|The carpenter and I stood staring at the gaping chasm that moments before had been the wall of the guest bedroom. I had employed his services to repair a large section of deteriorated drywall, the result of considerable water damage caused by a leaky roof. After exposing the damaged area, he decided it was crucial that I fully understand the procedure he was about to begin. As he explicitly detailed the functions of the jack stud, the king stud, and the supporting lintel, I nodded and pointed knowingly, making exceedingly expressive facial gestures aimed at demonstrating my utter comprehension. In truth, I would have comprehended his words equally as well had he stuffed his mouth with peat moss and yodeled the Magna Carta in Balinese.
You see, I was born without the gene that endows upon some men an instinctive ability to fix things. Tragically, fate has compounded its chromosomal blunder by giving me, instead, an uncommon flair for converting fully functional things into things in appalling need of repair.
I can't, however, blame this shortcoming entirely on Mother Nature's genetic miscalculations; environmental factors also contributed. During the phase of a boy's childhood and adolescence in which he first learns to develop his motor skills and mechanical ability, I had two role models who taught me how things worked, why things broke, and how things could be fixed.
One was my dad, whose entire philosophy on the matter can be summed up in six words: "Leave it alone. You'll break it." The other was a man named Wally, a do-it-yourselfer so wretchedly inept he made Gerald Ford look like Baryshnikov. "Wally's Workshop" was a TV show broadcast on a local station in upstate New York during the '70s, but unlike Tim Allen's "Tool Time," it was not staged for a network sitcom. Wally's frequent on-air mishaps were exceptionally real, occasionally frightening, and often involved stitches, paramedics, and a 400-horsepower defibrillator. Like me, my school friends were always mindful to watch the show on Sunday mornings, so we could spend Mondays laughing at how Wally had splattered his patella while installing a sink, or scorched his knuckles while welding a pipe. What I did not realize at the time was that I was actually in training.
Thanks to the edifying beacon of knowledge shown me by these two consummate home-repair scholars, I am now a man in his late 30s who possesses no more mechanical ability than is required to tie shoes. Throughout my life, anyone within shrapnel distance of my attempts at repairing or building things has worn an expression similar to the one that you would find on a mother who suddenly finds her toddler sprinting across an airport tarmac while carrying steak knives.
Recognizing this flaw early on, my parents steered me into a writing career for the sole purpose of keeping the cost of their homeowner's insurance down. Perhaps they first observed a problem during my childhood attempt at repairing an Etch-A-Sketch, during which I smashed open the glass and began flinging silvery powder in all directions. Or perhaps they first took notice after my fifth attempt at getting my Cub Scouts arts-and-crafts medal ended somewhat dismally when the den leader characterized my papier-mâché ashtray as: "A placental depravity so vile as to make the very ashes it contains seem appetizing."
Concerned by my inordinate ineptitude, they had me tested by experts, who explained my complete absence of manual dexterity by saying, "Mr. and Mrs. Ricci, try to imagine a snake juggling." Immediately, they replaced their fantasies of my becoming a world-renowned brain surgeon with scandalous images of a deeply embarrassed hospital administrator wringing his hands and saying, "We're sorry to have to tell you this Mrs. Dimworthy, but it seems Dr. Ricci somehow misplaced a substantial portion of Mr. Dimworthy's skull, and your husband is going to have to go through life with a papier-mâché ashtray on his head."
Of course, like many with my deficiency, I could not admit my problem as a young man. Whenever the neighborhood menfolk would assemble around the open hood of a car, I would eagerly join the ritual by tucking my thumbs into my front belt loops, leaning over the fender, and admiring effusively the manifold intake camshaft injection valves, as though I could distinguish such things from, say, a plate of linguine. But I could not maintain the pretense for long. Invariably, someone would happen upon me as I was executing a basic automotive repair maneuver like repairing a broken windshield wiper by rapidly bashing it with a ball-peen hammer and humanely suggest that I consider starting a telethon for "my kind."
For years I held out hope that upon reaching the Technological Age in which we don't fix anything that can be replaced society would grow more forgiving of my mechanical impediments. Alas, on the brink of a new millennium our testosterone-soused civilization is still hopelessly mired in its archaic conviction that anyone with a Y chromosome can build hurricane-proof, earthquake-resistant housing with less effort than is needed to replace the blue thing in the toilet tank. This is due in large part to a surge in home-improvement broadcasting among the media, a development that is tantamount to catastrophe for those of us who cannot open a can of soup without compromising our vascular integrity.
For example, flick the channels around some Saturday morning and you'll likely alight on Home and Garden Television, an entire cable network of how-to shows about soccer moms who can spot-weld the framework of a 60-story office building with a beeswax candle and some clothespins. Click again and you may happen upon "Home Again with Bob Vila." (Today's episode: Bob pours the foundation for a five-bedroom house in less time than it takes me to check the mail.) Click once more and it's "The New Yankee Workshop," with Norm Abrams, Lord of the Carpenters. On this week's show, Norm casually demonstrates how easily the average person, using only six wood screws and a $42,000 table saw, can transform a rotted dogwood stump into a 200-square-foot Victorian-style gazebo.
|Is it any wonder that, after several hours of this ego abuse, I'm reduced to fits of uncontrolled sobbing when I can't replace the filter in the air conditioner without setting off the smoke detectors?
Fortunately, I have found a partner who is not in the least disheartened by the carnage I'm likely to perpetrate simply by wrapping a Christmas gift. My wife, Rhea, is so supportive and encouraging that she is given to cartwheels and thunderous ovations when I execute even the most elementary home repair. Plunging out a clogged sink can earn me expensive gifts and a testimonial dinner in my honor. If I successfully refill the wiper fluid in her car, she hires a skywriter to print the lyrics to "Wind Beneath My Wings" over the house.
And so I've learned that, when faced with a task for which my aptitude is pitiably lacking, it's okay if I'm not compelled by some inborn, aboriginal force to hammer, drill, screw, grind, rout, or weld it into submission. Instead, I compensate by holding my head up high and reeling off something Dr. Ruth-ish, like, "I'm secure enough in my manhood not to equate masculinity with appliance repair." Rhea nods her head and smiles assuredly to show that she's genuinely proud of her neo-evolutionary, self-actualized "Man of the New Millennium."
Then she hides the toolbox.
Take the Test (carefully)
That I might aid those of my mechanically challenged brethren who are undecided as to whether they should pursue careers in the construction/repair trades, or whether they should stick to fixing things with tools no more complex than those to be found in the Playskool "Big Kids" Tool Chest (ages 1 to 36 months), I've devised the following test. Please circle the appropriate answer, being careful not to pierce yourself with the pencil:
1. A ratchet is:
a) a toothed wheel permitting unidirectional motion
b) a sadistic movie nurse
c) a South American straw shrew
2. I often use duct tape to:
a) fix a duct
b) keep a child inside a playpen
c) prevent the car door from falling off
3. If your roof springs a leak during a rainstorm you should:
a) wait until the rain subsides to fix the shingles
b) scream hysterically into a couch cushion
c) patch the leak with a mixture of toothpaste, corn starch, and Noxema
4. Which of the following has caused you to undergo emergency surgery:
a) acute appendicitis
b) carpet tacks lodged in your esophagus
c) a severed limb in the toilet tank
5. The last time I tried to seal the driveway:
a) I finished in half an hour
b) EPA agents wearing radiation suits slapped me with $50,000 in fines
c) I found tar inside a pillowcase six months later
6. When my garbage disposal jams I:
a) push the reset button
b) drink until I black out
c) wait several months until the source of the blockage decays
7. The landscaping outside my home looks most like:
a) a home-and-garden magazine cover
b) a scale model of Chernobyl carved from Spam
c) a photo negative of Salvador Dali's intestinal tract
8. As a result of installing a new ceiling fan:
a) I significantly reduced my energy usage
b) I now have a lovely skylight
c) I'm doing business with Sy Sperling
9. The last time I painted the house I:
a) used two coats of high-quality exterior latex
b) realized I had aluminum siding
c) got my hair caught in the paint shaker
10. The best method of weeding a garden is:
a) a combination of herbicides and regular hoeing
b) attaching a cheese grater to a Big Wheel
c) several hundred malnourished llamas
Test results: If your answer to any of these questions was not (a), you could conceivably slice open an artery just turning the next page of this magazine and should probably be under constant supervision by authorities. At the very least, have "911" tattooed on your forehead. The life you save may be your own.
Adapted from an article originally published in Boca Raton magazine, March 2000.
© 2011 Steven Ricci
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