On the House: Keep on tinkering, learning

Posted: January 01, 2012

Are you the sort of person someone at the turn of the 20th century might have called a "tinkerer"?

I'm referring to the type who likes to build things or learn something new every day, no matter how old he or she gets.

When I was a teenager, I lived next door to a guy who kept bees and sold the honey to neighbors and friends, after reassuring all of us that we had little chance of being stung if we just left the insects alone.

To save money, my father took a night course at the high school to learn car repair - long before a tune-up required a laptop and automaker-designated software.

When I was a kid, I built a crystal radio set from a kit. I learned Morse code at classes at the Civil Defense, built a telegraph in junior high school wood shop, and practiced my dot-dot-dot-dash-dash-dash-dot-dot-dots so well that, if they still used Morse code, I could be rescued at sea.

When I started my first newspaper job after high school, I was handed a no-frills camera and several rolls of film and told that reporters had to be photographers, too. So I shoehorned in a night course at the high school to learn something about photography, and ended up running a sideline business developing pictures for small publications in a darkroom I set up in a closet.

I enjoy learning new things, even more so as I get older, because it tends to reduce the loss of brain cells. That's why many people attempt the New York Times crossword puzzle every day - Will Shortz is probably responsible for keeping hundreds of thousands of Americans from misplacing their house keys.

Sometimes, it's fun: taking online courses through Camden County College on Web design, Photoshop, and Flash; building a custom desk for my basement office from plans I drew; seeing how early I can plant spring crops in raised beds if I cover them on colder nights.

But sometimes, you suspend your dignity: for a half-hour every Monday, being taught to swim at age 61 by 17-year-olds; constantly falling off the English racing bike you just had tuned after it had sat in the basement for 25 years; trying to get the tennis ball over the net more regularly than you did when you gave up the game 40 years earlier.

You know, tinkering.

I often get the impression that too many people believe that those of us who give things a try, whether we succeed or not, are special. They assume that if they tried to do the same thing, they wouldn't be able to do it.

I can't tell you how many times in the 23 years I've been writing about home improvement that my wife has been told how fortunate she is to have me around the house to do all the work.

One day, she decided to come clean. It was Easter Sunday, and she informed one of my admirers that when we were ready to sit down to dinner later that afternoon, we'd have to remove scaffolding from around the dining room table. It had been there for weeks, and we'd been eating in the kitchen because of it.

I admit some of my tinkering has degenerated into unending projects: the kitchen that took 18 months; the bathroom that was a four-year project. Sometimes I postpone the easy for the difficult, because the latter poses more challenges.

Since we bought our current house in 2001, I've built any number of projects: my workshop; a window seat in the kitchen; a knee wall with fireplace; bookcases and luggage storage in the bedroom.

Yet not until a week ago did I find 15 minutes to put cardboard shims in the hinges of the first-floor bathroom door to make it shut properly.

Anyway, tinkering keeps me from thinking about the real estate market, which is likely not to improve much in 2012, either.

Maybe 2013.


On the House:

Inquirer real estate writer Alan J. Heavens' home improvement column appears Fridays in Home & Design. See instructional videos at Al's Place. Go to philly.com/yourplace


Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com, or @alheaves at Twitter.

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