Mr. Fix-it keeps in step with family


Ifound myself out in the backyard the other day, hammering away at a wobbly wooden step and thinking about making new rules for how my family should behave.

There were a couple of obvious parallels between step-fixing and rule-making.

First of all, this was not my first attempt at either endeavor. I had tried to fix this wooden step once before, way back in March. Then I made a temporary repair and promised to complete the job when the weather warmed up. I have also tried before to set down rules for family behavior. But rather than being set in stone, my rules seem to be works in progress.

Then there is the noble motive similarity. The purpose of both my step-fixing and rule-making is to give certain family members, namely our 15- and 11-year-old sons, the firm footing they need to venture into the wider world.

Finally there is also the question of how effective my attempts at rule-making and step-repairing have been.

A while back, for instance, I stressed that younger family members should telephone older family members early in the evening and inform us of any plans to attend a late-night movie. My emphasis on the importance of telephone communication was not only noted, but embraced. Now certain members of the family are on the phone all the time. They call their friends. Their friends call them back. Our phone is so heavily used that even the clowns trying to sell home siding are having a hard time getting through.

Moreover, certain members of our family have become so interested in "staying in touch" that they have now invested in a beeper. This device allows friends and parents, but mostly friends, to find them when they have temporarily strayed from the telephone receiver.

I might have to take another look at that "pick up the phone" rule.

I am also going to have to re-examine my "Get A Job," edict. I proposed this rule several years ago as a deterrent to family strife. Back then the source of the strife was the kids' request for money. The kids wanted money so they could buy stupid stuff. If my wife and I turned down such pleas, the kids would complain. I would answer these complaints by telling them to "get a job and earn your own spending money."

That is exactly what the kids have done. They have lined up jobs in the neighborhood -- feeding cats, collecting mail, watering yards. They have amassed funds. And they have spent their money on stupid stuff.

That is not totally true. One of the kids spends his money on items -- sneakers that are "cool-looking," but a half size too small -- that I happen to regard as a waste of his hard-earned, cat-feeding funds.

The other kid hordes his money, occasionally lending it to cash-strapped family members, including his brother and father. The other day this kid caused a minor panic in the household when he threatened to call in his markers. He said he was thinking of using his wealth either to buy a new bicycle or to invest in a T. Rowe Price fund.

Nowadays, the source of some strife in our family is a disagreement over how much interest, if any, should be charged on a $20 loan to Dad.

As I examined the wobbly step I saw that its two supports, or stringers, had rotted. One stringer was totally gone. I replaced it with new wood. But the wood on the other side was a little soft, but still functioning.

The question was, should I leave the flawed, but functioning part of the step alone, or should I meddle. I had the saw, I had the lumber, and I had the inclination. I was in a meddling mood. If I didn't work on both sides of the step I would feel like I had left the job half-finished. So I knocked off the partially rotted piece of the step, and replaced it with new wood.

When I got everything back in place, the free-standing step still wobbled. It wasn't quite as unstable as it had been before I worked on it. But it was a long way from being mistaken for the Rock of Gibraltar.

At my request, the 15-year-old tested the step for me. The routine went like this. He would bounce off the step, it would wobble and I would hammer. Then I would ask the kid to bounce off the step again. And again it would wobble. And again I would I hammer.

After about 10 minutes of testing, the kid announced, "It is much better, Dad." He said this in a tone that told me he was growing tired of jumping off the step. But there was also a note of understanding in his voice. He seemed to recognize that attempts at home repair, like attempts at regulating behavior, were an inevitable part of family life.

Pub Date: 8/10/96

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