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    painting of a screwdriver

    Just Your Handyman

    Some people build skyscrapers. I address that damp spot on your kitchen ceiling.

    By Kurt Armstrong

    December 5, 2023
    9 Comments
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    • John Geffel

      This really spoke to my heart and soul. As a fellow “doer” I’ve struggled at times with the balance of loving things and accomplishment more than people. My to-do list can easily become an idol in my life, if that makes any sense. I’ve felt that my propensity to be task oriented was at war with my call to love God and my neighbor. But this beautifully crafted article spoke of the harmony that can exist for us doers. The author spoke of integrity, the parts all functioning as a whole. That to me was like a puzzle piece that just fell into place. Be a loving doer however big or small the doing is. “Whatever you do in word or deed do all to the glory of God”

    • Ruth Butler

      Absolutely beautiful. Mr Handyman.

    • Chris Knopf

      When measuring: The thickness of the pencil line matters. Start with the 1 on the tape measurer, but don't forget to subtract the inch. Measure twice, cut into the line a bit at a time, then measure again. For many tasks, close enough is close enough. Keep your fingers away from retracting tape. Trust your tape, but verify.

    • Andrew N Remillard

      As a fellow traveler of calloused hands, your words are full of truth. My children would work along side of me whenever it was appropriate. Do the same with yours and your deeds will teach louder than any words.

    • Penelope Ruddick

      Lovely read. Not enough credence is given to the simple satisfaction of fixing things and building things.

    • Arjun Rajagopalan

      I have not read something this lovely, sincere, and hopeful in a long time. I am so glad that the writer, aside from being a handyman, is also a gifted wordsmith. In a world where bits and bytes dominate, it is so heartening to go through this description of what it takes to be good with your hands. There is so much talk about AI, ChatGPT, and their breed threatening jobs and the livelihoods of millions. I don't think Kurt and his tribe need ever worry on this score. Once again, such a lovely piece. I stumbled on it through Hacker News and almost didn't read it.

    • djv

      This was lovely to read. My partner is a "jack-of-all-trades-man", himself. Wirh the exception of the spiritual influence, i hear many bits of him throughout this piece. His seemingly solitary occupation is rich with stories of accomplishments that began as challenges, and customers who occasionally become friends. Thank you for providing such thoughtful insight into this world, Mr. Armstrong.

    • Gretchen Shannon

      Wow, what a powerful read about what it is to be human and right thinking. Your children are lucky that you are their father. A father is a profound being this.world. I lost mine at 14. He was such a strong, loving decent man of integrity In those short years, he taught me how to be a good and decent human.

    • Jeremy Shell

      Thank you for such a wonderful article. So beautiful written and deeply moving. I found myself drawn into your world as a father and provider, a friend and helper. Your words resonated with me and my own view of the world. Thank you for sharing your world with us.

    From my kitchen window, I’ve been watching the construction of a ten-story building a block away. After a year of demolition, excavation, and pile-driving, an enormous crane blocked the entire street and extended into the sky, hoisting fifteen-foot sections of frame for the tower crane that would operate daily for more than a year, slowly lifting thousands of tons of beams, rebar, steel plates, posts, concrete forms, and glass.

    My experience with this kind of construction is pretty much the same as most people’s: watching from a safe distance as some high-rise tower slowly takes shape. What keeps those dozen stories from collapsing under their own weight? How can a structure of steel, concrete, and glass, all of which expand and contract differently, survive the Winnipeg weather extremes, where the difference between the summer’s heat and winter’s deep-freeze is 130 degrees Fahrenheit? What kinds of systems provide sufficient water pressure to run the faucets on the tenth floor, and move enough fresh air into the building and stale air out?

    painting of a screwdriver

    Raymond Logan, Dad’s Drill, oil, 2020. All artwork used by permission.

    There is a conference room full of people responsible for a project like this: designers, architects, engineers, contractors, builders, tradespeople, accountants, and project managers minding every detail. No one person could ever build something like this. Only a few people involved in a construction project of this scale would actually know how it all comes together, and even they count on the hundreds of workers who spend hundreds of thousands of hours putting the whole thing together.

    Some people know how to build high-rise towers. Is this what I should aspire to? My life and my work are so tiny. I feel constant pressure, almost entirely of my own making, to be more driven, to aspire to larger public work, something grander, more life-changing, more important. When I see what others are capable of, I feel like I should do more: expand my business, build homes rather than just fixing them. Or that I should write more, establish a greater presence in the culture, have more say in shaping the world. Build more, earn more, write more, do more, be more. Dazzled by the things others are capable of, I lose track of what I actually can do and have done.

    Am I doing enough? Should I be doing more? And what should I want for my son? How pleased I would be to watch him exceed everything I am and the things I can do. Is it my job to push him to aim higher, strive for more?

    I’m a handyman. People hire me to fix things. My jobs start when someone tells me about something they’d like me to build, or some problem they want me to solve: we need to put a window in the north wall; we want a tile tub surround; this sink is leaky; our old fence is rotten and needs replacing; we’d like to paint our kitchen cabinets.

    Each call or email is a window into a more complicated situation. If, say, there’s a damp spot on the kitchen ceiling, I’ll start by snooping around the house: just upstairs from the kitchen is a bathroom. Is there a leaky valve or a loose fitting? There’s no access panel to the plumbing in the bathroom, so I go back to the kitchen and cut out the wet section of the ceiling. I square the edges of the cut so it will be easier to patch, and I cut the hole a few inches beyond the wet section so I have better access to whatever it is that’s creating the problem. I can see the plumbing set between the joists, and – aha! – it’s not in the drain or the faucet but somewhere in the supply line. A loose nut on the braided supply hose, or a loose PEX connection?

    However tricky the diagnosis, fixing the problem is always its own complicated puzzle. And then there is an inescapable intimacy to the work. I have to be mindful of the fact I’m inside someone else’s home, in their living space, maybe even standing on the kitchen counter, holding a drywall saw, carving a hole in the ceiling. These customers have had to admit a vulnerability, and they’ve asked me to come and help. The problem is mechanical, structural, or technical, but my work is every bit as much relational as it is physical. The repair problem is always tangible, but it’s always people I’m working for. I can fix the leak, I’m sure. But how quickly do they need it done? Can I work here in the kitchen while still allowing them to do what they need to do? Am I working quickly enough for them? Am I making more of a mess than they’d anticipated? And how perfect will they expect the drywall patch to look when I’m done?

    Homeowners identify a problem, but usually I have to dig deeper to find its source. I have been doing this kind of work long enough that I have some sense of the kinds of things that go wrong in older homes, and what I lack in experience I can mostly make up for in determination and trustworthiness. I don’t always really know how to do whatever task I’ve said “yes” to, but I accept the responsibility to assess the problem as best I can, and will write a fair and honest bill when the work is done. (Actually, I often bill to my own detriment; I still don’t know how to properly charge for my work.)

    For fourteen years I’ve been doing this. My business strategy is nothing more than word-of-mouth and repeat customers – I’ve never advertised. It’s grown into a modest but thriving business, but it was born out of desperation and necessity, when I landed in a gap between jobs and needed to do something to earn some money. I knocked on our neighbors’ door and asked if they needed something – anything – built in their house. “A window seat and an indoor playhouse for the boys would be nice.” I’ve been fixing and building things ever since.

    I call myself a part-time autodidact handyman, a playful term to distract folks from the fact that, on paper at least, I have no business whatsoever working on their house. I have a decent education in theology and literature, but zero official qualifications for building a deck or plumbing a kitchen sink or adding lights to an entryway. Autodidact isn’t quite right, though, because for years I worked as a laborer alongside experienced, qualified, and certified tradespeople: carpenters, bricklayers, a plumber, an electrician, and a glazier, all of which constituted a kind of informal apprenticeship in the general principles of building and construction. From these pros, I picked up a good sense of how to do good work: selecting quality materials, proper fasteners, decent tools; establishing an orderly worksite; maintaining professionalism with colleagues and good and honest communication with customers; knowing when to fuss with details and when the work is good enough; knowing when to push through and finish a job and when to pack up the tools and call it a day.

    I still don’t mind asking for help from friends who are trained electricians, plumbers, framers, engineers, and architects. But the vast majority of what I know in my work has come from continuously saying “yes” to jobs I’ve never done before – I decided I could figure them out by being careful. Massive construction jobs take large teams, heavy equipment, advanced math, and huge budgets; in my kind of work you can get by with basic tools, junior-high math, honesty, a reasonable dose of common sense, courage, and, most of all, attention. In my kind of work you’d better take things apart carefully because you’re going to have to put them back together again.

    painting of a hot water handle

    Raymond Logan, Hot Handle, oil, 2020.

    So most of what I know about building I’ve learned from careful demolition, close attention, and common sense, shot through with medium-to-high anxiety as I mess with people’s homes. I’ve learned how to build by learning to take things apart, minding the various elements, noting materials and fasteners and what goes where, checking level and plumb (or approximations thereof in the old houses I typically work in). I’m learning how to communicate well with customers, to walk the line between the sort of exaggerated know-how that makes me look more qualified than I actually am, and the reflexively self-effacing disclaimers that come all too naturally to me and make people question whether they should have hired me at all.

    I have renovated a dozen bathrooms and built kids’ beds, basement walls, frames for stretching art canvases, decorative wall structures, openings for new doors in old houses, elaborate bookshelves, storm windows, front decks, porch steps, boardwalks, woodsheds, backyard fences, cedar garden planters, crokinole boards, and picture frames. I’ve built a clothesline for an eco-conscious politician, a treehouse and zipline for the four kids of a single mom, a coffin for my father-in-law and another for an infant.

    My projects are modest – the biggest thing I do is gut and renovate bathrooms – but the moment I step over the threshold to work on anyone’s house, it’s all on me to do good work and not wreck things. It’s simpler than a ten-story tower, but I carry the responsibility entirely.

    I have a tiny workshop in the basement of our house, where I keep my table saw and tools, and I’ll admit it’s a pain in the arse to haul the tools and materials up the stairs at the start of every day. Sometimes it’s hard even to get out of bed and face another day of this. I didn’t choose this because it’s my dream job. Handyman work is not my passion, not by a long shot. I don’t hate my work, but I don’t do it because I love it. I do it because I love my wife and kids and want to provide for them.

    My kids get regular doses of “No limits!” and “You can be whatever you want!” in school, and I resent it because it simply isn’t true. You cannot actually be whatever you want. That’s harmful, sentimental garbage. Fact is, the real world is chock full of limits.

    The other trouble with the promise that you can be anything is that you can spend a lifetime trying to be anything, forgetting that you actually already are something.

    Now, I am a small man; I live a small life where I make careful, modest choices. I am not an entrepreneur, an adventurer, or a risk-taker. I don’t have the freewheeling imagination of an artist. Also, I know all too well that I come from a line of sensitive souls touched with mental health troubles that range from chronic everyday melancholy to the catastrophic. My mental health is like a bike with tires at 30 PSI instead of the suggested 80. I can pedal along most of the time and usually get where I need to go, but I spend a lot more emotional energy than necessary. I am not the kind of man who is likely to guide my children to greatness.

    I don’t know who my children will be – ambitious, driven, fierce, and singular; or content, satisfied, and peaceful. Maybe they will do great things. I can’t say much to them about that. What I have to say is small, but I think it counts for more: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge…but have not love, I am nothing.” Ever since they were little, I have prayed for them at night: “May they grow up to be strong, wise, kind people who know you and love you.”

    I don’t know what they will do with their lives, where they will go, what they will learn and study, what kinds of work they will do. I was thirty-five before my vocation started to crystallize and I began finding work that was a good fit for who I am. So I’m not going to tell them what to do or make plans for what they will be. I might encourage some things and discourage other things: “I’d feel better about you being a carpenter than an investment banker because I think some jobs are more taxing on the soul than others.”

    In The Master and His Emissary, the Scottish psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist argues that for the past five centuries, we have constructed and inhabited a world of orderliness, mastery, and objects. Ours has become a left-brain-dominated world that prefers straight lines, predictability, and power. This has had catastrophic effects, he argues, because it undervalues human relationships. Our orderly mastery of materials is powerful, but it’s secondary – McGilchrist believes we’ve spent centuries mistakenly trusting our engineered, manufactured, modern, manipulated existence as though we have the power to construct something fixed and predictable, all to the detriment of the inextricable relatedness of everything. God bless modernity and its many comforts – penicillin, anesthetics, triple-pane windows, power grid, silicon chips, Netflix. Without modernity I wouldn’t have bananas, cordless tools, or emails from friends in Australia. But it’s becoming clear how costly it all is: glowing screens captivate and splinter our attention; our capacity to harness the power of stored carbon has unleashed a slow-moving catastrophe; our water and food are polluted; modern weaponry has killed millions.

    Home repair helps pull me back to the primacy of human relationship. I begin with attention: I show up, attend, observe, and listen. Sometimes the customer needs someone to talk to as much as he needs his floor replaced. My work takes care, and when I do it well, love. I mostly work away from home, but wherever I go, I am always a father to my children. They are never more than one or two steps removed from every decision I make.

    painting of a cordless screwdriver

    Raymond Logan, Ode to a DeWalt Drill, oil, 2013.

    I like the word “integrity.” I grew up thinking it was primarily about moral behavior, and that I ought to strive to be a man of integrity. As a handyman, I’ve come to understand it more as a description of right relationship, that a thing has integrity when its parts work together and serve the whole. The integrity of a beautiful old house means that its systems and their thousands of parts work as a whole, from ridge cap to footing and everything in between. Roof trusses, studs, joists, shiplap, plumbing, eaves, windows, flooring, faucets, switches. A house will function as a house and a home when it is built well and maintained well, in an integrity of form and function, beauty and usability. If it is poorly made, or when it starts to fall apart, integrity suffers. Give a simple leak enough time and it is capable of ruining the whole thing.

    Every week at church, the deacon reads this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Love God; love my neighbor. Who is my neighbor? I am grateful for the philosophers and theologians who have written complex, eloquent arguments. But it is neighbors, not philosophies, that I live and work for.

    Every day when I go to work I think of my kids. I picture their faces and imagine their voices. I pray for just enough courage, audacity, stubbornness, and humility for the day’s work. I pray for willingness to face whatever the problem is, and I plunge in. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, thanking God for muscles that are strong enough and hands that are willing, for the gift of work where I can be useful to others. And I head out the door to help provide for my beloved children and their simple, beautiful, everyday needs.

    Contributed By KurtArmstrong Kurt Armstrong

    Kurt Armstrong lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with his wife, Erika, and their three children.

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