Home love – Isthmus | Madison, Wisconsin

I’m a first-generation Norwegian. Whenever a male child is born in our family, the relatives gather together, inspect the child’s hands, and then, regardless of how stubby or long or strong the child’s hands are, someone declares that he has good carpenter hands.  By luck of the draw, in my case, the prophecy proved true. When it came time for me to earn a living, I joined the long line of ancestors who were comfortable with tools by their side: hammers, saws, levels, and also fishing poles, knitting needles, soup ladles, garden hoes, and deer-skinning knives. Dancing with the physical world is how our family afforded a decent living. 

But, 25 years into my construction career, my body failed me. So I returned to school, got a degree, and became an English instructor at a local tech college. Nice not to have to deal with winter, but, like an old dog needing its daily walk, I missed my tools and physical labor.

The good news is that my home, and the homes of many of my friends, need work. We approach it like a collective. I help work on theirs — fixing a sticky door, building a fence, replacing a hot water heater — and they either help me with mine or we work out a trade. My buddy Andrew helps me with my plants. No money exchanged, just good will.  Our houses are not palaces, but they have good bones. We’re lucky to have them.

Maintaining our homes also helps the environment. To me, letting a house go to ruin is a slam against nature: disrespecting the 60 to 75 trees it took to build the house, taking for granted the tearing-up of the earth for metals for wiring, plumbing and appliances, as well as the raw materials needed to build a foundation. A well-loved home can last centuries.

Today, I’m on my back, wedged into the cabinet under my kitchen sink. The sharp front edge of the cabinet is wedged between two lower lumbar vertebrae. Flakes of rust from the cast iron sink settle in my eyes, which I can’t do anything about because there’s a wrench in my right hand and my left arm is bent in a way that arms are not supposed to bend, even in yoga class. The cabinet is rank with festering compost, musty wood, and anti-everything cleaning chemicals. One knuckle is already bleeding from my blindly trying to fit a 6-inch wrench into a 5-inch space. The dog wants to help. He sniffs my crotch.

I admit to feeling a certain domestic heroism when tackling plumbing — dripping faucets, clearing a stuck toilet, or installing a new water heater. Of course, there are bad days, too, like confronting a flooded laundry area in the basement, dealing with drifting feces and bloated tampons. At those times, I dig deep, and my voice takes on a certain Morgan Freeman gravitas as I announce to my partner, “Honey, I’m heading for the underworld. Wish me luck.” 

To which she replies, “Oh, baby.” 

So far, so good. 

Then, trouble. The ancient and corroded shut-off valve, which I had to crank with a large wrench in order to shut, begins to hiss water, as if whispering to me the dawning truth that I will be wedded to this project for the rest of my Saturday. I have been here before. In the past, this is the moment when I asked the kids to go outside and play, lest they learn a litany of dad’s crude names for body parts and his hard feelings about God. I’m a lot more user-friendly now. 

So, yeah, repairs can be a drag. My leg is cramping and the leaky shut-off valve drips in my ear. I reframe the scene, see the cabinet as a happy place, a kind of cubist, malodorous, post-modern womb, and I am about to learn something worthwhile. Plus, I get my daily exercise. No gym needed. A bit of advice to novice do-it-yourselfers. Choose your projects well. Not into plumbing? Perhaps electrics or woodwork or painting is your thing. Home repair is not a contest; it’s just a way to be more engaged with your home.

I announce to my family that there will be no water for the next three to four hours, then head for the basement where life is simpler, pared down, skeletal. I shut the main water valve and listen to the happy gurgle of pipes draining, water running backwards, returning to the source. 

The drive to the hardware store is next, but likely won’t be my last trip that day. Plumbing is archeological; one leaky shut-off valve leads to a corroded steel feeder pipe that leads to needing a steel-to-copper adapter. But I’m lucky. Willy Street Ace Hardware is a traditional, third-generation family-run hardware store. They understand both old houses and my limitations. They also have a good sense of humor.

I also lean on YouTube for guidance, a wonderful tool for both professionals and novices in home repair. Ask a question like, “Why did the water turn brown after working on pipes?” and it will tell you that natural sediment has been stirred up by you turning the water main off and on.

By 3 p.m., after yet another trip to the hardware store, I’m ready to turn on the water and check for leaks. Always a nervous moment. This time, no leaks. Scattered around me are wrenches, my box of spare parts from other plumbing jobs, tins of soldering flux, and old fittings. 

I’m tired, but peaceful. For six hours, my daily worries had taken a holiday. I saved some money, did my bit for the environment, and, for my efforts, it’s a house rule that I get first dibs on a shower.

Guy Thorvaldsen is a journeyman carpenter and taught English at Madison College for 15 years. 

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