The Girls’ Guide to Plumbing and Fixing

Dare to Repair promises to school readers in do-it-yourself projects manageable by even the most carpentry-challenged sorority girl. Instructions are helpfully arrayed around drawings of wheelchair-bound seniors replacing doorknobs and pregnant gals installing foot locks. The illustrations give the book a distinctly PC flavor, but it’s hardly the product of raging feminists. The acknowledgments are filled with religious references, suggesting a distinctly Christian can-do spirit that seems in keeping with the Rosie the Riveter cover. Dare to Repair is filled with cheerleading: “This isn’t rocket science. And if this is the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life, then sister, you haven’t lived … Dare to raise the bar for what you can accomplish. Dare to pick up a wrench and tighten the toilet handle that’s about to fall off. Dare to level the washing machine that’s been rockin’ and rollin’ for months. Grab a screwdriver and dare to install a new smoke detector. Dare to Repair!

The book might have been subtitled, “How to become the repair man you’ve always dreamed of.” Glakas-Tenet and Sussman, for instance, recommend putting masking tape along the edge of the bathtub to protect it from scratches while you chisel out the old rotted seal. Men never do these things. But for the most part, their advice is practical and relies on tools you’re likely to have around the house–like a raw potato, which they suggest using to dislodge a broken light bulb from its socket.

In this day of dummies’ guides to just about everything–not to mention 40 years after the debut of second-wave feminism–it’s a wonder there aren’t more books like this already on the shelves. Then again, maybe it isn’t. After all, most of the repair projects in the book are the kinds of things that middle-class people generally foist off on immigrants or rural folks who charge an arm and a leg just to show up on the appointed day.

Usually homeowners defend their employment of these contractors by pointing to time constraints. The truth is, though, despite their smarty-pants exteriors, most members of the office park set don’t know the first thing about ground wires. That’s why they are also unlikely authors of a DIY guide. The women who do write books on home improvement tend to come from the lady-of-leisure category. Martha Stewart occasionally wields power tools, but always for ornamental projects, such as, “How to turn a cedar planter into a fetching blanket chest.” It’s doubtful that Martha fixes her own toilets; she certainly never instructs the rest of us on how to do so.

All of which makes Glakas-Tenet and Sussman an interesting demographic. As CIA wives, they are part of Washington’s elite brainiac sector. But because many of Washington’s most powerful government jobs don’t actually come with high salaries, the women write in their introduction that they often couldn’t afford to pay someone else to get rid of that annoying, if not life-threatening, leak in the sink. And naturally, George Tenet had better things to do. As a result, the two women got their know-how on the job, and the projects in the book are the most practical of repairs–things women, and men, actually might need to do.

Recently, I beta-tested the book just to see how well it holds up to real life. I’ve employed its tips on fixing locks and resealing two bathtubs and discovered the miracles of silicone (and not the kind that makes your boobs bigger). I replaced the fill valve in a leaking toilet–something a plumber would have charged me $150 to do. I’m soon to be fixing a leaking faucet and changing electrical outlets. Inspired by the possibilities, I even went out on a limb and regrouted some shower tiles without outside instruction. When I mentioned what I was doing to friends and family, they reacted as if I had just hacked into the White House Web site. After I told my father I had resealed the bathtub (an incredibly simple operation) he said, “Wow. You know how to do that?”

These favorable responses, though, didn’t quite match my own feelings after taking up the “dare.” Instead of feeling empowered by my new mastery of men’s work, I felt like a complete moron for having to get this girlie book to discover the secrets of toilet hardware, something any ninth-grader could figure out. I was mortified at not knowing that a little WD-40 will make a lock turn like butter. When I think that I once contemplated getting a new refrigerator because the old brown one no longer matched my new white cabinets, I want to beat my breast in shame. As Dare to Repair will tell you, the fridge can be painted. Duh.

After doing a couple of projects, I had to wonder how I could be so entirely ignorant of the workings of my domestic environment. I knew it wasn’t a feminist thing–the “man” keeping us down by making dryer-duct cleaning seem like a mysterious art form. I know plenty of men, particularly in Washington, who don’t know the right end of a drill bit. The problem, I’ve deduced, is the changing nature of how this kind of information is transmitted from one generation to the next. Most people I know who are handy learned it from their fathers. My husband, for instance, changes the oil in his car himself, a habit he inherited from his father, who didn’t believe in paying someone else to do it. Glakas-Tenet says her father gave her a toolbox when she was just an adolescent.

My own father taught me how to shoot pheasant, build model airplanes, and distill alcohol, but he really didn’t know how to fix much around the house. If he’d known how to fix a toilet, I’m sure he would have shown me so he could make me do it the next time it broke down. Without that education at home, I wasn’t likely to learn how to wield a reciprocating saw–or even identify one–anywhere else. Judging from the response to Dare to Repair–and my own experiments with it–I’m afraid my experience is becoming much more the norm.

To be sure, the crowds at Home Depot–not to mention the cult status of HGTV, the Home and Garden cable channel–give the impression that Americans are rediscovering their inner handyman. But the purchase of a nail gun is not necessarily proof that Americans know how to use one. In fact, the recent rush to Home Depot may actually have revealed just how degraded our collective repair skills have become. In 2002, a record number of homeowners sustained more than 300,000 injuries trying to putter around the house, largely because of unfamiliarity with the tools they were using. The simple screwdriver now sends 10,000 people a year to the emergency room–a sign that some folks may be taking up the mantle of DIY, but that they really have no idea what they’re doing.

Maybe today there’s simply too much information for parents to pass on, so they have to be more selective in what they force their kids to learn. Defragmenting the hard drive takes precedence over unsticking the deadbolt. Or maybe parents’ desire to give their kids a better life means freeing them from such tedium as raingutter evacuation. Obviously, technology has made being handy more difficult, as electronic controls and other “upgrades” virtually rule out any do-it-yourselfing on broken cars and appliances today.

Affluence, too, plays a role by providing the opportunity to hire someone to do your dirty work. (For creative types, this provides the best of both worlds, allowing office-park dads to pat themselves on the back for spending a weekend planking a deck–after a day laborer did a week’s worth of backbreaking work digging holes for the footings.) Affluence also means that when something breaks, it’s often easier to simply replace it. The shift from a manufacturing-based to a service economy probably has much to do with our lost skills, as power tools were not foreign objects to the guys who built cars for GM. Now, though, if a Web tech wants to get his hands dirty at something manly, he has to make a conscious effort to do it–and take a class at Home Depot first.

The impact of all these cultural changes is cumulative. Once you’ve stopped changing oil, you lose your understanding of simple auto mechanics and an awareness of what else you might be able to fix cheaply on your own. Perhaps this is no great tragedy. In the modern world, the skills left behind are done so for an evolutionary reason. It does seem, though, that without these most practical of skills, we’re losing something essential. We sacrifice a level of independence by turning over every possible maintenance task to a class of service workers. Dare to Repair had me wondering whether, as a country, we might be becoming permanently handicapped around the house.

As I discovered how little I knew about my own domestic environment from Dare to Repair, I wondered how we would survive another depression. A few years ago, I went to Cuba, where I was astonished by the resourcefulness of the people there. The country lacks any sort of retail or service economy, yet there didn’t seem to be a man in Cuba who couldn’t work magic with bailing wire and gum to get an ailing Edsel back on the road again. How many of us could even find the oil filter?

My grandparents learned their Depression lessons pretty well. My grandmother, an Illinois farm girl, could probably have killed a chicken and known what to do with it afterward. She could certainly make jam and embroider quilts. Sure, Gram couldn’t program the VCR (she didn’t even have one), but in the big scheme of things, what’s more important, knowing how to stretch your food budget or taping another episode of “Jackass”? My grandfather was a tinkerer extraordinaire who never needed a repairman for his plumbing–and thrifty as he was, he would probably have considered hiring one a disgraceful extravagance.

I suppose one might argue that delegating repair jobs to the service economy is progress toward a more perfect economic system–comparative advantage, you might call it. Indeed, I can’t say I particularly enjoyed fixing my toilet. It was a pain in the ass that I’d happily turn over to someone else. That said, once I figured out how much the plumber cost, and then considered the time I’d waste waiting around for him to show up, I definitely came out ahead.

As the economy limps along and the unemployment figures shoot up daily, a growing number of previously well-off Americans may not have the luxury of making these types of calculations anymore. Hiring a service worker may simply not be in the budget. The boom times of the ’90s may have offered homeowners a chance to master the ego-building art of planking a deck, but the recession of ’03 may force us to learn the humbling tedium of toilet repair, in which case Dare to Repair couldn’t be timelier.

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Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer is a senior reporter at Mother Jones, an advisory board member at the Fund for Investigative Journalism, and the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. She was a Washington Monthly editor from 2000 to 2002.