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I am two-thirds of the way through The Fellowship of the Ring and enjoying it immensely. Nonetheless, as I left for work Friday morning I reluctantly set aside Tolkien, stuffed a copy of “Basic Wiring” into my backpack, and spent my bus ride reading not about Aragorn son of Arathorn, but about the installation of flush-mounted jacks. Let this serve as a warning to all who were entertaining the ludicrous notion of buying a home.

I was preparing for the major wiring project I worked on over the weekend. Well, sort of worked on. Actually, Pa-In-Law did most of the work. My chief contribution was to stand behind him, occasionally say things like "Is it true that electricity can shock you?," and look befuddled whenever he asked if I owned specialized tools like "receptacle analyzers" or "screwdrivers."

I should explain. I'm not exactly what you would call a "handy," unless by "handy" you mean "someone who enjoys drinking beer," in which case I'm a freakin' Bob Villa. It's true that I had to maintain a home while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but home repair in San Marcos, Bolivia, generally consisted of taking mud from the ground and using it to spackle the holes in your adobe wall. Now that I'm back in the States -- complete with luxuries like a phone book full of plumbers -- about the most ambitious home improvement project I will voluntarily embark on is feeding the cats.

Pa-In-Law, on the other hand, is one of those guys who can build an entire house from lichen, a superhuman anti-entropy agent whose home repair skills could gain him admittance into the Justice League of America. Case in point: on Saturday morning we went to the hardware store, and, having never patronized this establishment before, he stopped an Aproned Hardware Store Guy to inquire about the wire conduits and the spigots; after that he never had to ask anyone where to find anything, because, knowing the location of the these two items, he was apparently able to triangulate the position of everything else in the store. "Let's see," he'd say, "fluorescent lights are on aisle 7, so mulch must be on 29. Left-hand side."

The remainder of the weekend was pretty much a blur. Upon our return, Pa-In-Law pried open the main service panel to the house, gestured at the Lovecraftian tangle of tentacles inside, said “I’m sure you know about all this,” and transmorgified into a Tasmanian Devil of electrical work. I’d wander into the house to fetch a grape soda and return to find that he had installed two outlets and drilled a hole into our crawlspace during my absence. He kept referring to "The Code," leaving me to wonder whose code he was talking about -- Morse's? Hammurabi's? -- until I realized he was citing the National Electrical Code from memory.

But I don’t want to give you the impression that he did everything. I held the flashlight sometimes. Also: I hammered.

All in all it was two days of blissful ignorance, minus the bliss. Of course it was understood ahead of time that Pa-In-Law would be doing most of the labor; my role was to observe, assist, and learn from the master. And I did pick up a trick or two. But most of the time I felt like I was trying to learn how to run a four-minute mile by watching Hicham El-Guerrouj in action. Pa-In-Law seemed to take my ineptitude in stride, but I suspect that's because he knows I am a prerequisite for grandchildren. And believe you me, the instant those grandchildren are born I’m going to ship them off to Pa-In-Law's Home Improvement Summer Camp and leave 'em there until they know how to wire a football stadium, to ensure that I never have to look inside my service panel again.

Posted on January 20, 2003 to Storytelling


Justice League? Would that be Super Pa-In-Law and his arch nemisis Couch Potato?

Posted by: boomratt on January 20, 2003 11:00 AM

Funny to hear the other side of it. I am a girl who, as a side effect of spending years working in the theatre, gained much more technical knowledge than I ever wanted. Spend enough time around it and it happens like osmosis...

Posted by: Stacey on January 20, 2003 11:48 AM

i'm jealous. i want a grape soda. sigh.

Posted by: apt7 on January 20, 2003 1:39 PM

I hear one can get grape soda at a store...

Posted by: boomratt on January 20, 2003 2:09 PM

Thank you for expressing that so eloquently, as always, right down to the grandchildren (my first offering to the home improvement god is already on the way). Now all I have to do is show that to my wife and she, who is only slightly less "handy" than your Pa-in-law and mine, will finally understand how I feel every time she gets a brilliant new idea from watching way too much TLC, Discovery and/or PBS.

Posted by: albert on January 20, 2003 3:11 PM

I love the idea of a home-repairer as an 'anti-entropy agent.' Ah, if only it were this easy. But if order in one part of the system only leads to disorder in another part of the system--does this mean that your home repair resulted in someone else's home disrepair?

I never understood physics very well...Anyway, loved reading this. And would be interested in hearing more about the Bolivia years.

Posted by: Miel on January 20, 2003 7:01 PM

I hear ya. I'm glad I became an engineering major. I don't have to build the shit, just design it.

Posted by: Dan the Goose on January 21, 2003 2:04 AM

very funny. i'm like you in that i'm not very ept (ie, not inept), when it comes to this stuff. i'm not totally clueless, like some guys. when you tell me what to do, i can do it. but i can't figure it out for myself, and it doesn't stick when i do. my dad and brother have this intuition for what needs to be done and they never forget what they've learned. i still can't remember if i'm supposed to check the oil hot or cold.

Posted by: Sean Meade on January 21, 2003 7:58 AM

I just finished installing a ceiling lamp in my new walk-in closet (a carpenter built the closet). Did the wiring with a friend and all the purchasing on my own. Fiancee thinks I'm crazy, but being handy is a good thing. Saves boatloads of money--the light cost $150 complete, and an electrician would have been $500+ easy.

Keep at it. We were all rookies once. Someday you'll even know which end of the hammer to use.

Posted by: David Wertheimer on January 21, 2003 8:54 AM

Gosh. I am *so* jealous. I want a pa-in-law like that too!

Posted by: Marina on January 22, 2003 7:59 PM

Bonus points for using Hicham El-Guerrouj in an analogy.

Posted by: Runner on January 23, 2003 10:00 AM

Just curious. Who's Hicham El-Guerrouj?

Posted by: clueless on January 25, 2003 11:30 PM

its not just grape soda that you can get at the store, try a different fruit.

Posted by: Mr. Jupiter on May 25, 2004 4:42 AM