…for they shall learn to depend upon the charity of others.

If mechanical aptitude and general handiness are heritable traits, then they are present in my family only as the most recessive of genes. My siblings and I would be among the last picked on a construction site. We have a working knowledge of basic hand tool use and light bulb replacement, but not much else. Collectively, the six of us boast plenty of academic degrees and professional success. Ask any of us to help hang drywall or panel a basement, though, and we’re about as useful as a metric wrench on a domestic car.

Speaking as the only married male of the group, I can attest to the emasculating effect of this deficiency. You live with your spouse in a house that, inevitably, requires maintenance in order to remain sound. Other husbands are visible scurrying about their properties making improvements, replacing shingles on the roof, applying a fresh coat of asphalt to the driveway, putting in a new front door, or lugging an old toilet out to the curb having successfully installed its replacement. Then your wife looks at you and asks what might be done about the handrail to the living room stairs, the bottom of which has wobbled like a tuning fork ever since a replacement screw broke off in the anchor block when you tried to put the railing back on after painting the wall five years ago. You shrug your shoulders impotently and hope that she’s still won over by your positive qualities, because knowing what to do with that stair railing sure as hell isn’t one of them. If only there were a man in the house…

I used to find this shortcoming rather frustrating in my previous career as the manager of a micrographics department within a small records management company. The owners were not too crazy about forking over the annual fees for maintenance plans on our various cameras and other machinery, and they were reluctant to allow a service call unless there was no alternative. In fell on my unmanly shoulders, then, to valiantly attempt all necessary mechanical repairs. Armed with a few screwdrivers and a set of Allen wrenches, I removed panels and peered into inner recesses crowded with circuit boards, electrical wiring, small motors, and numerous belts and gears. Sometimes I was fortunate enough to correctly diagnose a problem and actually fix it, but just as often I toiled away for a fruitless hour before haplessly approaching my employers with the news that it was time to pay for the expertise of a trained service technician. By then I would be in a less than fair mood myself, what with the lost production time and occasionally having endured the added injury of a sinus-clearing blast of the industrial ammonia that several of our machines used as a developing agent.

Despite my history of mechanical semi-incompetence, I have made some heroic attempts at handiness on the home front over the years, earning the admiration of my siblings and proving myself just worthy enough that my wife has not yet dumped me for Bob Vila. Granted, none of the accomplishments would impress the average suburban husband, but each of them represents an evolution of my limited skill set.

Early in our home ownership, I installed a dishwasher. For someone of my great inexperience, this was akin to a green medical intern being dragged into the operating theater on his first day. Most of it was pretty simple, including the basic plumbing that was required. However, it also necessitated the installation of a new breaker in our circuit box. Thankfully, the electrical wiring had been run from the kitchen to the basement when our house was built, which meant that I merely had to make a safe connection at both ends. The thought of messing around with the circuit box was alarming to me, but the electrician who lived next door assured me that installing a breaker was very simple (of course, electrocuting oneself is pretty simple, too). After intently listening to him patiently repeat instructions several times, I manned up and got the job done. Not only did I escape injury, but the dishwasher actually worked.

My success emboldened me to attempt other small projects, like hanging a ceiling fan in one of the bedrooms. Again, the wiring was already in place, so really I was only swapping out an existing fixture for a slightly more elaborate one. It was easy enough, though a bit tiring for the arms, and I stepped off the bed and regarded my completed work with satisfaction. Until, that is, I noticed the decorative ring that is supposed to lay flush with the ceiling still resting among the styrofoam packaging inserts. My omission nearly doubled the length of the task, as I had to undo much of what I had done in order to slip the missing piece into place.

Both of these endeavors were enough to place me in the upper pantheon of home improvement success stories in my family, but the accomplishment that cemented my legendary status was the time I decided to replace the front brakes on our Toyota Tercel hatchback. Actually, I wouldn’t have even known that they needed replacing if a coworker had not sat on the curb for a smoke break and happened to look between the spokes of my hubcaps.

“Hey, Bob, you know your rotors is all worn down?” he puffed as I emerged for lunch.

“Oh, uh…really?” I replied, wondering what a rotor is and how he could tell. Thankfully, my fellow employee was a kind soul who at once recognized and tolerated my ignorance. He showed me exactly what he was talking about and its implications: that I should replace the brake pads and rotors. Like my old electrician neighbor, he assured me that anyone could do it.

I embarked on a period of research and mental preparation, visiting the library to check out the Chilton and Haynes repair manuals for ’90 Tercels. I bought replacement brakes and rotors from Autozone. I pored over the instructions multiple times until I could close my eyes and visualize precisely what it was I had to do. And really, there didn’t seem to be that much to it, especially because our little hatchback didn’t even have power brakes. One weekend afternoon, I jacked up the front end and got to work.

Everything went very smoothly right up to the last step – removing the rotor. I knew that once I removed the retaining ring, I might have to give the rotor a little tap with a hammer to get it loose, and sure enough, the worn disc wasn’t going to slide off with ease. Unfortunately, it wasn’t coming off with great effort, either, and soon my “simple repair” turned into an affair of several weeks and the repeated disassembly of my front brake system. Nothing in the manuals addressed this problem beyond the alleged cure-all hammer tap. I asked around and tried the advice I received, applying industrial solvents and even heating the rotor with a propane torch, but still my circular nemesis would not budge.

Finally, in desperation, I had a chat with a local mechanic, summarizing my trials and indicating that if I couldn’t remove the rotors, I would have to take my car in and have him do it. “That rotor have a pair of holes in it, one on either side of the center?” he asked. I affirmed that it did. “Then you need a metric Allen key. Those Japanese cars have rotors like that.”

So it really was simple, after all. Stick an Allen wrench into the circular recesses, give it a turn, and off comes the rotor. I was delighted and furious. Furious because somehow the good folks at Chilton and Haynes had failed to include this vital step, which might have confined my efforts to a single afternoon. Delighted because I knew that I was about to go where no one in my family had ever gone before.

Some aspire to climb Everest, but I do not, for I have been to the mountaintop, my friend. When you’re as unhandy as I am, there is no higher pinnacle than fixing your own brakes.

No higher pinnacle that you’re ever going to climb, that is. All the rest is beyond your reach, like hanging drywall, mending the roof, sealing the driveway, putting on a new front door, installing a new toilet, or stopping the bottom of the stupid stair railing from vibrating like a tuning fork.