Don’t Do It Yourself (1994 Thurber House winner)

Being in the arts means a lot of things, most of them having to do with getting paid squat when you get paid at all. To my wife and I, it means living in an older house that has been assaulted by a string of do-it-yourself owners.

Our house has a lot of character. It’s a fixer upper. A challenge. These are just a few of the ways a real estate agent has of saying “firetrap that would be condemned if someone from the housing authority were willing to risk their life to set foot in it”. Some of the more interesting features of our house include a basement window that opens onto dirt (it’s about three feet below ground level and turns into a scenic waterfall when it rains) and a basement door that opens up under a solid wood deck. Obviously, the previous owners were not big on planning.

I’m a check book do-it-your-selfer. I tend to look at things very pragmatically. Is the likelihood that I’ll fall off the roof, worth the $150 dollars an hour I’d pay to have someone with no teeth (who’ll pronounce chimney “chimley”) replace those broken shingles? Invariably, the answer is “yes”. Of course, I’d hire someone to chew my food if I could afford it. It’s not like I’m stupid or clumsy. I’m basically just unmotivated.

Over the past year or so, my wife and I have been improving our house bit by bit, check by check. We now have three different colors of shingles on our roof, but at least it doesn’t snow in the living room anymore. Rainwater doesn’t run down the back windows since we had the gutters replaced. My wife, of course, was bugging me to economize and try my hand at doing some of the repairs myself. One evening, after unexpectedly stepping off of our front porch into our rose bushes, I decided that we should probably have a front porch light.

Normally, I wouldn’t even consider trying anything involving electricity, but there were a lot of clues around that told me how I should go about putting up the light. Just inside the front door, there’s a light switch that doesn’t seem to do anything. In the past I had shrewdly noticed that when you turn the switch to the “no” position (I forgot to mention that all of the light switches in our house are upside down), four things happen:

  1. the lights in the house dim
  2. there is a low, slightly ominous, humming
  3. a small puff of smoke and smell of hot plastic rise from the cheap, plastic shutters on either side of our front door
  4. the cats hide under the couch

I removed the cheap, plastic shutters and discovered a cheap, ugly, brass-like light fixture. The light fixture sported two wires, one red and one white. I turned on the light switch and got my final clues as to how electricity works. There was an impressive electrical arc and, once again, the kitties bolted.

My wife was less than thrilled with my choice of projects and, while she was dragging Katie and Gracie out from underneath the sofa, convinced me that I should probably turn off the power before going any further.

So, I went to the basement and followed the wires to a large, rusted box. I opened it and discovered a bird’s nest (we’ll talk about that some other time) and a collection of breakers marked in some form of prehistoric hieroglyphics. One breaker was marked “wnkl??” and another “wicdum!!”. I chose a switch marked “brfrt”, turned it to the off position, and hoped for the best.

Electricity is an amazing thing. What seems so simple never is. To make a long story short, our entire house was plunged into darkness. Our refrigerator let loose with a horrible squeal (sort of like Ned Beaty in “Deliverance”) and expired. Our television … well … basically exploded and now only picks up Russian educational television. The cats are not speaking to me.

My wife was pretty understanding, once she regained consciousness. She kissed me on the forehead, handed me the checkbook, and called the electrician.

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