The Lesson in an Ex-Leak

My kitchen faucet started leaking last week. Once upon a time, this would have been cause for something close to panic. I am not a handy person. The skills I possess come through hard work and practice, and I don’t practice plumbing. It takes quite a lot of remedial tutoring for me to even get to an assessment of the problem, never mind addressing it.

Moreover, for my life thus far I was under the impression that I didn’t like doing this sort of thing. Perhaps that is still true for things that need to appear a certain way. I have a hard time ‘coloring in the lines’. Physically. I simply can’t seem to make things square. My hand control is miserable, always has been. I can’t draw anything; my handwriting is somewhere in the neighborhood of prescription quality (for those who remember that sort of thing). It doesn’t end well no matter how hard I try. Understandably, this has led me to generally dread making things outside of the food and fiber crafts that come more easily to my hands. If I have to live with something and it requires fine motor skills and straight edges, I prefer to have the work done by someone competent.

So when the faucet began dripping, there was a moment of involuntary reaction, wondering how much it would cost me to get it to stop leaking and how long it would take a dripping faucet to run up that much money if I ignored it. But then I pulled myself together and went to the best home repair resource humans have ever devised — YouTube. A short search on the faucet type led me to probably more DIY repair video hours than I have remaining years to live. And right at the top of the list was a quick video on trouble-shooting common ailments. Lo and behold, it was something I could address myself! In fact, it was literally just a matter of tightening a bolt to make the drip stop.

How ridiculously pleased this repair success made me! Certainly, my elation was all out of proportion to what was actually done. I wanted to crow about it. (I refrained…) Later, as I was still basking in plumbing triumph and starting to feel a little foolish because of that, I fell to analyzing why such a little thing could be so very gratifying. It was not exactly doing the thing — because I still don’t want to do plumbing on a regular basis. I’m sure not rushing out to get a tool belt and take classes. It is more that now I know that I could do that if I wanted. Tackling this minor thing rather than seeking help gave me a sense of empowerment. I learned that I don’t have to call the plumber when the faucet leaks again — as it will. I can do this. This gives the pride a bit of a tweak, but more importantly it shows that I am resilient, not dependent on a bank account that I don’t have. I got this! Since I live alone this is a very reassuring thing to know!

I also realized that I like fixing things. Well, no, I’ve always liked fixing things. I noodle with toasters and other simple electronic tools. I darn socks and patch holes in fabrics just because it makes me happy to see something made whole again. I love spackling and smoothing the walls and woodwork. And of course, most garden tasks are remediation of one sort or another. I think repair work is relaxing, meditative even. So I’ve known that I like fixing things generally. What the leaky faucet showed me is that I could also like fixing things outside my comfort zone. The satisfaction of a job well done can be found even in doing things that I don’t like doing

This newfound pleasure in minor mendings may not be a revelation for some of you. But I am hardly alone in feeling like a maladroit when it comes to home maintenance. Or car maintenance (which, ok, that, maybe I’ll just not mess with… learning how to fix my electric car would take more YouTube DIY videos than I have years remaining… and I’d still probably kill it…). I know plenty of people who are deeply uncomfortable with any sort of repair work. What’s more, I know that I am unusual in actually wanting to do this sort of thing. After all, making and fixing my own life is an intentionally explicit goal of mine; it’s why I am writing this blog! But most people do not have that goal. In fact, I get the impression that most people loathe the very idea of doing basic repair work for themselves. Well, of course they do — because that is what our culture teaches us.

We don’t have many opportunities to learn that we have skills, that we can do this, that we probably would even enjoy it. In fact, we’re taught just the opposite — that we should leave things to the experts, that any engagement with crafting our lives is just going to result in a mess. The messaging further implies that we won’t like this sort of thing, or rather that we don’t like it, that it’s extremely weird to want to make and fix things of such a utilitarian variety. We’re perfectly allowed, encouraged even, to make somewhat useless crafts — especially if the craft requires many specialty tools and supplies — but we are forcibly steered away from doing necessary work for ourselves. We are taught to despise the very idea of doing maintenance work — and, the marketing slyly adds, in any case, we are no good at it. Best to throw money at the problem and let someone competent take care of all needs — perpetually.

That brushes up against the reason for the messaging. If we fix it, we are not spending money. Even if you have to go buy a few tools (and you probably won’t need to because YouTube has quite a large number of DIY-ers who can show you how to do anything with not much more than pliers and a screwdriver), you are spending less than if you were to pay for the work done. And you are spending much, much less than if you were to scrap the broken thing and replace it. Which is what the market wants you to do, what it needs you to do, what it can’t survive without you doing.

So tackling the leaky faucet myself was a radical act. (Not merely a cheapskate impulse…) I learned what the market does not want me to know — because in learning it I did not spend any money at all. Furthermore, now that I know how to take care of this problem when it happens again and now that I know that I can very likely take on other problems without expert assistance, I’m not going to be spending money in the future either. (Touch wood…) And finally, if I were to let repairs slide until I could afford professional work, the damages might be compounded until there is no fixing them. However, if I take care of this faucet with regular minor repairs, if I keep it in good functional shape, it is highly unlikely that I will ever need to replace it. How many faucets are not going to be needed simply because I fixed this small leak?

Of course, this makes me very happy! That is the main lesson in all this. Here I did this thing that I generally don’t like doing and found pleasure in it. For many reasons! Not least of which is that this act took money out of the market system. I am quite certain that those of you with repair qualms would learn the same lessons. So think about it. My small faucet repair job doesn’t do that much to the monstrous system, but if all of us do the same thing? How many faucets are not going to be needed then!

And that is why there is this messaging, why it is essential that we believe we are incompetent and that we don’t like doing this stuff anyway. Because if we are all choosing to meet our own needs and taking care of the stuff that already exists, the system falls apart. It is crucial that we don’t learn my lesson of the leaky faucet…

For those who are contrary, perhaps that’s the best reason to go off and school yourself the next time you see a drip! 

From the Book Cellar

Today seems a good day to share some of the wonderful books on humanity’s propensity to make stuff. Two of these books serve as reference and tutorials as well as musing on why we love craft — contrary to what we’ve been taught!

One of my favorite skilled contrarians was Gene Logsdon. If this is an unfamiliar name, take it to the library and check out a small pile of his books right away! Especially if you have agricultural proclivities. The book I refer to almost weekly for one reason or another is Gene Logsdon’s Practical Skills: A Revival of Forgotten Crafts, Techniques, and Traditions (1985, Rodale Press). This compendium contains everything from simple architectural plans for common farm structures to recipes on ice cream making — and, being Gene, there is a good deal of curmudgeonly musing in the margins. Well worth owning this one!

A more recent, if less sweeping, attempt to combine DIY with WHY is Cræft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts by Alexander Langlands (2017, W. W. Norton & Company). I find this one a bit pretentious, but there are good tips on hedge laying, thatching and other skills that aren’t common practices these days. (Gene would probably have rolled his eyes…) This book does tend to focus on handy-men, an annoyingly common problem in the genre.

Here are a few that delve into the culture and psychology of making things without talking as much about the actual work involved.

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford (2009, Penguin Press).

Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman by Peter Korn (2013, David R. Godine, Publisher).

The Craftsman by Richard Sennett (2008, Yale University Press).

Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber (1994, W. W. Norton & Company).

Women and Craft edited by Gillian Elinor, Su Richardson, Sue Scott, Angharad Thomas, and Kate Walker (1987, Virago Press).

©Elizabeth Anker 2022