A few years ago I read Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Mathew B. Crawford. The premise of the book is that modern man experiences a level of alienation because he is disconnected from his environment. He doesn’t know how anything is made, how it works or how it can be fixed.
Reading the book made me realize that I have a virtual army of outsourced help in my day-to-day existence. I have a plumber and another guy who fixes my appliances. A landscaper and a specialist who drains my lawn sprinkler system in the fall. I’ve got an electrician, although I tend to try a different one every time I need help, and a handyman who repairs and resurfaces all kinds of stuff. I’ve got a guy who comes and takes my dog on hikes in the woods three times a week and a woman who cleans our house. There’s the guy who cleans my chimney and one of these days I’ll get around to finding someone who cleans the rugs. I bring my cars to a mechanic and my screen door to the screen guy every time my dog puts his head through it trying to get at the mailman.
That wasn’t the case when I was growing up. My dad did everything. (Except the house cleaning which my mom did in an immaculate fashion.) My dad fixed all the plumbing and the electrical issues. He changed the oil, sparkplugs, and antifreeze in the cars. He even built a dormer on our house and finished off two new bedrooms and a bathroom.
Usually when someone recalls this DIY decade of the 50’s, it is accompanied by some funny stories about less than intended results. I remember having dinner at a girlfriend’s house and having her explain to me that the light in the dining room was waxing and waning because her father and grandfather did the wiring.
That was not the case with my dad’s work. He was something of a perfectionist and the stuff he fixed worked, the stuff he built needed no fix.
So DIY blunders had to wait for another generation. Here are some of the highlights of my efforts, which go a long way toward explaining the reason for the aforementioned army of outsourced help.
- I was about 50/50 on oil changes. I never actually incapacitated any of my cars but I often had to abandon plans to change the filter and our driveways were invariably slicker after I did an oil change.
- I once set out to repair a salvaged washing machine given to me by Pete the laundromat guy who you may remember from an earlier blog post. I ended up in a laundromat a time or two myself while the parts to the machine were strewn about my kitchen for about a month before I discovered a problem with the timer and got it working again.
- Plumbing being my forte I also changed the faucet in the kitchen. The cabinet under the sink was never completely dry again. I brought my father over to take a look at why it was dripping and he put my mind at ease by commenting, “Don’t worry about it. There’s so much shit in the water these days that will plug up in no time.”
- Buoyed by that encouragement I set out on another venture to change the faucet handles on my bathtub. That produced a series of escalations that resulted in no hot water in the entire house. At that point I did cry “Uncle!” and call the plumber.
- On the electrical front I changed out the ancient ceiling light fixture when we moved into our Jersey City condo and replaced with a modern, utilitarian Ikea unit. All seemed well until I noticed sparks flying out at Melissa as she was painting the wall.
So my childhood had instilled in me some of the 50’s ethos of building and fixing your own stuff but sadly I grew up somewhat short of the knowledge and patience required to really make it work.