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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Opportunity Cost Of DIY–Better To Let Things Run Down, Patch Them, And Be Done With Them

The Ballard family were called ‘The Amish’. The television set was old, rabbit-eared, black-and-white and small.  The kitchen appliances were functional, manual, and analog.  The dinner plates were hard white ceramic which Mr. Ballard had rescued from a local boarding school.  There was no microwave, no food processor, no electric toothbrushes, or no intercoms.  The house, but for a few appurtenances and gifts from second cousins, was a throwback.  It was not Amish by any means.  It lacked their classic simplicity of form and function.  An Amish home expressed religious piety and reverence.  One needed nothing but God and the simple tools to accommodate a life of devotion and worship.  Chairs, tables, and beds were of the simplest, sturdiest wood, made not for comfort but for durability.  Their austerity reflected the religious faith which they had brought to America from Germany and had never compromised.  A household was not only a place of plain form and function per se but an expression of the direct, uncomplicated, and direct relationship with their Creator.  On the contrary, Mr. Ballard was proud of his impracticality, a sign of higher learning and Mrs. Ballard had her own particular preoccupations.  She was a dabbler, a part-time docent and volunteer and had no time or patience for upkeep.

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‘Keep the rubber on the road’, said Mr. Ballard  when he called the plumber, the electrician, the handyman, and the mechanic. Nothing could be worse than distraction, and worst of all was purchase.  When a jerry-rigged appliance finally broke down beyond repair, he impatiently bought the first comparable replacement he found at the lowest price.  The modern marketplace being what it is – exploitative and impossibly complex – these impulse, impatient purchases performed as advertised for a while, but soon collapsed with no recourse.  No replacement parts, no warranty, no service center. As a result Mr. Ballard relied on increasing scarce and expensive labor.  There were fewer and fewer repairmen and house-call technicians in a throwaway economy.  As a result Mr. Ballard resorted to duct tape, picture wire, and super glue.  The house became more of shambles than the purposed, defiant statement of anti-consumerism.  Every faucet dripped, every toilet ran, every lamp flickered, and every showerhead dribbled. 

‘We need to do something about this house’, said Mrs. Ballard who finally came out of the clouds and to her senses.  Although she had paid no attention to the rickety fixes in the past, a threshold had  been crossed.  It was the badly patched shower curtain, the one in the upstairs bathroom, that did it.  The masking tape that her husband had impatiently affixed to the long tear was not waterproof, and since Mrs. Ballard took big showers, the floor was always wet and puddled.  Although her husband had indeed kept the rubber on the road, the road itself required repairs.  The cracks in the bathroom tiles worsened because of bad grouting and wet floors.  Fuses blew because of incorrectly-wired lamps, and toasters, blenders, and coffee-makers shorted out the entire first floor.

The Ballards had ignored the minor leaks in the ceiling, patched over whenever the wet spread, but failed to consider the major rot in the roof beams and the cracked shingles above. They had ignored the water in the basement because it had only seeped through a few cracks in the walls of the laundry room, bothering no one; but the increasing water pressure because of the bent and disfigured gutters they had never bothered with was forcing more and more water through the cracks which were not fissures.  The small hole under the eaves was a perfect entry for squirrels who nested there, ate the covering off the wiring in the attic, and gnawed through the insulation.  The house was unsalvageable.

‘Now what?’, asked Mrs. Ballard.  ‘We have been left high and dry’. 

Mr. Ballard, however, took no umbrage, and said, ‘Do you want us to be like the Midfords?’, a family two houses down whose house had been showcased in Better Homes & Gardens. The Midfords’ house was picture perfect – new appliances, walk-in closets, butcher block kitchen island, track lighting, large-format, HD television, fully-equipped basement gym and play space, high-ceilinged master bedroom with glass skylight and Bombay fan, Edwardian library with well-stocked floor-to-ceiling bookcases, sunny children’s rooms and bright, colorful guest quarters.  The house was Mrs. Midford’s profession; but unlike the Ballards, she bought new at the first sign of wear or aging.  The house was always in perfect order and absolutely pristine condition.

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‘Sterile’, said Mr. Ballard. ‘Sterile, plastic, ugly, and cold’.  Although he admitted that his house was in some disrepair, he was defiant about the philosophy behind it.  What some may have called negligence was to Mr. Ballard an expression of intellectual indifference.  Time was far to valuable to be wasted on caulking. 

Mr. Ballard happened to come across an article by Andy Hines in the dentist’s office.  Writing in The Atlantic (3.28.13) Hines recounted his childhood with a father who fixed things.

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."

‘Nonsense’, snorted Mr. Ballard. ‘Poppycock’.  The one thing that he never had was guilt.  On the contrary his attitude was a source of pride, a characteristic that distinguished him from his neighbors, that elevated him in the view of those who mattered, the intellectuals and academics who dismissed any and all bourgeois sentiments.

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.

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

“Opportunity cost is devalued if one dumb activity replaces another”, Mr. Ballard said to a 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, Mr. Ballard 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 Mr. Ballard’s 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”, Mr. Ballard said, “and no one musing about life during his final hours will ever think of roofs, toilets, tappets, or grouting.”

Mr. Ballard 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.”

The point was that neither the buy-new attitude of the Midfords, nor the purposeful, gratifying, self-image-enhancing DIY movement made any sense at all.  What Mr. Ballard called his ‘practical indifference’ was the most intelligent response to materialism. Get the handyman to do it; and when that fails, patch, fix, jerry-rig, ignore, and fill in until the whole thing collapses; then move on.  Cost-effective?  Perhaps not, but then again principle, philosophy, and meaning have no price tag.  Mr. Ballard was as good as his word and his approach.  He finally sold the house to a developer and invested the modest profits in a new condominium,  ‘It will last for our appointed time’, Mr. Ballard said to his wife; and so like before  let things run down, and desultorily patched them up since he knew that the condo, in whatever shape, would outlive him.

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