House Rules: Going soft

Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 11:45pm

I blame the garages, the garage doors and the lawn mowers.

These are troubled times for homeowners. Good help isn’t just hard to find, it has mostly disappeared. It’s hard to find a good ladder-climbing man to clean your gutters or a hammer-swinger who can build a fence strong enough to hold your dog. Even unskilled and unreliable itinerant workers are in short supply — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I say it’s time for us homeowners to pick up some tools and take care of our own house business. It’s a simple procedure with a simple goal: make sure everything at your house — gizmos, appliances, electronics, people and pets — are fine. Then start taking care of your yard and your neighborhood. Good results will follow.

At my house, I’m in charge of all jobs that don’t require climbing a ladder taller than six feet, entering a 140-degree attic or messing with a commode or any pipes downstream of a commode. I’m a little ashamed to say that I did all of those things 20 years ago, but these days I’m sharply focused on keeping my bones and organs intact and my brain fully operational.

Not long ago, our society was the world’s silverback gorilla, with alpha men tooling around in three-ton, chrome-finned cars on earth and driving a buggy on the moon. After the moon landings, we started getting soft. The first sign was that we started grafting garages onto houses. We turned into such weenies that we couldn’t carry a few grocery bags from the driveway to the house. Next thing you know, we were too delicate to even get out of the car to open the garage door, and we started installing automatic garage door openers.

It’s not just that we got all lazy and dainty, which is bad enough by itself. The worst thing is that garages — and those dang automatic doors — severed the connections among neighbors. Time was, people drove their cars up to the front of the house and parked them in full view of the neighbors. Those Americans strode proudly to their front doors, instead of skulking in like a bunch of egg-stealing weasels. Often, folks would encounter a neighbor or two somewhere between the car and the front porch, and they'd do a little civilized bonding, right there in front of the house, where everybody could see them. If somebody came home drunk, disorderly or disheveled, all the neighbors found out about it in real time. Such stuff made America great.

Garages and automatic doors started us down a long stretch of bad road that’s still loosening the bolts in America’s undercarriage. A particularly heinous example: the deadman switches on the lawn mowers. Time was, a lawn mower would run all by itself, even if you walked away from it.

I liked this feature, because my early lawn mowers, like my early cars, wouldn’t always start back up after I’d turned them off. But a day came when the government forced each and every lawn mower manufacturer to install a deadman switch, which would turn the lawn mower off when the operator let go of the handle. They did this because people were sticking their hands and feet into the whirling blades.

I feel sorry for people with lawn mower injuries. I really do. But in all my life — during which I have known some seriously dysfunctional humans — I’ve known only one who had flesh-to-blade lawn mower contact. My neighbor Shoeless T. Poole sliced off a couple of his toes. And this was back when the docs wouldn’t even try to sew toes back on. Believe me when I tell you, Shoeless T. Poole was going to end up missing some body parts sooner or later. Poole was lucky. The lawn mower accident was a warning shot.

But now, because of people like Poole, we’ve got citizens walking around thinking they don’t need to be careful. There are people who think it’s somebody else’s job to keep them from falling off ladders, burning themselves with coffee, or letting their children gnaw on lead-laced Chinese toys.

Some years back, a group of disgruntled smokers pressured the tobacco companies to develop a cigarette that they could quit smoking. At the time, I suggested that those smokers wrap a Zig-Zag paper around some of that stinky, shredded, rubber garden mulch and smoke that.

Time’s a-wasting. Pick up a hammer. Fix something. Then fix something else. Then fix something at a neighbor’s house. It might just do us all some good.

Jowers has been writing about renovating old houses, and other things, since 1981. His column appears every Thursday in The City Paper. Contact him at

Filed under: City Voices

1 Comment on this post:

By: govskeptic on 8/20/09 at 8:06

Good story Walter, but I sure like my little ole garage-not for my car, but as George Carlin said: "gotta have a place for your Stuff".