In James Grippando’s novel, Lying with Strangers, a nurse tells a doctor, “We are the last repairmen on earth.” He goes on to explain that people rarely take the time to fix things anymore; soon the only thing left that’s worth fixing will be the human body.
Though I had trouble suspending disbelief for much of Lying with Strangers (not one of Grippando’s best books), that comment seemed true to life. We rarely do fix things anymore. I sometimes wonder whether we would be able to survive a Depression, when new things become unaffordable. The frugal skills that got my grandmother and her family through the 1930s – darning, canning, cooking from scratch, general repairs around the house – are becoming rare skills. (If you know how to darn a sock, please take the time to teach someone else!)
Even Sesame Street shows evidence of our lost repair skills. Among the many things that changed on the show between the time I learned my ABCs in the 1970s and today, when I’m watching with my kids, is the type of business run by Maria and Luís. On the Sesame Street of the 1970s, Maria and Luís ran a fix-it shop. Today it’s a shipping store. Though economic changes don’t put fictional stores out of business, Maria and Luís were still forced to keep up with the times – a fix-it shop is as foreign to today’s toddlers as a 45 rpm album.
One reason we rarely fix things is that our machines have become so sophisticated that a general knowledge of mechanics is not enough to make many repairs. Another reason is that the price of manufactured goods has gotten so low that buying a replacement often costs less than hiring someone even to give an estimate for a repair. In some cases, we also feel that our own time tinkering around with broken items to attempt repairs is not worth the money we’d save on a replacement.
About to celebrate our tenth anniversary, my husband and I are finding that many of our things (both wedding gifts and things we bought when we moved into our own home a year later) are wearing out and breaking down. Last year, we replaced a digital camera with a scratched lens, bought a new VCR so our kids could continue to watch the VHS tapes that became their favorites before our old VCR broke, and hired a repairman to look at our malfunctioning laptop. (In the case of the computer, we paid $135 to hear, “I can’t fix it” – we now keep it on all the time because we never know if it will restart.) The cost of replacements, and in some cases the cost of repairs, have been putting a dent in our budget.
We have begun to re-evaluate our assumptions that replacing a broken item is automatically more cost effective than repairing it, and I have been surprised to see how much we actually can repair ourselves. When the new VCR (bought last year) showed static instead of pictures and we discovered that our VHS head cleaner had dried up, my husband took the time to open it up and clean the heads with a Q-tip and rubbing alcohol. It took him about five minutes, and the picture is now better than ever. Before throwing out the vacuum cleaner that started smoking a few months ago, we opened it up and found that it only needed a new belt, which my husband also figured out how to replace without needing a manual. Those two repairs alone saved us about $150 in replacement items.
Though we still haven’t attempted to fix a computer or car by ourselves, I doubt we will be so quick to run out and buy a replacement for most of our future broken things. If we’re so willing to get rid of the old thing and don’t plan to hire someone to repair it, why not take the time to break it open and see if the repair it requires is something we can do ourselves? If it is, we may improve our ability to make old things useful again in addition to saving the cost of a replacement.
Image courtesy of ztephen