Sunday, October 26, 2008

All you need is love. And ventilation.

When it comes to helping my dad with home improvement projects, nobody holds a candle to my skill at holding the flashlight. After spending the better part of my life helping him with projects, I’ve become something of a Jedi, and my light saber takes double-As.

“Shine the light over here,” he said last weekend as he knelt on the joists in my attic, ripping out insulation and straddling the bathroom fan that we were installing together, equally, using his skill, hard work and craftsmanship and my flashlight. OK, it was his flashlight. It’s a good thing he lost the headlamp we gave him for Christmas three years ago, or I’d be totally obsolete.

Dad’s good with things like drills, keyhole saws and needle-nose pliers, while I excel in the softer skills, like environmental illumination and choosing the right tunes to play on the nearby iPod. I don’t know how Dad gets by at home; there’s no way that he can count on Mom to put on the new Coldplay album while he’s staining the deck.

My folks were motivated to drive four hours to help us get some projects done around the house mostly because they couldn’t work their way through a mental image of me holding three bare wires in one hand and scratching my head with the other hand without soon after picturing the Eastern seaboard enshrouded in darkness.

For just over a year, my wife Kara and I have lived in our house without benefit of a bathroom fan. What can I say? We’re survivors. Life can get rough in the suburbs, and sometimes you have to adapt. But we’d begun to grow tired of the routine, after Kara’s marathon showers at earth-core temperatures, of wandering around blindly in the tropical steam and shooing toucans out the window while hacking our way to the mirror that wouldn’t be visible until we’d stood there sweating for so long that it would be time to take a shower again.

To remedy the situation, Dad and I ventured with a bucket of tools into the attic, being careful not to impale ourselves on the ceiling. There must be some imperative that requires roofers to use two-inch nails on wood that’s half-an-inch thick, resulting in attics that resemble iron maidens. Or the iron maiden’s poor cousin, the plywood maiden.

After Dad was able to complete the wiring on the new fan, thanks almost entirely to his expertly illuminated hands, we headed down to the bathroom to find that the fan worked on the first flick of the switch. I’d never seen such a thing. When I’d wired the ceiling fan in our old place, after my first attempt, the only way to get it to stop was with a thrown fuse or a broomstick.

As Kara happily marveled at the new fan, imagining scenes of using her hair dryer on her actual hair instead of her mirror, I started coughing.

“I have that pink insulation all down my throat. I can’t breathe,” I said. “But on the plus side, I’m probably much more energy efficient now.”

“We have dust masks. Why didn’t you put one on?” she said.

She’s so silly sometimes. Didn’t she realize I was looking for sympathy, not sound advice?

As Mom and Dad packed up to leave the next day, I asked for recommendations on how to run electrical wire out to a new lamp post in the yard.

“You have to bury the line at least six inches deep,” Dad said, apparently not realizing that this sounded like hard work.

“Can’t I just lay the wire on the ground and kick some dirt on top?” I asked.

“That probably wouldn’t be up to code,” he replied.

My dad’s generation is so cute with its fondness for codes, like chivalry and municipal electrical ordinances.

You can offer to fix Mike Todd’s wiring at


  1. I hope to soon have similar flashlight bonding moments with my 11-year-old son...

    "Hold that flashlight steady, I can't see what I'm doing!!!"

    ...he'll say, as he hooks up the Playstation 3 console for me.

  2. Welcome to the joys of home ownership! Bathroom ceiling fan today...remodelling the kitchen tomorrow..................or not.

  3. JL -- If only my columns were as good as your comments.

    Loon -- I keep trying for the "or not" part, but it never seems to work out that way.

  4. Just for the record, my comments are meant to complement (as well as compliment) your fine posts rather than outdo them, but thanks anyway...

  5. JL -- You're a good man. And thorough. And if you don't see a Big Lebowski reference in there, you can just leave it at good man.

  6. Not only did I get to hold the flashlight, I also got to run for the tools... sadly, dad was not even remotely handy and my mother would usually be calling the repair man the second my father stated he was going to fix something. Just when the power went out, the hot water heater started gushing water, or the garbage disposal made painful grinding noises, the repairman entered to save the day.

    Great column, as always, I'm laughing at my desk instead of working...

  7. Chris -- Thanks, man. And dang, I forgot about getting the tools! That's the most important part.