A Suburban Dad's Guest Blog: The Truth about So-Called Handymen

By Rick Kaempfer

I used to feel guilty about my skills as a handyman. I don’t have any. I’m more of a “Wow your hands are really soft, do you use Palmolive?” kind of guy. If it’s broken, I can’t fix it. That’s not just being defeatist, that’s forty-plus years of experience saving me lots of heartache and humiliation. And I used to feel very guilty about it.

After all, I’m a man, a son, a husband, and a father. For years I felt the shameful sting of being unhandy. My widowed mother would give me that “Where did I go wrong?” look when she asked for my help with something in her house. My wife would give me that “I didn’t read the fine print when I married this guy” look every time something broke in our house. My three sons said “How can I ever be handy when you’re my father?” with their eyes. Each and every look from them was a dagger.

The shame I felt wasn’t confined to my family’s opinion of me—it was a society-wide shame. When we would go to neighborhood parties, the men would inevitably congregate near the grill, and I would pray the conversation never turned to home improvement projects. If it did, I knew better than to contribute anything at all to the conversation. I was certain that handy men could smell un-handiness on other men the way dogs smell fear. Any word, any exchanged eye-contact, would expose me. I had a key word or phrase in my back pocket just in case (say “intake manifold” or “drill chuck”), but I only uttered these in uncomfortable silence emergencies.

But that was the old me. I no longer feel guilty, and I no longer feel shame, because I discovered something very important: Nobody in the world is handy.

You read that correctly.

“Hey wait a minute!” handy-ish guy replies, “I built the addition to my house myself with pinecones and a sandblaster.”

Fine. I’ll grant you, that’s quite impressive. But be honest with me; you’ve had to call a workman at least once or twice over the years, maybe even to “fix” something you already fixed, haven’t you? Did that person utter the following phrase?

“Whoever worked on this before didn’t know what the heck he was doing.”

That’s what I thought. Don’t feel bad. They say that to everyone, even other handy guys. Maybe you’ve even said it yourself when some unhandy friend asked you to help them out. It’s inevitable. It’s as much a part of the home improvement process as the building supplies themselves (note: I won’t attempt to identify what those are). Before the last nail is hammered, someone will utter the words:

“Whoever worked on this before didn’t know what the heck he was doing.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say I’ve heard it every single time anyone has done any work in my house. The first ten or fifteen years I heard it, I bought it. I figured I was simply living in bad homes with bad plumbing, appliances, electric, drywall, insulation, siding, windows, bricks, and concrete. Talk about bad luck. It wasn’t until I heard the same phrase being used at a handy friend’s house that I finally experienced an epiphany.

A gigantic weight has been lifted from my shoulders now that I know the secret. There are men all over the neighborhood working on their own homes who aren’t handy—they are at best “sort of handy.” And there are men all over the world making a living as “handymen” who will one day be called “someone who didn’t know what the heck he was doing” by the next handyman who comes by.

I’m no longer upset I can’t do it myself. From now on, when my wife or mother or sons give me that look, I’ll just walk away guilt free. When the guys at the neighborhood party start talking, I won’t be ashamed or avoid the conversation. I’ll just admit the truth unapologetically.

“I use the yellow pages, fellas, because I don’t know what the heck I’m doing.”

There I said it.

Now where did I put my Palmolive? My baby soft hands are feeling a little dry.

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  • So let me see if I've got this straight. When it came to declaring yourself handy, you just said, "chuck it"?
    Thanks for another great post, Rick!

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