Monday, March 5, 2012


I can do anything.  If I want to learn to play the guitar, I'll find a great teacher, schlep to practice once a week, and practice diligently at home.  If I want a block party, I'll fill out applications, lobby neighbors, and coordinate the baking of cupcakes and a bean bag toss on what will inevitably be the finest fog-free day in August.  If I want my baby to arrive a few weeks early to accommodate my sister's college schedule I'll make it happen.  True story.

So why can't I install a toilet paper holder?

I pride myself on my competence.  Give me a travel itinerary, crafts, essays on english literature, ten year high school reunions, and everything will come together.  Give me a towel rack, a mailbox, and a large framed poster to hang, and I freeze up.  I do things I almost never do: delay, doubt, hire someone else.  When I suspiciously survey a pile of drill bits and screws, I hear my mother's voice admonish "call someone!"  I anxiously wait for a more qualified family member to show up and take over, stepping cautiously back from whatever crime-scene crisis of self confidence I've piled in the middle of the living room floor.

But that all changed with an IKEA desk.  A slight, curving, elegantly simple black writing desk that I despise because the only things I like in cheap black particleboard have clean straight lines and never an antique-style drawer pull.  But, alas, I found myself awkwardly angled on the rug, balancing one wobbly table leg against a bulky writing surface, or drawer bottom, I wasn't sure which.  When deciding to skip the "hire someone" option, the next option usually involves attempting to barrel through the project, as if failing to thoroughly read the directions and lay out the supplies will relieve me of any expectation to be successful.  If I am rushed and careless, the shabby job will not be the result of earnest effort.  But this damn desk had to be perfect.  It had to look classy and inviting in a home that I was about to leave and it had to sell a new home-seeker on a warm, welcoming image of the flat.  After an hour of occasionally glancing for reference at the wordless cartoon of an IKEA assembly manual, I stopped.  I sighed.  I put everything down.  I laid each screw and tool and nut in neat rows.  And I read through, from start to finish, that stupid manual.  Four times.  Until I knew I could do it.

An hour later I proudly positioned the symmetrical, sturdy desk at the entryway of my home.  No matter that it didn't fit properly and had to be shoved into a corner elsewhere - I had done it.  The wall in my mind of things women seemed good at (teaching, cooking, planning events) had always been a barrier from attempting things that only men seemed suited for (math, cars, tools).  Why had I wasted so much time thinking this narrowly?  I had desperately feared becoming a glaring example of a seemingly competent woman who just couldn't do what most men could do.  Suddenly I realized that what most men can do is easy stuff.  Maybe there's a reason that I can bake a lasagna, bounce a baby, and berate an AT&T wireless employee about a billing error all at the same time.  Maybe "girl things" are the hard stuff.  Hell, I've never seen a man do it.  It's even possible that I can build a shoe cabinet with perfectly aligned hinges while my husband watches TV.  That's what I did the next week.

After that I assembled a 3 foot tall double-decker bunny hutch.  I disassembled a corian kitchen table, moved it down 19 stairs to the basement, and reassembled it.  I put together a two level oval glass coffee table.  I quickly set up four IKEA chairs from about 76 separate pieces.  But still, for that toilet paper holder, I hired someone.  I just knew I couldn't do it myself.  I simply couldn't imagine how it worked, how it seamlessly attached to the wall.  I called a handyman and watched as he moved with the unimaginable and frustratingly slow speed of someone being paid by the hour.  I listened with mounting offense as he carefully explained to me how a drill bit worked and what a level did.  With the motivation that only hurt pride can inspire, I rushed ahead of him to the next project, laid out my now-familiar tool set, sat quietly to read the toilet paper holder manual and with a sigh of instant understanding and regret, realized that I could have done this myself long ago.  Long, long ago.

He never made it to the next project before his interminable, amorphous 'workday' ended.  I spent the rest of that evening fixing the child locks he had improperly installed.  I used my power drill like a pistol, moving from one drawer to the next with precision and focus, all the while replaying the handyman's advice that we would need to "keep a special tool around" to open the drawers he had mis-installed clips on.  Every single time.  As I adjusted his misaligned baby gates, I raged inwardly at his suggestion that I just "keep an eye on my son" rather than bother with all of this childproofing.  From a single guy without kids I probably should have argued my point, but, at the time, he was someone who, we both thought, knew better than me.

A day later, my husband bought me a brand new power drill.  A compact, fiery red (my request for pink was politely denied) Craftsman drill.  That night, I chose the proper bit, marked two spots on the wall, drilled two screws into a simple mounting bracket, and tapped with a rubber mallet until the polished metal toilet paper sat perfectly flush to the wall.

Now, I can do anything.

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