May 23, 2010

Doing it yourself

I've decided I like being a fixer.

When things are not working, I like to figure out why, and if at all possible, to repair it. There are a few reasons I am this way. One is that I hate to throw something away if it can still work, both for financial and environmental reasons. I am also fascinated by how things work. When something breaks, it is an excuse to dig into the nuts and bolts of it (not that there are many nuts and bolts these days). I also have this vision of myself as being self-reliant, like Thoreau at Walden or Tom Hanks stranded on his desert island.

A story clicked into place when I read it a number of years ago. It was in one of books by Robert Fulghum. He is the author of "All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten", but I'm not sure if the story was from this, or one of his other books. He is out on a walk near his house and comes upon one of his neighbors repairing a lawn mower. Mr. Fulghum comments "I wish I was like you and knew how to do those sort of repairs." The neighbor curtly says something like "I am so tired of people saying that. I'm not anything special. I have just taken the time to learn how to do it, and you have chosen not to."

The author was initially taken aback, but as he continued his walk he realized that the neighbor was right. In the past, he simply threw up his hands when something broke, figuring it was too complicated for him to figure out. That he was missing some special gene that allowed mechanics to understand how things worked. Granted, people have some natural abilities that help them grasp certain concepts more easily than others, but to say that you "can't figure it out" is both inaccurate and limiting.

The author took the lesson to heart. Now when something breaks, he knows it is possible to take the time to learn how to fix it. He repairs some things, but takes others in to the mechanic, but now he understands it is a choice and not a necessity. I have tried to hold on to that lesson as well.

Most of all, I like being a fixer for friends. If there is something I already know how to do, I don't hesitate to lend a hand when I can (I am more likely to work on your kitchen than my own). And even if I don't know how to do something, I often take it as an excuse to learn how to do it. I love the idea of being a jack-of-all-trades, and like to add to my list of skills whenever possible. Doing the kitchen remodel recently, though frustrating at times, has been good in that respect.

Recently, the washing machine at the house stopped filling with cold water. It would work for brief periods, but then shut down before the tub was full. It would start up again after an hour or so for no apparent reason, but each load would take a few hours to complete. I initially thought that it was simply the inlet hose. It was one of those flood prevention ones that will shut itself off if there is a leak - a blowout preventer, if you will. It just made sense in my head that it had become defective and was shutting itself off. Then once the pressure balanced out again, it would open up again. It was also the easiest, cheapest fix, so it had that appeal going for it as well.

Of course it wasn't that simple. With my work schedule, I didn't have (make) the time to figure out what was really wrong for another week or two. In the meantime, to bypass the problem and cut laundry time back down to something reasonable, I figured out that we could get the washer to work by filling the tub with cold water from the sink. It took about six large bucket fulls to fill it up, once for the wash and once more for the rinse. It was a very visual reminder of how much water it takes to do a load of laundry. It also made Holly feel like she was working on a farm, bringing in water from the well.

Some time later, I sat down at the computer to see if I could find some troubleshooting advice on the web. After a half hour of research I had narrowed down the likely cause, found the part number, and step by step instructions on how to replace it. I even found a video on how to take the washer apart. The hardest part ended up getting to the parts store while they were open. The repair took another half hour or so and cost all of $28. And laundry in under four hours is worth far more than the effort I put in, which is the most satisfying part.

With multiple 'do-it-yourself' websites at our disposal, it is even easier to learn how to do your own installations and repairs. And of course with money being tighter than ever, it is all the more tempting to save the cost of a repairman. Naturally, there is always the hazard of making things worse and needing to call a professional to "fix your fix". Some instructions I read recently said something like "If you are not comfortable using all the required tools listed, it might be best to call a professional". That seemed like a pretty good place to start.

And of course, I don't repair everything. I learned all about auto repair as a teen and twenty-something working on my '67 Ford. I spent a summer building an engine, I've replaced brakes and clutches on several cars, and have done lots of other odds and ends under the hood. But these days I pay someone to change the oil in my truck. But I know it is something I could do myself. It is just worth the $19 not to do it myself.

As a side note, I came across a book recommendation on another blog recently for Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. The author talks about the satisfaction of making and fixing things with our hands, and that the manual trades "require careful thinking and are punctuated by moments of genuine pleasure." Crawford draws on his own experience - he quit a miserable think tank job and has found joy and meaning working as a motorcycle mechanic. Publishers Weekly said, "it's hard not to be interested in a philosopher who, in a nation that privileges intellectual attainment, can also successfully replace a carburetor." It sounds like an interesting read.