrassing to some guys. While I must admit that part of me sometimes wants to say, "It's okay, little buddy, Daddy's here now."

As you can see from what I have written above, I do not fall into this category of guilt-suffering males.  I could care less about 3/4” wrenches, drill bits, levels, or putty.  I more than compensate for my indifference to household repairs.  Marriage, after all, is a contract and I fulfill my end of the bargain in other ways.  I was cooking all the meals and taking care of the kids in the 70s, long before the New Age Sensitive Guy was all the rage.

I can appreciate what Hines is talking about.  We men have been raised with certain expectations, and those of us of a certain age were trained by our parents to build and fix things not flutter around the kitchen; so it is natural to have at least some residual feelings of male inferiority for not being able to hammer straight or use a power stapler.  Yet, fixing things is so BORING. Why would anyone prefer to spend their time putting in a new light fixture when they could be doing anything else?

I insist to my children that I never deliberately hammered nails in so they would bend; or drove in screws until the plaster cracked; or dripped paint all over the Persian rug; but they don’t believe me.  My son, who takes after his grandfather, has always said when I demurred on undertaking any task that required practical skill, “Daddy, you can do it.  Just be patient”.  Perhaps; and maybe I did ram the screw in crooked so that the plaster would crack and we could call Mr. Gould.  But I don’t think so.

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