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Death of the Handy Man
Remember the guy who could fix anything around the house? Fu Jinming looks deep within, and examines the decline of the domestic alpha male.
According to my late grandfather, there were only two types of men in the world: those who could fix stuff, and those who couldn’t.
I grew up around men of the former persuasion. My grandfather, uncles and dad were the epitome of the man of the house. Ah Kong could bring anything from a wall clock to a sampan boat back to life. My uncles could wield a hammer like it grew out of their arms. Even my dad—his son-in-law—has a black belt in the power drill (which incidentally, was his solution to most things in the house).
A proud lineage, to be sure. One that will regrettably stop at me.
Now, I know a Philips screwdriver when I see one. And contrary to my mother’s belief, I can change a lightbulb – quickly on good days – when I have to. What I can’t do, is everything else.
I wouldn’t know what to do with a broken doorknob, for instance. Minor plumbing problems have a high probability of turning into full-scale floods. And installing a brand new wall shelf may require a brand new wall afterwards.
Even IKEA instruction sheets make me break out in cold sweat – Allen key or no Allen key.
The bad news is, I’m in good company.
I’m surrounded by friends who would readily admit their ineptitudes in matters of home improvement. Some sheepishly, most matter-of-factly. These are strong, intelligent men, mind, who would rather face the indignity of calling in their dads to help put up their newly framed posters, than to grab a drill and try putting some holes into the walls themselves.
I suspect even their wives would rather they just fix the home broadband connection – by calling in technical support.
The rise of the modern man, it would seem, has marked the decline of the handy man. Our brains may have evolved to accommodate complex tasks – like designing the next smartwatch. But our hands have devolved to handle only the most rudimentary of tasks – like thumbing the video game controller. Or typing an email to the helpdesk. Or tapping on our contact list for the plumber’s number.
There was a time when men hunted. They provided. And if anything were broken at home, they’d put it all back together again. It was an age when the man of the household was quite literally the one who fixed it too.
Paying for “professional” help was almost unheard of two generations ago. As far as our forefathers were concerned, the rule was simple: if it was broken in your home, you fixed it yourself.
And I could see why. It’s not just about saving dollars and cents. It’s about the satisfaction that comes with mending things with your own hands; a DIY rite of passage when boys with toys become men with tools.
Makes perfect sense when you think about it. Men who build their own houses know every brick like they know their own children. More than that, they know themselves and what they’re capable of. Because when you build your own home or your own car or even your own toaster, you build something far more significant – your confidence.
And let’s face it, having a man who’s handy around the house is a convenient—and very sexy—one to have. According to a recent UK study, women voted a guy’s DIY skills as a serious turn-on – more so than flashy cars, expensive restaurants and lavish bouquets.
Yet, the death knell for the handy man continues to sound. You can blame it on any number of things – the lack of time to learn and experiment with tools; the impatience of urban living (“we wanted it fixed yesterday”); the way we take our household items for granted (“they’re not built to last anyways…”), and so on.
Peter Mcallister, paleoanthropologist and author of Manthropology, blames the general state of modern malehood: “I discovered, to my horror, that it’s impossible to write a book about the superior achievements of modern males, because we haven’t made any. From battling to boozing, babes to bravado, there’s nothing we can do that ancient men, and sometimes women, haven’t already done better, faster, stronger, and usually smarter.”
In other words, we’ve become soft. Like ice-cream.
Or have we?
We may have neglected a subtle but important fact here, that things are a lot more complicated these days. More pointedly, the devices, appliances and the tools made for them have gotten increasingly complex. Your light switches now come with digital controls. You have multi-entertainment systems with more connection cables than a NASA satellite.
All you need is a screwdriver and a pair of deft hands? Try that on your state-of-the-art, sensor-based washing machine. You’ll sense the pain in your wallet fairly quickly when you realise its warranty doesn’t cover damages from self-repairs. Which you’ve just done. Yourself.
Thing is, different times call for different measures. We’ve got YouTube channels that show us the best way to install a clothes hanger. Measuring devices that uses laser beams to calculate a room’s angles. And online forums telling us that in most cases, the best way to fix certain things is to leave them to the experts.
Because the truth is, we’re all experts in something; we all possess different talents. For some like me, fixing a faulty toilet just isn’t one of them.
Besides, do you honestly think David Beckham – arguably the finest specimen of the modern male species – would’ve mended a broken chair? Or a faulty remote control?
Trust me, he’d much rather squeak for a new one.
Still, I admire a man who knows his way around a nail gun. He who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty plastering an unsightly hole in the wall, or picking up the brush for a weekend paint job. For he is a man who’s not afraid of toil, and of doing things the hard way.
Taking on a DIY job speaks of the courage to learn a new skill, and the confidence that comes with mastering it.
But most of all, it speaks of an anthropological heirloom that we’d do well to pass on from one man to the next. So we may truly learn to make good of all that is not in our homes – wobbly tables, faltering showerheads and all.
There is also that special sense of pride, self-respect, and joy that come with having made something right with your own hands. Perhaps it’s the gratification of knowing you’ve rolled up your sleeves, and met a problem head-on. You may not have had the foggiest idea where to begin, but began you did. You mended what needed mending – in your own time, in your own way. The victory was yours and yours alone.
Or as my grandfather would say, “See? So easy.”