OK, I'll admit it: I am not the world's handiest man. I cannot fix a leak. I couldn't build a deck if my life depended on it. You do not want me within a mile of your wiring job. I own a single power tool, a drill that hasn't moved since I brought it home from Sears and consigned it to the garage. There it crouches, like something out of a low-budget horror movie, taunting me, daring me to use it. There are projects around my house that had already been put off for years before my kids were born. At this rate, they're likely to get to them before I do.
My wife loves me very much, but I'm pretty sure that when she said "for better or worse" she didn't suspect she was actually agreeing to "for handy or inept." This has become a source of tension. Borderline marital discord, even.
You see, she isn't a lick handier than I am. But where home improvement ranks somewhere just below tofu and ballroom dancing on my list of passions, my wife takes a more Bobby Kennedy-style approach to our home: Some people (me) look around and ask, 'why make a lot of changes'; others ask, 'why not put in wood floors, add on a sunroom, and buy all new kitchen appliances?'
That's what we did last summer. It could have been worse. The process proved less inconvenient than being left homeless by twisters. We met some nice people, plus I'm fairly sure we single-handedly got the nation's economy back on track. This feast of home improvement left me stuffed. But my wife, who's not a lick handier than I am, seems to be left with an insatiable appetite for painting rooms, reupholstering furniture, constructing intricate built-ins and transforming living areas in general.
The catch is, we've got little things like college tuition and orthodontia to think about. So -- I'll bet you know where this is going -- while further home improvement remains on hold, my wife has been escaping into the domestic fantasy world that is TLC.
TLC, of course, is the nuttiest network on the dial. And I'm including those presided over by people like Oprah and Pat Robertson. Take its name, for starters. It doesn't have one! CNN is the Cable News Network. AMC stands for American Movie Classics. TLC used to stand for The Learning Channel, but The Learning Channel hasn't existed for years. It used to be a cable broadcast outlet which featured PBS-style educational programming. However, the only things a TLC viewer is likely to learn these days are "What Not to Wear" and how much spiffier a messy room can look after receiving a "Clean Sweep."
This is because TLC offers basically just two kinds of programming. During the week, it airs reality shows based on virtually every milestone of human existence but one. The life cycle is tracked through "A Makeover Story," "A Dating Story," "Perfect Proposal," "A Wedding Story," "A Baby Story," "For Better or Worse" and even a show called "Second Chance," which profiles people who, having endured years of failed relationships, conclude that their best bet is starting over with an old flame. And for some reason, they feel they owe it to the viewing public to document the experiment. Believe me, it's just a matter of time until the debut of "A Lingering Illness and Funeral Story."
When the weekend rolls around, however, the network abruptly morphs into the tube's only round-the-clock home-improvement channel. Here's where that borderline marital discord comes into play. From early Saturday through way past my bedtime on Sunday night, the lady of the house can't get enough of this stuff and I am slowly but surely being driven insane.
It's not as though I'm home-o-phobic. I was 100 percent OK with this when "Trading Spaces" first hit the airwaves back in 2000. I had, in fact, previously written a column predicting that makeover shows would shortly take over the world. I mentioned that program as one of the many new forms the phenomenon had begun to assume.
But, come on, that was thousands of revamped rooms ago. And before dozens of imitations and spin-offs spoiled the fun. That was before Frank and Hilde really started getting on my nerves, and Paige Davis replaced original host Alex McCloud, throwing my system into total perkiness overload.
"In a Fix," "While You Were Out" and "Clean Sweep" -- not to mention "Trading Spaces: Family" and "Trading Spaces: Unglued." All of these essentially replicate the original formula -- redo a living space within a given budget and time limit -- and they're all on TLC! It's mind-numbing enough when my wife turns to one of these the minute we walk into the house on the weekend, but she's been known to find rip-offs aired by rival networks equally enthralling. At such times I've found myself imagining an appearance on "Second Chance."
"I'll turn right after the reveal," she'll offer, noting the far-away look that means I'm imagining myself on "Second Chance." As anyone familiar with these shows knows, though, her promise is like agreeing to switch off "60 Minutes" right after Andy Rooney.
So, when you get right down to it, I've become the 21st-century equivalent of a football widow. Thanks to the feminist and cable revolutions, the tables have been not just turned, but also scraped, stripped, sanded and repainted.
And let's face it: Male ego plays some role here. After all, when you're not handy, the last thing you want your wife exposed to hour after hour are smooth-talking designers transforming dilapidated bookcases into fabulous armoires, or beefy carpenter co-hosts who can rip up a floor, build a shelving unit and install track lighting in less time than it takes you to change the batteries in your clicker. For all practical purposes, what we're talking about here is home-improvement porn. And believe me, the stud finders aren't pointing in my direction.
You see my dilemma. Plan A was, wait out the makeover fad. But it shows no sign of retiring. Apparently I have no choice but to go with Plan B: Get handy.
I've already begun inserting offhand, manly comments into conversations. Bits of can-do banter such as "You know what would make the kitchen really pop? Wainscoting!" and "Why don't we give the bedroom walls a faux finish?" and "I'm thinking of going to Sears and buying a table saw."
My wife didn't seem to hear that last one. When I said it, all her senses were apparently focused on TLC. All the same, I swear I heard mocking laughter. And I'm pretty sure it came from the garage.