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

Thursday, January 29, 2015

DIY–A Tedious Fad; Or Grouting Instead Of Tolstoy

Henrietta Dilford said that her husband’s do-it-yourself attempts reminded her of the story of Uncle Podger. “ You never saw such a commotion up and down a house, in all your life, as when my Uncle Podger undertook to do a job.”

She was right. The holes and cracks in the walls were testaments to her husband’s ineptitude.  He would whack a nail into the wall, stand back to eyeball placement and centering, decide that the picture would either be too high or too low, wrench the nail out, cracking and splitting the plaster, and start all over again.  Measurement was too precise and too irritating.  He trusted his own perspective and judgment of space and distance, so scrambling around the basement for a ruler was time-consuming and irrelevant.

Yet he had no geometrical judgment and no spatial intelligence whatsoever. Winging it, which he did when he hung a picture, never worked.  It was not so much that he couldn’t hang a picture, he didn’t want to.  Fixing things was an annoyance; and even though he knew that the watermark on the ceiling meant a leak in the roof; or that the groaning and grinding of the furnace warned of stripped gears and heat failure, he could never gin up the energy to even take a look.  One day when the dishwasher sprang a leak, yet another breakdown to be added to loose floorboards, drafty windows, banging shutters, and clogged drains, he looked at his children, pulled the pin out of an imaginary grenade, and tossed it into the living room. “Ka-boom”, he said.  The children howled. So many things were wrong with the house, the only remedy was to blow it up.

Henrietta was not at all pleased.  It was her husband’s fault that the house was a wreck. He never lifted a finger to help.  Unlike other men in the neighborhood, leaking faucets, clogged downspouts, overgrown walks, and cracked windows didn’t bother him. He derived no sense of completion or pride in personal enterprise.  He never questioned the gender-inappropriateness of his demurral when it came to traditionally male activities.  He didn’t even feel the least bit guilty about his wife’s increasing frustration and impatience with him.

“It’s a given”, he said. “I don’t hammer”.

“Bourgeois”, Henrietta replied. “Just like your mother”.

What Henrietta saw as the Dilfords’ disrespectful regard for money had nettled her since her marriage to Francis. His mother made trips to G.Fox and Lord & Taylor, bought out have the Ladies Department, and never cared how much she spent. “If you have it, spend it”, she told her daughter-in-law in a not-so-veiled reference to Henrietta’s parents who were as stingy as parsons, ate creamed tuna and chipped beef to save a nickel, and had never bought anything new.  Their car banged and rattled, jerry-rigged as it had been with baling wire, junkyard struts, and a metric fan belt. 

Every appliance in their house had scrawled informational signs like the one on the dishwasher: “To turn on, move dial completely to the left, and HOLD IT.” Francis knew what happened if you didn’t. The only way Henrietta’s father could get the machine to work was by fixing a high-tension spring to the on-off mechanism which activated the clutch, engaged the gears, and started the operational cycle.  If you didn’t hold the dial down, the dial would spin backwards, the motor would rev with no restraint, burn out, and spew charred bits all through the filtering system.

Henrietta’s parents were not poor by any means.  In fact thanks to her father’s astute financial sense and understanding risk and market behavior, they were quite well off. Parsimony in and of itself is a good thing, Francis admitted.  Where we would be if everybody spent like drunken sailors?  The Froglands, however, took parsimony to the margins. This extreme sensibility might have come from an Iowa farm background, the Great Depression, or a Puritanical streak which came straight through the bloodline of Cotton Mather.  Henrietta was proud of her family’s colonial heritage and took offense when Mrs. Johnny-come-lately arriviste Dilford showed disrespect for her parents.

So both Henrietta and Francis came honestly by their particular and often peculiar attitudes towards money. At times during their marriage it became an issue. Francis was sick and tired of running used cars through engine and transmission checks, driving out to fuck all Gaithersburg to inspect another cranky and shimmying Buick.  Henrietta glared when she saw the bath water leak out the bottom of the tub. “A little grouting”, she yelled to the bathroom mirror. “That’s all, for God’s sake.”

Although the Dilfords managed their minor discontent, they were really philosophically two different people.  “It all boils down to opportunity cost”, Francis told a friend. “Nothing has absolute value”.

Henrietta and her family never understood this. For them the lowest possible price for any given item was indeed absolute.  The cost of library research, endless phone calls, review of product literature, and miles driven to comparison shop was irrelevant.  Only the bottom line mattered.

The Dilfords seemingly cavalier “If you’ve got it, spend it” was nothing of the sort.  Every hour of not having to worry about stopped up gutters or sticky tappets was an hour well spent. Life was far more pleasurable at a matinee or on the golf course than inside a washing machine.

For some reason, Francis wondered, the DIY phenomenon had caught on big in the United States. Stores like Home Depot were doing a land office business.  Men and women by the thousands were buying everything from rototillers to kitchen remodeling kits. Track lighting, high-powered showers, faux hardwood flooring, deck resurfacing, and garden landscaping were now DIY.

Brit Morin, writing in the Huffington Post recently described the phenomenon and asked, “What exactly does DIY mean these days?”:

Traditionally, it's been related to "how-to" content, including things like "how to change a tire," but over the past couple of years, it's been coined much more broadly to describe any activity that uses an element of creative skills to make or design something on your own. Using this definition, DIY can stand for everything from baking a cake, to decorating a bedroom, to creating handmade products like jewelry. Some also use DIY in a more technical context as it relates to making gadgets like robots, printers and other programmable devices hacked together using free software and tools found across the web. Finally, I know people who would even claim that they "made" products such as their custom Nike sneakers, even if that meant they personalized the colors and design online and had the production take place elsewhere.

Like most fads in America, DIY has quickly morphed from a simple activity – like hanging a picture properly – to existential behavior. DIY is not only what you make, but who you are and who you become. New social networks have been created around DIY so Podgers can share their experiences.

“All good news for Walmart and Home Depot”, said Francis, “but bad news for the human soul.

“Opportunity cost is devalued if one dumb activity replaces another”, Francis said to his friend. “Not grouting the bathtub is worth more if you read Tolstoy and not pulp fiction.

“There is a responsibility to opportunity cost.”

Anyone who could afford a handyman to grout the bathtub should hire one, Francis went on.  “Jettisoning the lame idea of DIY will put people to work”. It would stimulate small-scale enterprise, allow for low-capital start-ups, give immigrants a boost into the market economy. “Jose will own the gutter-cleaning business, not just climb ladders and scoop rotten leaves.”

This was hyperbole, and far from Francis’ real sentiments. Puttering around the yard, fixing toilets, doing your own oil change was for dummies.  No matter how creative the enterprise might seem to be – a birdbath-centered garden arbor, for example – it could never match intellectual or artistic pursuits. “When all is said and done”, Francis said, “and no one musing about life during his final hours will ever think of roofs, toilets, tappets, or grouting.”

Francis was a snob and was about to add something about Tolstoy, Job, and Schopenhauer as fine opportunity costs, but pulled up before speaking. “Of course family time is good too.”

In fact the image of his father lying on a chaise longue in the backyard listening to Yankee games and drinking beer was behind his intellectual bias. “He gave up grouting for baseball.”

Henrietta finally gave in, worn down by years of beating a dead horse.  There was no way that Podger was going to hang a picture no matter how hard she tried. So the yard got landscaped and cared for by Beautiful Gardens. Apple Drains kept the water flowing. Bandy Electric kept the lights on; and Mr. Albert Gould, a retired government postal clerk and handyman extraordinaire fixed lamps and leaky faucets; planed warped doors; replaced rotten flooring; cemented the cracks in the front walk, and built extra kitchen shelves. A brand new Toyota Camry stood in the driveway, the house had a new coat of paint; and best of all, Francis finally completed his exegesis of The Grand Inquisitor.

Francis did not gloat.  An appreciation of the concept of opportunity cost came to everyone eventually, and increased the older one got.  Few older people want to spend their golden years hammering and scraping even when they are hale and hearty.

“DIY will pass like yoga”, Francis said to his friend. “People will buy pickles instead of making them; let Whole Foods supply their greens and basil; get Home Depot to service their appliances. Jose Miranda will clean their gutters and blow their leaves. It will be the best of all possible worlds.”

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