I think it’s because I didn’t grow up with a brother that I ended up so un-handy.
I’ve never mastered the husbandly skills that are the foundation of a well-maintained home. (Which reminds me: I need to have someone check a crack in our foundation). I spent more of my formative childhood years in pursuits of the mind than I did learning to become a Mr. Fix-It.
While other kids were learning how to bang stuff with hammers and poke the family Chevy with wrenches, I had no fraternal pressure to follow suit. I could stay indoors to master my typing skills, listen to music, and dream about the robots that would be handling basic home maintenance by the time I was an adult.
When I first became a homeowner after getting married, I barely had the skills to keep our three-bedroom brick ranch from collapsing around me. I knew how to change a light bulb. I knew how to mow the grass. I could paint the tiny tool shed in the backyard, as long as I took a week off from work to do it, and nobody minded that I used a coral semi-gloss intended for the bathroom.
Most importantly, I knew how to open a phone book to the yellow pages and find a professional who could handle the work for me. (Though, I’ll admit, it was pretty embarrassing to hire an electrician to show me how to open my fuse box).
So when my brother-in-law and his wife showed up at our home yesterday for an overnight visit, I should’ve regarded it as the next-best-thing to getting a brother. Instead, I felt threatened that someone had entered our premises who could challenge my limited dominion. What if he noticed that the bathroom sink had a drip? How could I face the humiliation?
Bob is a terrific guy. He’s been a caring husband to my wife’s sister for over 30 years, raising three children and building a comfortable life for his family in upstate New York. He’s a retired Air Force captain and, as once charged with the responsibility of keeping military aircraft from falling out of the sky because someone didn’t know how to tighten a screw, he’s pretty handy.
He’s so handy, in fact, that he spent most of his vacation visiting my mother-in-law in Charleston to help fix up her house. The stop at our place was happening at the tail end of this trip.
As I greeted them in the driveway, I hoped it was gloomy enough outside that they wouldn’t notice anything wrong with our exterior. I helped gather up their overnight bags and did my best to distract Bob from critically assessing the upkeep of our property. If I could just get them inside quickly enough, he wouldn’t have time to note how it appeared our walls were about to fall in.
Once inside, we exchanged the usual brother-in-law banter. First on the agenda, of course, was a review of his drive up from Charleston. He thought about taking U.S. 21 Bypass to get around some construction near Columbia, but ended up making better time staying on I-77. We also discussed the price of gas en route, and how the cruise control helped make his back less sore.
We stood around the kitchen for a good half-hour so they could stretch their legs after the four-hour drive, then adjourned to the living room. When we bled the topic of interstate driving completely dry, our attention turned to the television playing in front of us.
“So which one is your converter box?” Bob asked, gesturing toward the half-dozen devices beneath the set.
“Uh, I think it’s the one with the little red light,” I answered.
“Do you have a splitter?” he continued.
I have a decent fastball and a wicked slider for a 57-year-old, yet I no longer have the finger strength to put a splitter in the strike zone. But I don’t think that’s what he was asking.
“Yeah,” I answered lamely.
“Is it an HDMI?” Bob asked.
How am I supposed to know? I was hiding in the bathroom pretending to have a stomachache when my wife and son handled the entire installation.
“Sure is,” I responded. “Is there any other kind?”
Before Bob asked any other questions I’d be unable to answer, I decided to go on the offensive.
“We’re thinking about getting rid of cable anyway and going with a satellite dish,” I lied. “What’s your opinion on the advantages of cable versus a dish?”
I was hoping he’d launch into a discussion of DirecTV, which would bring us to the “NFL Sunday Ticket” package of football coverage, which would get me back to the manly topic of sports, a topic I had some familiarity with.
“Hmm,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of trees on your lot. Let’s go out on the deck and try to figure where the satellites would be positioned.”
Well, that certainly backfired. Now we were headed into the back yard, where it was still just barely light enough for him to observe what a mess we’d made of our homestead.
Bob took a few minutes to get a directional fix, then announced that issues like “azimuth” and “perigee” would likely prevent us from ever locking onto a communications satellite. Still looking skyward, he seemed to be pondering our chimney when I tried another distraction tack. I pointed at the house behind us that burned down a few months ago and still hadn’t been cleared away.
“I don’t know when they’re going to remove that debris,” I said, making the clear suggestion that even though I can barely unclog a toilet, at least I hadn’t set the entire premises ablaze.
He seemed to agree that this gave me some cred as a Man of the House. I noted that a kitchen grease fire had been responsible for the neighbor’s calamity, then coolly segued the topic to our wives being hungry for dinner. He offered to take us all out, and I jumped at the chance.
We had a pleasant enough meal, except perhaps for the parts where he talked about how he’d repaired our mother-in-law’s deck, installed new gutter guards, rebuilt her sidewalk and put in a new, taller toilet for her. I half-heartedly mentioned that our toilets were already about the right height.
He also said he had to spend an afternoon balancing her checkbook and paying her credit card bills online, and suddenly I felt a stirring of competence. Paperwork, being a sort of “pursuit of the mind,” was right in my wheelhouse. As bad as I am standing at the top of a ladder and evaluating a soffit, that’s how good I am working with words and numbers.
Repairing endangered credit and painting over subtraction errors with correction fluid — that I can handle. Building and maintaining good relations with out-of-town relatives — not a problem.
Just don’t ask me anything else about my splitter.