Johns Hopkins Magazine - April 1994 Issue


By "Guido Veloce"

Last week the most popular television show in America was "Home Improvement." Friends say it is very funny and I should watch. I haven't and can't. The theme of a bumbling handyman sounds less like a comedy than a documentary. It strikes too close to where I live.

The show came to mind when I tried to make sense out of two observations. The first was that in three months in Italy, which included getting lost in and around almost every major city from Rome northward, I never saw a "home improvement center." The second observation was that, at the moment the thought occurred, I was doing something that seemed stupid even to me. I was making my second trip on a sleety day, past snowbanks full of large American cars, to a "home improvement center." There I found a number of otherwise sensible-looking people who could have been snug, warm, and comfortable in their unimproved American homes, which are among the newest and best in the world. Instead, they, too, were risking safe driver insurance premiums to venture to a cold, drafty store whose staff, when finally tracked down and cornered, dispensed costly misinformation.

What strange compulsion made us would-be handypersons take to these mean--or at least icy--streets. In my case, that was a rhetorical question with a straight- forward answer.

I mismeasured. I often do.

I wasn't so sure about the motives of others, like the pleasant young woman in front of me in line, whose gold MasterCard purchased an electric saw suitable either for industrial-strength renovation or a low-budget horror movie. With the march of civilization, "Man, the toolmaker" (the sexist catch-phrase of my freshman anthropology text) had become "Man and Woman, the toolbuyers."

Home improvement has been around since the 1950s, long enough to have passed from fad to major industry, and the great landmarks in its history are several decades old. (I include the first inexpensive electric drill, an event my father commemorated by buying a new one every few months.) Indeed, several years have passed since a colleague announced her firm belief that it was impossible to go into any store of a local home improvement chain, for any reason, and spend less than $100. Her theory had striking predictive power for half a decade, until a national chain moved into the area two years ago, a price war ensued, and the free market had its effect. The minimum is now $150.

I write those words as an insider--in fact, as one who is typing with two hammer-impaired fingers. My credentials as a bumbling handyman are impeccable and extensive. I've bumbled on both coasts and in nearly every old-home art form: rough carpentry, finish carpentry, painting, paint removal, flooring, roofing, electrical, and plumbing. I don't do windows.

After the third old house, I swore that I would never renovate again. It was time to live in new construction, with walls of some non-destructible, non-biodegradable material that average humans can't even think about moving or replacing. It was time to find a housing development with a restrictive covenant against power tools.

That was then, this is now. The fourth renovation is going better, mostly because we're still tearing things out, not putting them back. Even we generalists have our specialties. Besides, it's not my house.

I am, nonetheless, fascinated, and at a loss to explain, why we--mostly meaning middle-class Americans--continue to do this to ourselves, not to mention our homes. In several crucial respects, Americans are emotionally, culturally, and intellectually unfit to deal with "renovation" and "remodeling,"

especially of old houses. We may have a can-do attitude, but few of us have can-do abilities. And deep in our hearts we believe in a rational universe. We react with disappointment to floors that slope and doorframes that tilt, as if God intended houses to be level and square. Equally debilitating, we have a naive admiration for the "craftsmanship" of anything built before the tract-house era. It's a charming faith that leaves the fledgling handyperson unprepared for irregular walls, meandering plumbing, and wiring done at a time when real men didn't worry about electrocution.

There may be something peculiarly American about the compulsion to do it yourself, in spite of the unreality of our expectations about our houses and ourselves. At first, I found the absence of home improvement stores puzzling in Italy, a nation where retrofitting old structures is a way of life. (A bit of Romanesque here, Gothic there; the latest fashions from Benetton hanging in medieval window openings; modern plumbing snaking down Renaissance walls.) The key, however, is that Italians long ago learned a lesson Americans seem to have forgotten: You can usually hire people who know what they are doing and who will--sooner or later--finish what they begin. There is a lot to be said for home cooking over home improvement.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins professor.

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