- Pumping Irony -

PUMPING IRONY: The DIY Dilemma

Age and affluence have limited my opportunities to embark on home-improvement projects, but a neighbor’s request for help resurrects my sense of usefulness.

close up of grass being mowed

I descended from a modest line of do-it-yourselfers, a label I tend to prefer over its more accurate synonym: cheapskates. I was too young to witness the army of relatives Dad had recruited to help him turn the upstairs attic into a bedroom for my older brothers, but I’ll never forget the chutzpah involved in acquiring the garage.

Dad’s nephew Billy ran an excavating company at the time and stored his machinery, including a flatbed trailer and a dump truck, in our backyard. So, when my father heard that a neighbor on the next block was going to replace his rickety two-car garage, he figured he at least had a way to transport it from point A to point B. I was not privy to what I suspected later must have been a colorful discussion between my cautious mother and her devil-may-care husband, but I figured something transformative was happening when Dad started laying concrete blocks in a precise rectangle 20 feet from our kitchen door.

When the delivery date arrived, my friends and I along with a smattering of incredulous neighbors looked on as Dad and his crew managed somehow to get the structure onto the trailer. Billy inched out of the driveway, made a wide right turn onto Sunnyside Road, and headed west followed a bit too closely by a gaggle of fearless youngsters silently hoping to witness some catastrophe worth exaggerating in the years to come.

We were only slightly disappointed when Billy maneuvered the garage precisely atop the foundation. The following weekend, Dad and his small battalion of siblings began slapping stucco on its clapboard walls. It was a few months later before they managed to get a concrete slab poured, but the point was made: We don’t need no stinkin’ professionals.

I’m reminded of this adventure at a time when contractors of various stripes have invaded our home with the intention of refurbishing our kitchen. It’s not a major project — some new cabinets, a range hood vent, some ceiling and floor work — and 30 years ago, I would’ve just done the bulk of it myself.

Back then, I thought nothing of bashing out walls, rewiring electrical fixtures, installing flooring, and generally handling anything that didn’t involve plumbing. The results were seldom pristine, but My Lovely Wife realized the lack of craftsmanship was the price we paid for a lack of resources. In recent years, however, age and affluence have strengthened MLW’s resolve to keep power tools out of my hands when home-improvement projects beckon.

This is fine by me, for the most part; my interest in wrangling drywall has gradually declined to levels commensurate with my skills. But all those mangled carpentry projects that once defined homeownership in my mind offered a certain sense of purpose back in the day that I now fear is gradually vanishing. And various studies, including recent research from the University of Michigan, suggest that losing that sense of purpose can shorten your lifespan.

I’ve got enough on my plate most days to dissolve any concerns about a lack of purpose, but I can’t help thinking that I’m becoming less and less useful as the years accumulate. So I was unexpectedly pleased the other day when my neighbor Sue knocked on our back door and offered an intriguing proposal: Would I mow her lawn if she bought a new electric lawnmower?

Sue is 76 and battling lung cancer and COPD. She explained that she’d fired her lawn service after the crew mowed down some of her flowers, and she was in no mood to find a replacement. “You can keep the mower in your garage and use it on your own lawn, too,” she noted.

I quickly agreed, partly out of a charitable inclination and partly out of a desire to ditch our ancient rotary mower. The leader of the crew installing the pipes for the stove vent overheard the conversation and met me with a smile as I returned to the kitchen. “Will you mow my lawn, too?” he asked. I couldn’t quite tell if he was joking.

The lawnmower arrived the following Friday, and I put it to use the next day, careful to avoid Sue’s flower beds. That turned out OK, I thought, as I surveyed the yard. Then it occurred to me: We don’t need no stinkin’ professionals.

is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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