Did I do that?
Just about every day, as I go about my little home inspection business, somebody will listen to me describe a problem with wiring, or plumbing, or carpentry, and then ask, "Can I fix that myself?"
Well, hell, how should I know? I'd hate to think that the average American couldn't read some instructions, pick up a few tools, and do a decent fix-it job. But then there's Sock Woman, who came to my attention back in the mid-80s, when I was working at Old-House Journal. She read one of our articles about refinishing floors, which contained this useful admonition:
After you've sanded your wood floor, wear socks when you walk around on it. Otherwise, you might leave footprints or shoe marks that will become part of the permanent finish. Somehow, though, this woman read, "Put on your socks, and shuffle your feet over every inch of the newly-sanded floor." Well, don't you know, Sock Woman started picking up splinters. And she didn't stop after just one or two, and re-think her plan. Nope, she stayed hard at the sock-shuffling until her feet were more wood than flesh. She blamed us for it, and said so in a letter that the Old-House Journal folk are probably still passing around.
Just in case you're wondering if you've got some handyman in you, I have devised this test, which might just help you decide.
Have you ever hurt yourself with a lawn mower?
If you have ever stuck your hand or foot under a running push mower, and drawn back a nub, or tried to mow a hill so steep that your riding mower flipped over on top of you and gouged out some flesh, you shouldn't work on things around the house. Maybe it's just me, but all the people I've known who hurt themselves with lawn mowers just stayed hurt from something. I figure lawn mower injuries are the perfect indicator of people who should just hold still and hope nothing bad happens.
Have you ever been shocked while installing a light fixture or a ceiling fan?
That's an instant disqualification. If you failed to turn off the juice before you started monkeying with something electrical, you should never pick up a tool. Not even a pair of pliers.
Have you ever removed a part of yourself with a power tool?
My down-the-street neighbor ran a drill right through the middle of his left hand, and gave himself a real enough lifelong stigma. He said the initial injury was bad enough, but he really hated the part where he had to back the bit out of his hand, creating something like a curly fry. This is a perfect example of somebody who should always hire a handyman. I mean, when you put your hand right behind the board you're drilling, you're just a danger to yourself and others. If you've had an injury like this, you 're better off just letting your house fall down slowly, rather than picking up a tool and collapsing the place all at once.
Have you ever started a fire other than a campfire or fireplace fire?
Kitchen fire, bed fire, workshop fire, grass fire, forest fire, car fire-they're all instant disqualifications. Ever since my father-in-law set his truck on fire trying to heat-seal the end of a nylon rope he was using as a truck-window curtain rod, I've been hiding his tools. If you've ever started a fire with a kerosene heater, you're not only disqualified, you're screwed. Kerosene-heater-fire people, like lawn-mower-injured people, always end up in a bad mess. While I'm thinking about it: If you've burned your eyebrows off more than once, I say buy all the insurance you can get. You're a sure thing.
Can you play Wipe Out bare-handed on a kitchen counter?
If you can, there is hope for you. As a general rule, people who can play Wipe Out are fairly capable, and good with their hands. When it comes to working on things, you can generally trust Wipe Out players to make things better than they were. There's a wrinkle in this, though: A whole lot of people think they can play Wipe Out. But usually, what they think is Wipe Out is just a bunch of arrhythmic slamming and bamming. This makes the Wipe Out test all the more powerful, because it uncovers delusional people. For the test to be meaningful, you have to get a better-than-average honest musician to judge it.
Now, don't get your feelings hurt if you can't play Wipe Out. There are some high-achieving, perfectly useful people who don't have a shot at playing Wipe Out-Bill Gates and Al Gore, for instance. But believe me when I tell you: There is nothing more useless on this earth than folks who think they're playing Wipe Out when they're not. Those are the people who for dang sure will tear something up, set something on fire, or get somebody hurt. If that's you, don't pick up any tools. If it's somebody you know, you can go ahead and be friends with them. If you love them, though, don't let them near power tools or pilot lights.