Pop quiz for women:
1. What are the names of the following screw drivers:
2. How do you change the direction of rotation on a drill?
3. Why do the following screw drivers have differently coloured handles?
4. In renovations, mudding refers to what?
You’re probably wondering why on earth I am asking about tools and renovations on a blog that’s all about sharing lessons with women. I’ll get to that, and no, I’m not going to give you the answers to the above. I’d like to hear what you think the answers are and what your experiences are with repairs. Please leave me a comment below and we’ll see how we’re doing as a sex when it comes to tools, repairs and renovations.
How many of you feel perfectly comfortable maintaining your house and dealing with machines or systems that break down in your world? Perhaps some of you have come to a good place after many trials and learning experiences. Perhaps you’ve learned the hard way, as I did. What we all know is that everything breaks down eventually and houses need a lot of maintenance. So why are women, as a whole, so unprepared for it all?
In a moment I’ll tell you how this topic came to the fore for me during the Christmas season in 1998. These days I’m in a great place but it’s been a long road to get here. I’m now married to a guy who hails from the Write-A-Cheque School of Home Repairs, and frankly I’ve come to see the genius in that approach. When I met Mark, three things struck me: his library (large and varied), his red wine collection (impressive) and his tool box (not so much). The latter inspired a Crocodile Dundee moment: That’s not a tool box, that’s a jewellery box. This is a tool box. We kept mine.
My tool collection came courtesy of Malcolm, and I learned to use many of them when Malcolm became too ill to work. You can read about some of those experiences in My Story Part II. Suffice it to say that from 1996 to 1998 I learned to do a lot of things that I never imagined likely for me. The hardest part, though, began after Malcolm died.
The year that Malcolm died the Universe decided to test my survival skills. (If you have no idea who Malcolm is, check out My Story, Part I.) After his death I spent three months crying on my office floor followed by two months racing through a retail season in my business, desperately working to stave off a financial crisis. Then it was Christmas.
Christmas can be challenging at the best of times. When you’re immersed in a world of grief, it’s impossible. I didn’t want to see anyone and I especially didn’t want to be around happy, joyful people. As soon as the last of the Christmas sales was over I retreated into my country house, locked the door and ignored the world. I ensconced myself on the sofa with a massive bowl of popcorn on my lap, a glass of Scotch in hand and I watched the entire BBC production (i.e. the 7 hour version) of Pride and Prejudice without stopping, twice.
I’m not sure when I realized that my house felt cold. My first reaction was to turn up the heat, to no effect. Our house had a geothermal system so there was never a sound of the furnace starting; it was more like a constant movement of air. The problem was that the air had stopped moving and there was certainly no heat. I wasn’t immediately concerned as this had happened before. I turned the system off, waited a bit and then turned it on again, thinking that it would reset itself as it had in the past. Still nothing. That’s when I started to panic.
The furnace was located in a crawl space underneath the stairs in the basement. My first thought was to go look at the thing, an idea which was quickly overridden by an awareness that I didn’t know the first thing about heating systems, geothermal or otherwise, so what would looking at it accomplish? I searched everywhere for the manual that the previous owners had left behind. I found a phone number to call for servicing. Perfect – a solution. Except that they were closed for the holidays and would only reopen again in several days. The recording recommended that I call a local company for assistance. Which local company? I called a few but no one had a clue about geothermal systems. I was told to call the manufacturer. Great.
Just as panic was starting to rise in my throat, I closed my eyes and talked to Malcolm: “What am I supposed to do now? It’s really cold outside and I have no heat.” I figured I may as well have a look at the thing, on the assumption that some action was better than none. I crawled into the space next to the furnace, brushing away cobwebs as I looked for buttons of any kind. What I found was an array of flashing lights and a few buttons. What to do? Once again, I closed my eyes and asked Malcolm for help. I didn’t hear anything nor did I have an epiphany about how geothermal systems work but I did feel a sense of calm come over me, and I began to push buttons. I have no idea how long I was at it but eventually something worked and the unit began to hum once again. A few days later I spoke to a technician and got him to write out instructions in case this happened again. “But you figured it out,” he said. No, I got lucky. I have no idea what I did to make the machine work. That won’t help me in the future.
A few weeks later a massive amount of snow fell, so much so that I couldn’t get my car out of the garage. We had a 2.2 acre property with a massive driveway. There was no way that I could shovel the whole thing. I was forced to use the snow blower, something I had never done before. Malcolm had bought it the moment we moved into the country property, telling me that it would be essential. “I love this thing – it’s so easy to use and look at the amount of snow I can move in minutes with it!” he exclaimed the first time he used it.
OK, no problem I thought. I’ve used a riding lawn mower on the farm where I was raised, I drove motorcycles as a kid, how hard can a snow blower be? I had the key and I knew the basics. Fifteen minutes later I still hadn’t got the thing started. There was no point in searching for an instruction manual because Malcolm had never seen the need for such a thing. He was one of these people who has an innate understanding of how everything works; there wasn’t a single machine he couldn’t pull apart and put together again.
I finally broke down and called Malcolm’s father, Ron. Ron was the original Mr. Fix It. He was also an erudite Scot with no tolerance for folly.
-Doris, can’t you tell from the symbols on the front? They’re called international symbols for a reason. They’re supposed to be obvious.
-Ron, these symbols were apparently designed by a fine arts student in Mali who has never seen snow and never ever used a machine of any kind. You may as well ask a kindergarten child to explain how to get the thing started – she’d probably do a better job than these ‘international symbols’. Maybe one of them is Japanese for “Call your father-in-law in case of problems.” And yes, I put the key in and turned it on. Yes, I’ve done that too. And that. No, it still doesn’t start. Yes, I’d like to choke the thing. Oh wait, what do you mean by choke? Oh. No, haven’t done that. How do you do that again?
With cell phone in hand, wearing Malcolm’s size 10 boots because I didn’t own any tall enough to keep the snow out, I finally got the beast started. As soon as I freed my car from its snowy prison I drove to the store, got a copy of the manual and read it cover to cover.
A few months later I had contractors in to remove a door and put a window in its place. Malcolm and I had meant to do that from the very beginning but with his illness taking over we hadn’t managed it. I was now in the process of renovating the 70s nightmare of a house that I owned in order to transform it into a more presentable property for sale. It was clear that I couldn’t stay in such a large house and I desperately wanted to get back into the city. So I hired a company to get the window job done. By that point I had learned a great deal. Ron had already ensured that I knew how to use a variety of tools and do a number of renovations myself.
The day that the contractors finally came to get the job done something didn’t seem right. They were awfully quick about their business and never looked me in the eye. I saw the window go in but I wasn’t around to see the drywall go up around it. When the job was done they left in a big hurry, saying the boss would bill me for the work.
Something was bothering me. As I thought about it, I realized that I hadn’t seen them bring any insulation into the house. I started tapping on the wall around the window. What I got was a hollow sound. One foot away, my taps yielded the expected dull sound of an insulated wall. I ran down to my (OK, Malcolm’s) tool chest and pulled out a very long-handled screw driver. Then, in a moment inspired by a horror movie, I drove it into the drywall above the window. It went right through without any resistance beyond the drywall. I did the same all around the window. I eventually removed a good chunk of the newly-installed drywall to reveal that the contractors had installed a window with no insulation around it. There was one foot of empty space around all sides of my north-east facing window (ie. really cold).
The next day I called the owner of the company and asked if he was sure that the job had been done properly. He had not been to inspect it but yes indeed he was certain that his contractors had done a bang-up job of it, with their “usual professionalism.” I invited him to drop by my house to have a look at the work before I paid him. He said it wasn’t necessary. I insisted. In the end, I got a hefty discount and a sheepish apology with assurances that this had never happened before.
The reality is that women alone get taken advantage of by service providers of all stripes, particularly when it comes to areas that are traditionally the domain of men. I know that lots of men read my blog – because many of you have emailed me personally to pass on feedback, for which I am very grateful – so here’s my suggestion to an entrepreneurial soul out there: Start a business called Replacement Husband Contracting Services. Your motto can be “Honest, reliable service with no strings attached and nothing to clean up for a change”. I would have hired such a “Replacement Husband” in a heartbeat that Christmas and I bet that a lot of single women would do the same today. Women need honest people that they can turn to when the various machines and systems in their lives fail. It’s a huge and probably profitable niche. If you start such a business let me know; I will gladly promote you.
To women I say here’s the deal: Most of us never spend any time learning how to use basic tools and figuring out how some common items work. We should. Yes, our fathers should teach us everything they know. My brother knew how to change the oil in a car as a teenager yet I was never taught. That is, not until after Malcolm’s death when I sought out a program for women offered through a local car dealership (brilliant idea by the way). However, even if our fathers teach us nothing, it is still our responsibility to learn some of the basics. Why? Because it helps us to be better prepared and to feel more confident in the face of challenges.
You may decide that you never want to swing a hammer or hold a drill and that’s OK, but it is nonetheless valuable to know what the issue is and how to evaluate a potential contractor. Knowledge breeds confidence and choice. It also yields respect from contractors. When you know something about the business of repairs it changes the whole dynamic when speaking with tradesmen. And let’s face it, they’re pretty much all men.
I cannot emphasize the power of choice enough. Isn’t that ideally what we want for ourselves: the freedom to choose our outcomes? That same philosophy applies to repairs. I know how to do a number of renovations courtesy of many hard lessons but as a 40-something I now choose not to. I spent enough of my 20s and early 30s putting in floors and walls; I never want to do that again. I’d rather take Mark’s approach: write a cheque and use the time doing something I value more.
Wherever you are on the learning curve, I encourage you to gain more knowledge and to begin the process of demystifying the world of tools and machines. It’s really not that complicated once you get past a lot of visceral fear. Ask questions of repair people and don’t be afraid of looking or sounding stupid. People who ask questions get answers, and people who get answers gain knowledge. As you increase your knowledge, you increase your personal power. Think of how profound a lesson that is for your kids. You – and they – are worth the investment of a bit of time.
Please share your comments regarding your experiences with repairs and tools. Your feedback acts as fuel for my posts. Let me know what you think.
I wish you a warm, joyful holiday season. Merry Christmas and thanks for reading.