What in the world! I can't even change a light bulb,' declared a colleague, with a veiled taunt at my imbecility. In the Calgary office hallway in the late nineties, he and I were conversing about what we did in the preceding weekend. He just heard I had climbed up a two-story ladder to scrape off the loose and cracked paint and caulking, and re-caulking, and repainting all the exterior window frames of my house on the top of hill at Edgemont. It was, unarguably, an arduous and risky undertaking that still gives me a 'spine-chill', recalling the sporadic gusty wind that made the fully-extended lanky ladder wobbly.
My colleague's odd confession made me wonder. Were it by someone else, I would have understood. Not too many have the 'do-it-yourself' knack for home repairs and maintenance. But he is a chemical engineer with a PhD in an experimental project from a US university.
Then again knowing his provenance, I was not so shocked. He was from a country where opportunities for hands-on experience in home repairs did not exist. Houses there did not have any plumbing or appliances or heating or A/C or water heating. But he should have some training in his universities, I reckoned. At Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) in a neighbouring country, I had training in carpentry, welding, foundry, making objects out of sheet metal, and using tools and simple machinery in a machine shop. Later, both for Masters and PhD in chemical engineering at University of Waterloo (UW), I did experimental projects, both of which required apparatus building and fixing.
As a graduate student at UW, I occasionally changed lubricating oil of my second-hand car and even braved to change its tires. Later, when we bought our first new home directly from the builder at the peak of an oil-industry boom in Calgary in 1980, I levelled and covered both front and back yards with sods (rectangular pads of lawn grass), built and painted the backyard fence all by myself, and laid ceramic tiles on bath room walls, in none of which I had any prior experience. I even ventured into interior decorations by doing research (in those pre-Internet days by reading manuals) on making drapes and sheers. I did the engineering and my wife did the sewing, for which she had some training from India. I also did occasional plumbing of a leaky toilet in the house and once replaced the kitchen garburator (an electrical device for shredding solid food wastes into smaller pieces), an episode that required squeezing my body under the sink, lying on my back, and struggling while loosening a connection, with not much space to rotate a pipe wrench around.
Tenacity sprinkled with strokes of luck led to my successes in those home repairs and household projects. I built a TV stand, not aesthetically pleasing, but functionally fine and sturdy, from scratch. I once fixed a broken dryer without knowing what was broken and what was that I fixed. I took it apart, but could not figure out what was wrong. Feeling frustrated, I put it back together, settling on plan B, which was to hire a skilled tradesman. But to my surprise, after I had turned on the switch, it came roaring back to life, rotating and blowing hot air and drying wet clothes. 'Luck is on the side of those who try.'
Impressed with the repair, my wife celebrated her handyman husband's achievement by cooking a hilsha fish imported from Chandpur, a few miles from my childhood village, Bishnupur. 'King of fish' hilsha is relished by 300 million Bengalis world-wide in auspicious events and special celebrations. Also a fish for diplomacy and goodwill in that part of the world, it is taken as a gift by Prime Minister of Bangladesh on official visits with Chief Minister of Indian state of West Bengal. Chandpur, at the confluence of Padma and Mehgna rivers in Bangladesh, produces the tastiest hilsha. I remember my new brother-in-law bringing hilsha as a gift in the late fifties when he visited us at Matlab, only seven miles away from Chandpur. When in schools, my mother used to refer to hilsha and other fish as being good for brain and doing well in studies. The concept of fish being a 'brain food' was a mere conjecture then, but is supported by recent research by Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Centre (20 August, 2014, NY Times). It may explain, conjecturally again, why both Bengals (one now the independent country of Bangladesh and the other West Bengal state in India), where fish is plentiful and popular, have produced many intellectuals and creative minds, including three Nobel Laureates: Tagore, Yunus, and Sen.
The 'hilsha celebration' for the dryer repair was worthwhile as, to my wife's astonishment and liking, it continued drying wet clothes until we sold it with the house, many years later. She liked it so much that one day I could overhear her talking to her friend about me fixing the broken dryer.
Some say the secret ingredients of a long marriage, among others, are for a wife to be a good cook and a husband to be a handyman. A non-engineer with no handyman skill may get some sympathy, but an engineer with no such skill may draw an eye-rolling contempt. That's because expectation of an engineer is higher. Many non-engineers assume engineers build bridges and plants, operate plants and heavy machinery, and fix machines with their hands, and hence should be fixers of smaller repair problems at home. They do not know that engineers these days work mainly with computers (with slide rules or calculators before the advent of computers) to design machines or plants, or develop a new process or improve existing processes, or write software. They normally do not operate or fix machines or do plumbing or electrical works at work. The trained technicians and tradesmen do those. My Calgary colleague with clean finger nails and smooth handshake, despite his inability to even change a light bulb, had a long engineering career and a long marriage with one partner his parents selected for him. The situation is different in the Western world, though, where children learn fixing things working with parents who live in houses with plumbing and other amenities. At universities, they also do co-op terms or internships with industries, getting more hands-on experiences. Even then, 45 percent of their so-called love-marriages end up in divorce. The sad statistics suggest there are more to marriages than just home repairing.
Over the past two weeks, I became a handyman again, after a long hiatus, while vacationing in Florida. I recalled and relied on my past experiences to overcome doubts and occasional hiccups, while painting the front door, replacing the spout diverters (to divert water from a bathtub to a shower) and the shower heads, and caulking (filling the gaps between wall tiles and bath tubs) in our townhouse.
Vacationing in Florida for me and my wife is more work than relaxation. We are always working in or around the house or shopping in hardware stores. Work is needed to keep an award-winning vacation rental my son and we own and rent out on a short-term basis. Situated only five miles from Disney World gate, the unit is part of a resort that is highly rated, because of its palm-lined entry through a 24-hour manned gate; a landscaped lagoon-shaped common pool with an enclosed water slide; tennis courts; and a club house with table tennis boards, varieties of games, a movie theatre, and a fitness centre.
Renting out our unit in Kissimmee about 4000 km away from Calgary is a good example of how modern economy works and how one small business benefits others in the community. From our unit, our manager in Kissimmee with a New Castle (England) accent, the cleaning staff, the pest control company, the pool cleaning person (the New Castle manager again), the handyperson, the A/C repair and maintenance company, all make money. Home Depot and Lowe's (both hardware store chains in US and Canada) make money. Osceola County collects property taxes. The state of Florida collects sales taxes. Staffs working for the Home Owners Association (HOA) earn their salaries from our HOA fees. The guests save money on food by having cooking facilities. They enjoy a private small pool to splash onto and float in, and watch the Florida sun setting over the horizon, sitting on cushioned chairs and sipping Florida orange drinks in the pool deck; a home-like living in a three-bedroom unit with a tropical décor and a Disney-themed bedroom for the children, while enjoying Orlando and Kissimmee attractions, the main being the Disney World, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, Discovery Cove, Typhoon Lagoon, Wet 'N Wild, Islands of Adventure, and Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral, less than an hour drive away. All of them benefit, except the owners who are in the red, in a very competitive rental market, competing with big and small hotels, villas, and other resorts, including the Disney Resorts. Disney is so ubiquitous that it is difficult to imagine Orlando and adjacent Kissimmee without it. (The last part of the article will appear tomorrow)
Tapan Chakrabarty, a seven-continent marathon finisher, an inventor and an
innovator, writes from Calgary, Canada