I like the word “integrity.”
I grew up thinking it was primarily about moral behavior, and that I ought to strive to be a man of integrity.
As a handyman, I’ve come to understand it more as a description of right relationship, that a thing has integrity when its parts work together and serve the whole.
The integrity of a beautiful old house means that its systems and their thousands of parts work as a whole, from ridge cap to footing and everything in between.
Roof trusses, studs, joists, shiplap, plumbing, eaves, windows, flooring, faucets, switches. A house will function as a house and a home when it is built well and maintained well, in an integrity of form and function, beauty and usability.
If it is poorly made, or when it starts to fall apart, integrity suffers. Give a simple leak enough time and it is capable of ruining the whole thing.
Some people build skyscrapers. I address that damp spot on your kitchen ceiling.
From my kitchen window, I’ve been watching the construction of a ten-story building a block away.
After a year of demolition, excavation, and pile-driving, an enormous crane blocked the entire street and extended into the sky, hoisting fifteen-foot sections of frame for the tower crane that would operate daily for more than a year, slowly lifting thousands of tons of beams, rebar, steel plates, posts, concrete forms, and glass.
My experience with this kind of construction is pretty much the same as most people’s: watching from a safe distance as some high-rise tower slowly takes shape.
What keeps those dozen stories from collapsing under their own weight?
How can a structure of steel, concrete, and glass, all of which expand and contract differently, survive the Winnipeg weather extremes, where the difference between the summer’s heat and winter’s deep-freeze is 130 degrees Fahrenheit?
What kinds of systems provide sufficient water pressure to run the faucets on the tenth floor, and move enough fresh air into the building and stale air out?
There is a conference room full of people responsible for a project like this: designers, architects, engineers, contractors, builders, tradespeople, accountants, and project managers minding every detail.
No one person could ever build something like this.
Only a few people involved in a construction project of this scale would actually know how it all comes together, and even they count on the hundreds of workers who spend hundreds of thousands of hours putting the whole thing together.
Some people know how to build high-rise towers. Is this what I should aspire to?
My life and my work are so tiny.
I feel constant pressure, almost entirely of my own making, to be more driven, to aspire to larger public work, something grander, more life-changing, more important.
When I see what others are capable of, I feel like I should do more: expand my business, build homes rather than just fixing them. Or that I should write more, establish a greater presence in the culture, have more say in shaping the world.
Build more, earn more, write more, do more, be more.
Dazzled by the things others are capable of, I lose track of what I actually can do and have done.
Am I doing enough? Should I be doing more? And what should I want for my son?
How pleased I would be to watch him exceed everything I am and the things I can do.
Is it my job to push him to aim higher, strive for more?
I’m a handyman. People hire me to fix things.
My jobs start when someone tells me about something they’d like me to build, or some problem they want me to solve: we need to put a window in the north wall; we want a tile tub surround; this sink is leaky; our old fence is rotten and needs replacing; we’d like to paint our kitchen cabinets.
Each call or email is a window into a more complicated situation.
I begin with attention: I show up, attend, observe, and listen. Sometimes the customer needs someone to talk to as much as he needs his floor replaced. My work takes care, and when I do it well, love.