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Puttering: A Pastime Worth Saving

Chris Erskine Los Angeles Times

So here we are on this weekend afternoon, replacing a doorknob on the back door.

“Screwdriver,” I say.

“Phillips or flat?” asks the boy.

“Flat.”

I am teaching the boy how to putter around. He is 11 now, and it’s never too early for a kid to learn how to putter around the house with Dad, doing stuff but not really doing stuff, all the while appearing actually to be doing stuff.

“So it’s like homework,” he says.

“No,” I explain. “Homework is serious. Puttering is purely recreational.”

“OK,” he says.

He watches me put the flange on the door handle, taking time to line it up just right, measuring twice, then marking it carefully with my carpenter’s pencil.

I am taking this opportunity to show him how to do a job really well. One simple task done absolutely right. It is the first small step on the road to excellence.

“Ouch,” I say.

“Screwdriver slip?” he asks.

“Yep.”

“Ouch,” he says sympathetically.

He watches me struggle with the door handle a while longer. He sees me study it closely and examine it from all sides, trying to anticipate any problems, the way real craftsmen do.

“You stick your tongue out when you work,” he says. “Like Michael Jordan.”

I like that he thinks I’m like Michael Jordan. Somehow, I don’t get compared to Jordan often enough.

“You really look silly with your tongue out, Dad,” he says.

So I decide to let him tighten the flange himself. Right away, I notice that he doesn’t stick his tongue out when he works. This is a bad sign. Sticking your tongue out gives you extra powers of concentration.

But he seems to do OK anyway. He tightens the last screw, then belches proudly.

“Sorry,” he says with a laugh. “I can fix that, you know.”

“Fix what?”

“That belch,” I say, grabbing a pair of pliers. “Come here.”

I grab him and wrestle him to the floor, pretending that I am going to remove his belch, which is located somewhere near the tonsils or inside the esophagus.

“Quit laughing!” I order, as I pin him to the floor. “This procedure is difficult enough!”

That’s when his mother enters the room. She walks in like a woman who has just walked in on a burglary, taking two steps forward, then three steps back, clearly alarmed by what she is seeing.

“What are you two doing?” she asks.

“We’re putzing around,” the boy says.

“Puttering,” I whisper.

“Right. We’re puttering around,” the boy says.

“Oh wonderful,” she says.

We can tell from the way she says “oh wonderful” that what she really means is, “Lord help me.” Or, “Someone call an attorney.”

It wasn’t so long ago that she liked it when her husband did chores. When we were first married, I would renovate a bathroom or re-pipe a kitchen almost overnight while she flitted around like Audrey Hepburn, arranging flowers and being all chirpy, sometimes breaking into the theme from “Camelot” for no reason at all. Because that’s how life looked, full of renovation. Full of hope.

Then the kids came along and my renovation efforts grew less intense. No remodeling. No re-piping. Instead, there were soccer games and birthday parties.

That left time for a doorknob here and a leaky faucet there, but never much more. Occasionally, she’d find me in the basement workshop, asleep in my old recliner as the Los Angeles Dodgers game played on the radio, gathering strength for my next chore.

And today, she finds that I am teaching her son the same sort of work habits, how to stretch one small task into an afternoon of simple pleasures.

“Oh wonderful,” she says again, her shoulders sagging.

Now, instead of Audrey Hepburn, she is like some Kennedy wives, her spirit broken, her sense of humor crushed, knowing there is no hope for the kitchen ever getting remodeled or the house painted.

“I have a little list,” she says, handing us a tiny slip of paper.

She keeps handing me lists because she knows she can never give up. To give up on the chores would be to surrender to the idea that nothing will ever get done. “Just don’t overdo it,” she says with a smirk.

The boy and I look at the list of chores. The list is on a small slip of paper no bigger than a cash register receipt. But it is packed with writing. Tiny writing, maybe 100 lines long.

“What’s this, Dad?”

“It’s our little list,” I say.

We huddle over it as if gazing at a court summons.

Drippy sink.

Sticky garage door.

Leaky roof.

“Everything ends with ‘y,”’ the boy says.

He’s right. Drippy. Sticky. Leaky. Yucky. It’s like a roster of the lost dwarfs.

And to a home-repair beginner, a list like this can seem overwhelming.

“We’re supposed to do all this today?” the boy asks. “Or is it, like, all the chores for our entire lives?”

I take the list and study it closely.

I explain that the secret to puttering is never to pick something that can’t be finished in an hour or two. Which leaves plenty of time for other activities, like listening to a ballgame or visiting the hardware store, which is the very best part of puttering around.

“Come on,” I say. “We need to get a key made.”

“Which one?” he asks.

“Doesn’t matter.”

So we head off toward the car, two guys on a Sunday afternoon mission, walking one after the other, the way guys do, not side by side, because that would imply equality. And frankly, guys aren’t all that keen on equality. They prefer a leader, a person clearly in charge. It gives them somebody to ridicule.

“We’re just ducking out, aren’t we, Dad?” the boy says, picking up this puttering-around stuff pretty quickly.

“Ducking out?” I say. “No way. We’ve got lots of stuff to do. A whole list of stuff.”

“OK Dad,” he says, smiling. “I’m right behind you.”

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