I speak with no authority on this principle. I am a very unsuccessful gardener even though I like to blame the fact that my yard doesn’t get enough sun to grow things, and I am a far cry from a handy man. I don’t feel any particular pride even in my ability to keep a yard. I feel a great deal of shame about this and envy those with more skill and aptitude than I have. I know I could place a higher priority on domestic responsibilities, but I also try to blame my busy life. But that is Doc’s point, isn’t it? I can’t even really blame my upbringing; sure, my father wasn’t much of a handy man himself, but I worked hard throughout my youth mowing lawns, weeding yards and gardens, and doing restaurant work. I am good for a project as a helper; just don’t ask me to be in charge. I am quick to forget things I learn, especially when the practice goes dormant for long periods of time. And passing through graduate school while raising a young family and moving from apartment to apartment, I fell out of the discipline of working on a yard and didn’t own much of anything to make or keep up a home until I was into my 30s. And at that point, all of my discipline was focused on trying to get parenting right, being a decent husband, serving in my church, and writing and teaching. I later added a host of civic responsibilities. I learned to swim in swift currents. The only remnant skill that has never left me is that I am a killer dishwasher. I love doing the dishes and generally do them every day. I love tackling massive amounts of them, and I never want or need any help.
I know lots of self-taught sprinkler repairmen, car mechanics, and home builders. I learned from sad experience early in my life that I was more likely to make things worse when attempting major, or sometimes even minor, home projects. I take things apart and then have no idea how to put them back together, and I am the worst reader and follower of instructions. For example, we are devotees of complex board games in my household (you know the ones—the Catan series, 7 Wonders, Dominion, and the like), but don’t expect me to ever read and understand how to play a game. Don’t even bother explaining the rules to me because they won’t be well assimilated. Just let me play along a round of two and I will have the game figured out by then. I might even beat you. Fortunately my wife is expert at reading complex instructions and never forgets rules. But if more than a month passes and I haven’t played the game for 100 or more hours, I won’t remember how to play. Not a thing. It almost feels like a disability, but I learn almost entirely by intuition. Get me playing again, and it all comes back.
It may be that Doc is speaking from a later stage of life that is more conducive to home projects than the one I find myself in now, but the point he is making is pretty simple. I think it is best understood in his use of the word “puttering.” To putter around the house is to move about in a relaxed manner, feeling no particular rush or anxiety, to engage in a series of tasks—cleaning, repairing, improving— that are not monumental even if vital to the economic engine of a home. It implies a general approach to life that doesn’t take things too seriously, that enjoys existence itself, and that knows how to balance the life of Martha with the life of Mary. So I see this as a two-fold principle: 1) SLOW DOWN, make time for and learn to enjoy mundane tasks as ends in themselves and 2) learn economic and maybe even a modicum of moral independence by acquiring domestic skills. On this second point, Doc used to say that one should learn at least one fundamental and marketable skill, like plumbing or home construction (maybe today we could add web design), that would not only help to save money and increase self-reliance but also serve as a personal safety net. As I indicated in an earlier post, this is one way to achieve greater independence from a globalized and overly bureaucratized economy.
On the first point, perhaps you are not as guilty as I am, but I know deep down that if I just gave my home greater attention and a higher priority, I would discover that I am not as clumsy or slow to learn as I like to think I am. I think I spent the better part of the first half of my married life (having just passed the 23 year mark) rushing, rushing, rushing. I maintained a laser-like focus on completing the landmarks of an academic life, all while trying desperately to be an available and giving husband and father, giving all that was asked of me in a lay church for many hours every week, and being an active citizen, what the LDS scriptures call being “actively engaged in a good cause.” I have learned that each of these areas of responsibility can swallow the others all by themselves, but other than a firm commitment to doing the dishes every night and doing the minimal amount of work on the lawn and yard, changing the oil in my cars, and occasionally washing them, and doing the most basic repair work, sometimes only after repeated prodding from my wife, what can I saw about my work spent on the home? I have spent the last several years trying desperately to simplify, cut back, say no to excess commitments, and so far I have faint evidence, but evidence nevertheless (!!), that I am starting to live a less stressful life, one that involves a little more puttering and a little less panic and rush.
My wife and I agreed that our anniversary gift to each other this year would be a household project to tear up the hideous outdoor carpet on our backyard patio and to lay down some tile, something we have never done and are intent on learning ourselves. The photo above shows a deer asking me when I will tear the hideous carpet up, finally. Well, the carpet is torn up, the surface of the cement patio is prepared, and the tile purchase is coming. With her abilities to read and assimilate instructions and my obedient brawn, it is shaping up to be a very romantic gift indeed.