Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Handyman Blues

An unhandy DIYer considers the question of when to try again

There’s a song by Billy Bragg on his album Tooth & Nail titled “Handyman Blues.” In the song the narrator, presumably the singer, songwriter, and activist himself, rhapsodizes about his lack of proficiency when it comes to home repair. “Screwdriver business just gets me confused,” he sings. “It takes me half an hour to change the fuse. And when I flicked the switch the lights all blew.” And then the hook: “I’m not your handyman.”

I relate to this song. But unlike Bragg’s narrator, who’s assured of himself as a writer, confident that his ideas “will turn to gold dust later,” I haven’t given up my handyman aspirations. I still believe I can fix things.

At this very moment, it’s possible that my ex-wife is in the kitchen of the house in Brentwood, Tennessee, where we both once lived—and that she now owns—standing under the track lighting that I installed. The same track lighting, she’s likely to recall, that an electrician had to come over and make sure I did right after it started smoking a few days later. If she is, she’s also near the gas range located under the track lighting. I cooked a lot of meals on that range, turning new knobs that I ordered from the parts store at Sears, and placing pots on burners that I cleaned by immersing them in a special solution that I also ordered from that same parts store at Sears. In the same conversation actually. I called to order the knobs, and we know how that goes.

If my ex-wife walks out of the kitchen area toward the half-bath and looks up to the second-floor ceiling, she might see my handiwork around the HVAC vent. There were water stains around that vent and some peeling of the drywall when we moved in. I got up there shortly after, cut away the stained paper, and using drywall compound, seam tape, and white paint, patched it. It looked terrible. But only if you looked closely and knew what you were looking for. Like most things in life.

One thing I do know is that the toilet bowl in the half-bath works. I installed it myself, in about an hour, with great personal fanfare. The victory came not long after my failure to install a new toilet bowl in the basement, and I really needed the win.

I’m not sure where my handyman aspirations come from. My dad was a decent amateur electrician, but I grew up in an apartment owned by my grandparents and never really learned how to fix anything. But still I tried. Toys, games, stereo equipment … and as I got older, computers and musical instruments. You name it, other than automobiles, I’ve tried to salvage it. I once kept a laptop going for about six years by calling HP and convincing the representative to send me the repair manual they normally give only to computer repair centers. “I’m completely comfortable with cracking open the back of the screen,” I assured her.

I didn’t live in a house that I was responsible for until I got married. But once I did, I took to it with gusto. I had a Home Depot do-it-yourself home-maintenance manual and a book dedicated entirely to plumbing, which I seemed to develop a special affinity for. It was of no help, though, when I decided to replace the shower knobs in the 1923 house in East Nashville where my ex-wife and I first lived. If it wasn’t for my neighbor Bobby—all eighty years, six-feet-five inches, and ninety pounds of him—we probably wouldn’t have showered for a week.

I had no idea how incompetent at home repair my ex-wife thought I was until a meeting between the two of us and our attorneys during divorce negotiations. We had originally agreed to sell the house we shared, and because she was currently living in it, she made a list of all the repairs it needed before putting it on the market. Perusing the list, I suggested there were things that I could do, jobs I was certain I could handle or maybe that we could do together, that could save us a few bucks. She laughed and then proceeded to detail for those in attendance my history of home-improvement failure. I was being mocked, and it hurt. And while I could have defended myself, exercised my rights and insisted that I work on the house and save us that money, I conceded. It wasn’t worth the fight. When she decided to keep the house and buy me out, perfect house that it now was after professional repairs, it hurt even more.

There are times when you need to own up to your own limitations. When you need to call in a professional plumber because a toilet installation in the basement of a house built on a concrete slab is not for amateurs. Or when the assistance of a neighbor who’s almost as old as the house you’re trying to fix is the closest you’re going to get to an angel sent by God.

And then there are times when things are beyond repair. When the talents of even the most skilled plumber, electrician, or marriage counselor are useless. I needed that moment in the attorney’s office. It was my reality check. My license to let go. To accept that there are some things you cannot fix.

After my divorce, I lived in rentals where once again I was not responsible for repairs. But every now and then a faucet leaked, and I got the urge to get my plumbing wrenches and test my skills. When I got engaged again, my fiancée, Keri, owned a little house of her own. She was capable of doing her own repairs and even had a nice tool set to prove it. But when I heard her toilet running, I got a little excited. I opened up the tank to find a flapper in need of replacement and a tangled up chain. “I can fix this,” I told her. In her kitchen, too, I discovered that the faucet lever was loose. “Do you have an Allen wrench set?” I asked.

When we were house shopping and preparing for our wedding, I sometimes wondered if I was ready. For the house. For the marriage. If I had the tools and possessed the skills. And then I thought about Billy Bragg’s handyman. Maybe, like him, it was time to own up to my inabilities and accept that “I’m a writer not a decorator.” But then I thought about that toilet I installed. The second one. The one I did correctly.