#5 Fix Something in the House by Myself

Overcoming my fear of breaking the house.

“My problem,” I told Rod over the summer, “is I have no skills.”

Even though mine was the groundbreaking first 8th grade class at Peterborough Middle School to require that girls take Wood Shop and boys take Home Economics; and even though I’ve held flashlights and wrenches for my Dad and brother and numerous boyfriends and tow truck drivers over the years…I’ve never actually bothered my pretty little head to acquire any skills in fixing things around the house.

And so, when I scribbled my list of 50 fears, fixing something by myself came up right away. Why so scary? Because, I’m afraid I might break the house. I will cut a wire or pull on a pipe and next thing you know, the house will go up in flames or we’ll be knee-deep in water or the cat will be electrocuted or the roof will cave in. Senseless tragedies, all because I had the audacity to think I could do it myself.

Avoiding the problem or hiring an expert has always sounded better. But now, at 50, it’s starting to sound downright helpless. Why can’t I do anything? Why do the simplest home repairs languish? Why do some people wake up on Saturday morning, coffee cup in one hand, toolbox in the other, raring to go; while I look at my fixer-upper and just shrug like some kind of princess? It’s annoying. Why don’t I have any skills?

“Nobody’s born with skills, Mare.” Rod tells me. And somehow, this statement rocks my world. I’ve always assumed that skilled people have something I can never have.  Nobody’s born with skills. This becomes my mantra.

Two weeks ago, my sister and I meet in New Hampshire with the intention of helping our mom get ready for winter. As soon as we arrive, it’s obvious that winter is moving in fast. It’s on the tips of our frosty-cold teeth. So, on the very first night I slip into a hot bath. (Kind of a Yankee bath. Not very deep, Not very hot, and plenty of chill air to hurry you along from tub to bed.) When I’m done, I flip the plug to drain the tub, but nothing happens.

“You gotta be kidding” I groan. I look at the stainless steel lever. Behind it, inside the wall, and attached to pipes, there’s probably some kind of highly complex contraption. I think about my list, and say my mantra: Nobody’s born with skills.  I find a letter opener on my mom’s desk and unscrew the only screws I can see. I peek behind the plate and yup, the mechanism…however its supposed to work, is corroded and broken.

My mom sighs, “Oh well… I guess that’s it. No showers.” My sister shakes her head at me. We came to New Hampshire to help mom, not break stuff. My mom tells me not to worry about it, she’ll call her guy on Monday. He’ll know just what to do.

“No Mom, I’ll fix it” I say, all wide-stance and confident.

The next day I’m standing in the checkout line at Home Depot.
“So you think you’re gonna fix that yourself?”
I turn to find a big, burly New Hampshire man eyeing the new tub part in my hand. “I’m going to give it a go.” I say.
“Just call a plumber. Even if he charges a thousand dollars, it will be worth it in the end.” “Nah, I’m gonna learn how to fix this thing, and then I’ll know.”
He chuckles. “Okay, but when you fail, don’t come back to this place. Go to a real hardware store.”

I call Rod and tell him the story. “Can you believe that guy?” I ask, galled.

“Listen Mare, you don’t have time to learn how to fix this thing. You’ve got a minimum of three hardware store visits ahead of you, all 30 minutes from your mom’s house. Call a plumber and pay the bill.”

“I’m going to fix this thing myself” I growl.

Sure enough, when I get home the part doesn’t fit and the screws are too big for the holes and…

“If you’re dead-set on doing this, go to Belletetes,” Rod says, “And first thing, apologize profusely for even darkening the door of Home Despot.”

Belletetes Hardware is a real store with people who have skills. Jeff, in the Peterborough store (there are six in New Hampshire) walks me through the whole repair. I can use the old screws, he tells me, and the new hardware. All I need is a cuff to slide onto the old screw so it won’t go right through the front holes of the new mechanism. I admit I have no idea how to connect the housing to the new part. Jeff says I can pull the whole thing out of the wall. “Just jiggle it. It won’t want to bend at first”. He assures me that once I get it into the light, I’ll see the pin that threads from one side, through the new part and into the other side. When we’re all done with this exhaustive tutorial, my only purchases are the two cuffs (I’m sure there’s a more accurate name for them, but I don’t know it.) My total bill is thirty cents.

The next morning I lay everything out on the bathmat. The two parts, the little baggy with the cuffs. Two screwdrivers. A wrench, my phone with the flashlight app open. I climb inside the tub (fully dressed, mind you. This is New Hampshire in October), and sit down. I pull at the housing inside the wall, but it won’t budge.

I jiggle it-gently at first-and then as if I’m telling it who’s boss. Sure enough, the housing bends, right at the hinge. It doesn’t break. It just emerges out of the wall. I can see the old corroded pin. I grab the wrench and pull on the stubborn old thing until it gives way. I put the new apparatus on and thread the old (stubborn) pin back through. I thread the cuffs onto the screws and screw the whole shebang back to the wall.

The corroded housing and pin, holding the new hardware. Voila!

I take a deep breath and pull on the plug lever. It klunks into place. I press the lever down. It klunks back. I hop out of the tub and run some water. I hold my breath as I press down on the lever. The water drains. Triumph!

Just like new!

Fixing things is a big pain. But the pain… the runs to the hardware store and the trials and errors and the making the situation worse and the prospect of having to pay someone in the end anyway…is a lot like learning anything. Failure and despair lurk everywhere. But the idea of getting stronger, of knowing something new and having a skill you didn’t have yesterday, is, when you think about it, kind of intoxicating.

A Final Note: Last night my son’s laptop broke. He had a lab due in school and no rebooting or reloading of software helped. I Googled, and got to a page that said “If you feel comfortable taking apart a laptop, peeling off the warranty sticker, and resetting the hard drive you can follow these directions…

I grabbed a screwdriver and got to work.

Because hey, nobody’s born with skills.



P.S. You can find me, Facing 50 Fears on Facebook

© Mary Elder, 2015. All Rights Reserved.

One thought on “#5 Fix Something in the House by Myself

  1. OMG Mary….I’m so with you on this one. I fixed the ice maker in our freezer this week and I strutted around after like I’d defused a bomb. You are the best for sharing.


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