Matt Labash, klutz.
Nov 10, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 09 • By MATT LABASH
TRY AS I MIGHT, there's no getting around it: I'm all man. I make this statement of faith not because I checked myself out in the shower before writing this article. Nor because I possess all your typical man-like properties--though I do: I can eat two hamburgers in one sitting, I hate spooning, I can operate even the most obscure buttons on a television remote without looking down.
Sometimes we manly types must manfully take stock of our manliness by digging deeper. Some do this by pushing their outer limits--by getting a risqué tattoo or competing in triathlons. I do this by taking personal inventory with the help of Muddy Waters's timeless classic "Mannish Boy." The Testosterone Index is self-administered by taking Muddy's shameless boasts and applying them to your life in question form. Am I, like Muddy, a "full grown man"? Check. Am I a "natural born lover's man"? Check. Am I a "rolling stone"? Affirmative. Am I a "hoochie coochie man"? Without question.
Still, despite my kinship with the Delta bluesman, I sometimes can't help but feel I'm overcompensating. For though it takes a man to admit vulnerability, I've always felt something less than a man when it came to mechanical aptitude. I could not fix a thumb-wrestling match if it were between my own right and left hands. I hate Tim Allen. I would rather be force-fed the collected works of Anna Quindlen than spend an afternoon in Home Depot.
From the time I was a wee child, when I gashed a six-inch hole in my hand with my dad's boxcutter, my parents reinforced this shortcoming. Mom conveyed it gently, suggesting I was mechanically uninclined by assuring me, "language is your tool." Dad, with his gift for economy, made it a little clearer. "Son," he once said, "you're a tools 'tard."
He hit the nail on the head, to use one of the few tool metaphors I can actually comprehend. His own father, who hailed from the steel-driving town of Pittsburgh, could give John Henry a run with a hammer. Over his lifetime, my grandfather accumulated so many thousands of tools that he had to construct accordion-style fold-out cabinets to contain them all. Each tool was neatly placed in a painstakingly tailored, hand-carved groove. When he died some years ago, the big-ticket items--the circular saws, the hydraulic lifts--were given to people who could use them. All I got was a rusty toolbox, a tack hammer, and some long, flat thingee that's really sharp on one end. Like my grandfather's memory, I've always cherished it. But I have no idea what it's for.
For most of my life, my ignorance didn't seem to be a problem. If I had cared about working with my hands, I'd have learned a trade and gotten a real job. Whenever I found myself in the company of discount Bob Vilas, discussing their broken cars or furnaces or yard equipment, I'd just nod and spit occasionally, trying to look manly while throwing out a knowing, "Maybe it's a bad gasket." I don't know what a gasket does, I've just heard they go bad a lot.
But then I got married, had kids, and am now saddled with the burdens of being Harry Homeowner. I try to sound in-charge, but I'm living a lie. The other day, I explained how electricity works to my 4-year-old: "You flip this switch, then that bulb comes on." He called for his mom. She mocks me mercilessly. When she gave me a drill set one Christmas, hoping that I'd hang pictures and curtain rods, her face fell when I asked, "What do you expect me to do with this?" She took it from me, disgusted. A delicate flower not given to salty language, she spent the rest of Christmas day on a stepladder, forcing me to hand her drill bits while deriding me as "The Carpenter's Bitch."
Most of our domestic life, mechanically-speaking, has consisted of humiliation piled on embarrassment. When I got a new wood-burning stove, I asked a friend if I was best off starting a fire with fatwood or by pouring gasoline in there, then lighting it. "That's not a stove, that's a bomb," he cautioned. When I solicited a relative's help to bang out the deck of my riding mower after the fifth time I hit the septic cleanout (or was it our water pump?), I stepped in front of his hammer and caught a shot right in the forehead. "It happens," he said, stifling laughter in case the internal hemorrhaging wouldn't stop.
My wife, for her part, has tired of the expensive mistakes, the debilitating injuries, and me cursing God, inanimate objects, and our small children. "Just don't," she now says, when something falls into disrepair. I've complied with her wishes. She seems pretty worked up about it, and if she blows a gasket, I haven't a clue how to fix it.