Tinkering and Puttering
Posted by Richard Conniff on June 11, 2013
This is a story I wrote about working with my father. It ran in the New York Times magazine in 1985:
I stand before you today to confess that I honestly like the pastime known, God help me, as home repairs. I like the perfect dimple my hammer leaves in wallboard when I drive home a nail. I like the drifts of sawdust across the floor and the curlings of wood when I plane down a door. I even like the language of home repairs, with its blind nailing of floorboards and floating of concrete, its snapping of chalk lines, sistering of beams and doubling of headers.
I say “God help me”` because tinkering about the house is, in truth, a pastime with no heroes and no social status. Considering how many people are involved (61.7 million households, according to an industry survey), “doing it yourself”” suffers under a remarkably dismal image. On television, in comic strips and elsewhere, the business of home repairs is practiced by bungling husbands, who usually end up with bruised egos and swaddled thumbs. In the minds of many people, the do-it-yourselfer is a well-meaning fellow who has been hit on the head and rendered permanently middlebrow by a falling 2-by-4.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because of an article in Time about movie actor Harrison Ford. A photo showed Ford standing in the shell of a house, which, as the article noted incredulously, he is “actually constructing.” Ford, who once worked as a carpenter, was quoted discussing a bedside table he had made: “It’s a simple piece with turned legs and a band- sawed skirt. I just like the work itself.”
Now this had a surface incongruity that I found pleasing: that an “interstellar swashbuckler,” a “dashing romantic,” a star of five of the 10 “highest grossers of all time” should bother to be his own carpenter! That a Hollywood leading man talking about “skirt” could mean something capable of being band-sawed! It was so square, so reassuring to my do-it-yourself sensibilities. But I also recognized something familiar about that offhand tone and something false about that phrase “just a simple piece.”` I bet Harrison Ford sweated more over that band-sawed skirt and those turned legs than he did over the viper pit in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
A sort of low-key, self-deprecating machismo is, in fact, common among do- it-yourselfers, and it suggests one of the main reasons why this pastime is so discreetly popular. The ability to use tools intelligently is, after all, one of the defining characteristics of the species, and it is still part of the measure of a man. In the Time article, Ford is described as an actor who “plays somebody you can rely on, who will take care of whatever it is, from a kid’s hurt finger to a murder to saving the galaxy. He has that quality.”Carpentry, not space fantasy, is what makes me feel that way. Men may readily assert that they don`t know one end of a hammer from the other; but secretly, all of us like to think that, at the very least, we can drive a nail straight.
I’ve been tinkering around the house ever since my father taught me as a child to take apart a window and make the pulleys work again–a sort of domestic epiphany. Before then, I knew only that windows went up and down, or refused to go up and down. But what my father showed me within the sides of the window was a system of sash cords and counterweights that had the unexpected beauty, even elegance, of engineering. It was, moreover, engineering that a child could fix. And fixing it, I felt competent.
My father and I rarely if ever played catch. What we did was to build things: two garbage sheds (one that rotted and its replacement), a workbench (still standing), a couple of fences, latticework sections for the porch, a wisteria trellis, bookshelves, a rowboat. Sometimes when we finished a project, we would mark an undersurface with our initials and a phrase such as “hoc fecerunt anno Domini 1963.”
At one point or another, almost all handymen go around the bend. They decide to build the Ark in the back yard, or to add a new wing now that the kids have moved out. I call this Do-It-Yourself Dementia, and I speak as one of the afflicted. Three years ago, after years of tinkering and puttering, my wife and I bought a neglected house that we have since come to know as “the kingdom of rot.” We were moved by the ravaged beauty of the place and by an exaggerated sense of our own capabilities.
What followed was the usual hell of restoration and a prolonged drain on our time and finances. I will never be able to make up to my wife for some things: for leaving her with her mother the week after she had given birth so I could spend the weekend working on the house, or for one hot July evening spent smashing apart the old heating system while our 1-year-old was supposed to be sleeping.
By now, on our own and with contractors, we have made the house habitable; parts of it are even beginning to look quite lovely. I begin to see the time when we will pull back from dementia to mere tinkering and puttering. Sometimes I set aside my hammer, clear my mind, and just think, and what strikes me most clearly and puzzles me a bit is the realization that the human urge to say, “We made this. We built this with our own hands,” is so strong.