Zen and the Art of Home Maintenance

    Originally published in The Globe and Mail, November 26, 2004

    For about a year there was a gaping hole in my mom’s kitchen ceiling, where the leaky bathtub above it had finally caused the plaster to give way. She had no cause to fix it, because the hole was serendipitously situated directly above the kitchen sink, into which drops plunked conveniently whenever someone took a shower. This system would probably still be in place if she hadn’t sold the place, and had it plastered over as part of it’s pre-selling spruce-up.

    When it comes to maintenance, my mom takes the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” one step further, to: “if it is broke, but you can still work around it, don’t fix it.” For instance, her TV’s volume depended for years on whether a strip of duct tape was muffling the speaker or not.

    It almost goes without saying that duct tape is a great friend of hers. Other lesser-sung but equally valuable tools of instant maintenance include the garbage bag tie (which held the kitchen sink’s faucet in place), the safety pin (a good stand-in for broken zippers), the hairdryer (any internal combustion engine that won’t start is usually cured by a half hour blow-dry), and double-sided tape (comes in handy when hemming pants). When I told her about Harvey Pekar’s technique – as depicted in the film, American Splendour – of patching holes in old winter jackets with glue, she thought it was a good idea. Perhaps she’ll add some Elmer’s glue to her arsenal.

    One thing she’s learned by allowing things to stay broken is that entropy isn’t all bad – sometimes, in fact, broken can be better. Take the case of the door to her cottage: back when the lock worked, the inevitable petty thieves of autumn would always break the doorframe when they kicked the door in. However, now that the lock is dysfunctional, they can kick the door in all they want while leaving the doorframe intact — a wondrous innovation. Her cheap second-hand phone offers similar undreamed of conveniences, when the static – which kicks in after five minutes or so – makes further conversation impossible. Since she doesn’t usually like talking on the phone any longer than that anyway, it provides a useful excuse to duck out of conversations.

    Certainly part of the explanation for her approach to maintenance is that she was a single mother and has never had much money to spare. But if finances have been her only impediment, surely she could have afforded to replace the handle on the bathroom cupboard. Yet for twenty years it was good enough to simply pry it open with her fingertips.

    It’s not that she isn’t handy, either. She built my sister and me a play-structure when we were kids, reupholstered the entire couch, and was the owner-operator of a woodworking business.

    Neither is it a question of time. She readily admits that, for example, crawling under the half-opened garage door because you can only open it the rest of the way from the inside is inefficient, and, in the long run, much more time consuming than fixing it.

    No, she persists in her snubbing of maintenance because it bores her. It’s dull. It’s no fun. Why should you do all that work just to get things back to the way they were? Maintenance is as tedious as treading water.

    Agreed, most would say. Yet most do it anyway. So what makes my mom different? How can she so blithely ignore the slow decay all around her? Maybe it was her Ottawa Valley farm upbringing. Where she came from, when something broke, you didn’t just throw it out and go down to Home Depot to get a new one. You patched it up into a semblance of functionality again. My mom, it seems, got the not throwing away part. And she got the non-consuming part (she once said all she needs is a grocery store, a Canadian Tire, and a Value Village). She just overlooked the third part, the fixing part.

    But perhaps more importantly, my mom has a strong sense of “good enough” in a world that always seems to be pushing for better. She (to the annoyance of Bell) was one of the last holdouts for the pulse dialling system, she continued using Carleton University’s freenet email service long after everyone else had switched to more user-friendly platforms, and she drives cars until their axles break. In stark contrast to the growing ranks of the technology-enamoured, who sometimes seem to love their gadgets more than the ends these things purport to serve, her values are grounded in results. If it gets the job done – even with a bit of inconvenience or effort – it’s good enough for her.

    And there’s something to be said, in times such as ours, for that kind of acceptance. With the explosion of choice we have witnessed in the last 50 years – from 36 million websites to 36 flavours of yoghurt – it’s become an essential skill to be able to say, “good enough”, and move on to more important things.

    So – as she’s running up and down the basement stairs to reset the washing machine’s three-minute rinse cycle, which is now pinch-hitting for the busted wash cycle – she’s not troubled by the fact that this is less than ideal. She’s content in the knowledge that she’s getting her clothes clean. And a little exercise.