What is the single most frightening phrase a woman can hear from her husband? Hint: It is not something about the status of his job, your relationship, the family vehicles, or even your children. It is this: “Honey, is Home Depot still open?”
This phrase is generally uttered after the water in the house has been turned off for four hours, most of those hours having been filled with banging, swearing, the whine of various power tools and, at times, quiet weeping.
You see, about 5% of men in America are bona fide, licensed contractors. Another 7% are true, amateur but very knowledgeable do-it-your-selfers. And then there are the rest. On a given weekend, the inspired, but untrained do-it-your-self home repairman accounts for 65% of hand tool sales, 75% of power tool sales, 95% of specialty tool belt sales, and 20% of all emergency room visits. Typical injuries involve burns, poisoning, lacerations, asphyxiation, heart attacks, falls from roofs and ladders, sprained or broken wrists, and a myriad of other injuries.
On any given weekend, 1,000 home fires, 2,500 indoor floods and 3,700 divorces can be directly linked to home remodeling. It should be noted here though that all of this begins with the best of intentions.
One of the most interesting facets of this is that at least some of these men make as much or nearly as much as the contractors they might hire. So, hypothetically, they could do some freelance work for which they are qualified on a Saturday, hire a contractor, and just about break even. The do-it-yourselfer could also avoid all of the above-described calamity and confidently report to his wife that the job will be finished by dinnertime (because someone qualified is doing it). But no; there is some kind of primitive, hunter/gatherer self-sufficiency gene that gets turned on at precisely 5:00 on a Friday evening and back off on Monday morning. It compels men to believe that they are in some way, inherently good at anything mechanical. It is not enough for them to earn six figures as a financial advisor; they also have to spend an entire Saturday in the cramped quarters under the kitchen sink. As they work, 250 degree (F) solder, cold water and rust pour down on them, but it’s not enough to discourage their activity. It has become a rite of passage. They simply can’t back down.
I don’t have to go into much more detail about this for women who are reading this, because you already know how it goes. It starts out at 8:00 am on a Saturday morning with a trip to Lowes or Home Depot accompanied by unbridled optimism. Then there is the “suiting up” with all of the new tool belts, aprons and power tools that he has just purchased. (Hint: if two male neighbors offer to help your spouse with a do-it-yourself project, choose the one with the least tools.) Your loved one is out to prove two things to you: He knows how to do the job, and he is going to save time and money. He’s going to save time by not reading the instructions, and he’ll save money by not buying expensive safety equipment. (More on this in the column: “Men in emergency rooms—how to deal with whining and other infantile behavior”)
The most interesting thing about all of this is the little known fact (and this is true) that whenever women have taken over mechanically oriented jobs because men have not been able to do them (such as in war time), they have generally bettered their male counterparts. During the Second World War, thousands of women went to work in neighborhood garages repairing automobiles. And while it is well known that women have better fine motor dexterity than men, this wasn’t the most surprising thing to the garage owners. The amazing thing was that women were better diagnosticians than men for a single reason: they would take their time. Instead of just plowing in and starting to change out parts, women would study the problem, read wiring diagrams and charts, and then fix the problem once-and-for-all. As a result, many garage owners didn’t want to give up their female employees when the men returned from the service. Rosie the Riveter was a great public relations gambit, but her character was not made up out of whole cloth by any means.
So back to the amateur plumbing repair. It is now going on 5:00 Saturday evening, and things are getting tense. “What’s the problem?” the wife asks casually. “Damn solder won’t melt,” Bob answers. “I think I need a bigger torch.” “I’m not touching that one,” she thinks. Bob’s wife then surreptitiously picks up the instructions and scans them. “Well, you know, Bob, I overheard a plumber once say that you have to blow the water down the open pipe because the water at the solder site keeps cooling the soldering surface…..something like that.” Now Bob is faced with a choice. Either fess up to the fact that he didn’t read the instructions and has just wasted four hours trying to do an impossible job, or lie. Naturally, he chooses the lie: “Well, I know that….but it just didn’t seem to be working. I’ll try it again.” Of course, like magic, the solder now melts, the pipe is sealed, and the job is done. “Turn on the water, hon. I think I got it.”
I hope someday we men will be able to get over our primitive, defensive behavior and learn that everyone is not cut out for complex repair work. I also hope that men will be able to stand their partner saying, in a nice tone, “Bob, I love you for wanting to do this, and I know you can learn it. But on the other hand, you’re a jackass for not reading the instructions.” In the meantime, many women have taken up home remodeling and become partners to their well-intentioned husbands or boyfriends. The best case scenario is when his good intentions and her superior skills and willingness to take written or verbal advice is paired up to create great home remodeling teams. In that scenario, instead of 5:00 being a tension fraught time with no water in the house, it will be time to have a glass of wine, watch the news, and prepare for a pleasant evening…..and possibly even a bath.
A word about the statistics in this story:
Some of the statistics in this story were painstakingly researched. Others are educated guesses based on the whole universe of events in a given category. Still others were totally made up on the spot taking full advantage of writer’s license and the excuse of a tight work schedule (however, even those are based on reasonable knowledge of how much damage amateur home remodeling causes each year). For example, the numbers on do-it-yourself tool and accessory sales are correct. The amount of home fires, floods and divorces are based on U.S. totals in each category, and are generally conservative. For example, there are 330,000 home fires in the U.S. each year, 30% of which are never assigned a cause. Guess who doesn’t want the insurer to know who got the Bernz-A-matic torch a little too close to the baseboard? In the divorce category, stories about home remodeling causing relationship problems are so legendary, that some psychologists have jokingly suggested that pre-marital counseling assignments should include remodeling one room of a house together. Concerning the part about female mechanics in WWII, this is absolutely documented. The story was researched for Motor Age Magazine’s 100th Anniversary issue just a few years ago. As to the economic benefits of do-it-yourself home repairs, consider this: if a do-it-yourselfer can competently install a new kitchen sink faucet, he/she can save about $125. If, however, that repair leads to a trip to the emergency room, the faucet now could easily end up costing about $1,000 in out-of-pocket costs, and this assumes that Mr. “I can do it myself thank you very much” is insured. Please note though that if we are talking about a man doing it and he manages to somehow complete the repair before being carted off to the hospital, he will brag endlessly about the $125, and totally forget the huge expense of fixing his 2nd degree burns. Take pity on him; it is that vestigial Neanderthal part of his brain that still calls to him; even if he is a cost accountant.