IKEA and the Real Man
“Manual labor to my father was not only good and decent for its own sake but, as he was given to saying, it straightened out one’s thoughts.”
- Mary Ellen Chase
I am not handy. Not even a little bit.
I don’t even paint. If I change a light bulb, I act like I’m Thomas Edison. I once replaced the tiles of the dropdown ceiling in my breakfast room (not the whole ceiling, just the tiles) and you would have thought I singlehandedly ended the Cold War the way Rocky did at the end of Rocky IV. However, I’m only interested in the result. I have no interest in the process. I don’t care how it gets done or who does it, I only care that it’s done. Pride in doing the job myself is an attribute I’ve never possessed. Some of my friends don’t believe that, but it’s true.
I never thought I needed to be handy. I grew up in a rural area on four acres of land, so I spent much of my youth atop the riding mower, trying to make my parents’ grass look like the outfield at Camden Yards. I also did other things that would have made Teddy Roosevelt proud: I chopped firewood, gathered branches and twigs for kindling, helped pull stumps, and removed large rocks from the ground. I understood the value of such things – my parents had a beautiful home and my dad was in pretty good shape for a guy that worked at a desk and didn’t use a gym – but I never understood going to work all week just so you could come home and do manual labor all weekend. I’d rather go to brunch.
At the same time, my father realized that my fine motor skills left something to be desired and that I wouldn’t be spending my free time replacing the engine block of a ’68 Camaro. Being the pragmatic man that he was, he told me to hit the books. While he would probably never admit as much, even to himself, I’m sure there was a part of him that wished my brother and I were more adept with tools like he was. I grew up listening to stories about my father and my grandfather renovating entire homes together and I could tell that those were moments that he cherished. Whenever I did try to help him, though, I was usually in the way and only caused more work for him. Plus, I made no secret of my unhappiness to be there. He tried to be patient but we both knew the truth.
In Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams’ character is explaining to Matt Damon’s Will that his father was a bricklayer. He then says that his old man “busted his ass so I could have an education.” My dad was the same way. He was fortunate to catch some lucky breaks while working his ass off to get a job that he otherwise wouldn’t have had with only a high school diploma. He saw that the world was changing and a high school education no longer stretched as far as it once did and, since we weren’t skillful with our hands, our path to adulthood would be through textbooks. He didn’t pay for all of my tuition, but he helped out and, more importantly, he convinced me that it would be my only path to any sort of success. I obliged. I wasn’t against hard work – I worked manual labor jobs over my summer breaks – but I viewed that type of work as only a temporary thing to make enough money to pay for more school. I was always in school. I’ve spent nearly two-thirds of my life, about twenty years, in classrooms. I went to school so that I wouldn’t have to work in a field in which, (a) I had no desire to toil and, more importantly, (b) I was not nearly skilled enough to be effective over the long term. My abilities (and interests) where white-collar, not blue-collar.
However, the America of the 21st Century is no longer about absolutes. Just because a person has a master’s degree and works in an office does not mean that that person can afford to pay someone to do all of the housework and laundry. Two-income homes are also a fact of life. I live in the city, but I still have a house that requires constant upkeep (or the ability to ignore problems). For many of the smaller things, my father has helped out immensely and while I don’t love it, I no longer loathe it. I’m right there with him, but I still play the apprentice to the teacher. I fear that I will never rise out of that and, if that’s true, what knowledge do I have to pass on to my kids? Knowing that Michael Jordan scored 37.1 points per game in the 1986 – ’87 season doesn’t seem to have much relevance in the coming decades. I have a good job and I’m fortunate and grateful to have it, but much of my take home pay is wrapped up in student loans and credit card debt. I’ve owned my home for nearly six years and I’ve had to be patient in making upgrades. Vinyl siding on the back of my home in 2007. A new kitchen window in 2008. New front and back doors in 2010. Hopefully a new bathroom in 2012. House shit is expensive.
Basically, what I’m saying is that I’m neither handy nor rich.
Taken together, that means that I sometimes buy furniture at IKEA.
IKEA furniture is affordable and the quality is decent, provided it is assembled correctly. And that’s the rub. The reason IKEA stuff is so affordable is because they give you the materials and tell you to put it together. It would be like going to a restaurant and the waitress brings you all of the ingredients in a bowl for you to prepare yourself, but she still leaves you with the bill. Even worse, IKEA materials are often all in one box that weighs roughly 7 tons and is impossible to move without rupturing a testicle. Plus, unless your main ride is a U-Haul, the box is about nine feet longer than your car, making for a fun ride home. You have one hand on the wheel while using your other hand to try to make sure that your new piece of furniture doesn’t end up on I-95 and cause a 52-car pileup.
Another (supposed) benefit of buying from IKEA is that, with the rare exception of a screwdriver, the only tools needed to assemble IKEA items are included with the materials. These tools are always a hex key (also called an Allen wrench) and hundreds of screws that are compatible with that one wrench. Unfortunately the hex key is about two inches long and is completely swallowed by my fat, ogre-like fingers. It wasn’t until I first tried to put together something from IKEA that I realized why Shaq had such trouble when shooting free throws. I get it now.
IKEA directions are even more frustrating. IKEA is available in virtually every country and rather than worry about printing instructions in 158 languages, IKEA directions only include pictures that look like they were drawn by kids in that one classroom at the far end of the hallway that you tried to never go near. Look at this shit. You need to go over every inch of it like a CSI investigator because accidentally putting one piece backwards at step 2 will prevent you from completing step 27. It’s like a GMAT test question, only much, much more difficult. The fact that they're now going to be selling houses is further proof of the approaching apocalypse.
Despite knowing all this, I found myself at IKEA recently.
In an attempt to make room for our new housemate, we purchased an item called the Sultan Alsarp that is actually pretty ingenious – it’s a hollow box spring that allows you to raise the mattress and store items within, creating storage out of previously useless space. I knew this item well. In fact, this wasn’t even my first time buying it.
Back in 2004, after spending a year living with my parents after college, I moved in with a friend who had just bought a home. Since it was his house and I felt that I was just renting a room and didn’t want to step on his toes, I bought an IKEA bed (frame, mattress, and Sultan Alsarp) to maximize my space. Since I was moving out and wanted to prove my independence, I told Poppa Pierzy that I could handle assembling it myself and he wished me well. I should also mention that it was August and that particular bedroom was about the same temperature as the kiln used by high school art teachers. The process did not go well. It took me two full days to put all of it together and, after using a drill a few times because I was positive that the manufacturer had forgotten to include holes in the right places (they had not), I was 95% done when I realized that the metal frame into which the wooden slats would be affixed to create the top of the box spring was upside down. I failed to notice that tiny point of interest on the instructions, probably because I was suffering from a sweat-induced hallucination. I had to disassemble the entire thing almost to the beginning and start over. Why can’t they put the holes on both sides?! I’ll tell you why – because IKEA is run by dicks. That’s why. I eventually completed the process without any acts of violence and that storage area served as my bureau. Until it broke.
This weekend was the sequel. I started by demolishing the old, broken box spring, which was one of the most cathartic experiences of my life. If I didn’t live in the city, I probably would have taken it out front and burned it for everyone to see like in Waiting to Exhale. I then spent the next 6-plus hours assembling it, hurting every part of my body and developing blisters on my fingers from the hex key in the process. (Again, I’m not cut out for real work.) I was determined to not make the same errors as last time. I was meticulous. I double-checked every move before execution until I became comfortable (and complacent). As I was feeling pretty good about myself and getting ready to affix the wooden slats to the metal frame to create the top of the base, I realize that the metal frame was upside down. Again. I made the same exact mistake that I had made the first time! Unbelievable. That mistake will haunt me because it was a double mistake. If I were handy, I would have looked at it and immediately realized there was nowhere for the wood to be attached. If I were the logical intellectual I thought I was, I would have followed the directions or remembered that I did the same thing eight years ago. It was just a big fail all around.
Oftentimes, I wish I were handier. I really would like to look at a leaking sink and say to myself, “I’ll fix that this weekend.” Moreover, it’s more practical. If you spend all day fixing houses, you can come home and fix your own (whether you would want to or not is an entirely different issue). The same isn’t true for me. My ability to do profitability analysis or long-term growth forecasting won’t stop my tub from leaking.
I bring this up because I often associate being handy with being a real man. When I look at my father, I see a guy that brought home the bacon during the week and fixed stuff on the weekend. And I don’t mean he just replaced the outlet cover like I did this past Sunday (like a boss!). I mean, he tiled a bathroom floor one summer and built a back deck the following summer. In many ways, he was the ultimate personification of “Dad.” As I get ready to take on that same moniker (and responsibility), I just don’t see myself in the same light as I see him. If something breaks and my child brings it to me, the only thing I’m capable of doing is saying, “Well, looks like it’s broken. Sucks for you.” I often feel like I’m not a real man and, consequently, I won’t be a successful father.
Then I read this and immediately felt better about myself but worse about the rest of society. Of course, the piece paints with a broad brush, but there is a basis for that painting. I can’t imagine being 30 years old and living with my parents. And I’d be damned if I was doing that and had the balls to say, “I guess I’m kind of a catch,” like that one guy at the end of the article does. Sorry, “James,” but you’re not kind of a catch. You’re kind of a douche.
And your mother is partially to blame for your douchiness.
Helicopter parents (because they hover, get it?) have created the Not-My-Child generation which has evolved into the I-Don’t-Feel-Like-It workforce. These are the parents that used to call and bitch out a teacher for assigning homework (“Brantley can’t do all this work, he has fencing practice tonight!”), complain to the coach when their kid doesn’t play (“I realize Brock runs to the third base after hitting the ball, but we’ve taught him to express himself in a way that makes him happy, so we’re going to buy him a trophy anyway.”), or refuse to believe that their angel would do anything wrong (“I realize that 25 people say that Atticus spit on that little poor girl but he was probably just trying to show her how to clean herself properly. You know, like the au pair showed him.).
And what happens when spoiled 10 year-olds of helicopter parents grow up? This happens.
“Perhaps it was inevitable, given the track record of the American boomer parent. After coaching their kids through junior hockey, supervising their science projects and cowriting their college applications, a growing number of enthusiastic moms and dads are moving to the next challenge, taking on the job of job hunting.”
You’ve got to be shitting me. Considering the lack of bedroom proficiency of most men according to the Philadelphia Magazine article, I’m surprised more moms aren’t showing their sons how to step their sexual game up too. I am completely done with the baby boom generation. Baby boomers were given everything and pissed it all away, leaving us to clean it all up. They’re the George W. Bush of American generations. They preached free love and anti-establishment rhetoric until their parents stopped giving them money, so they immediately threw on a suit, bought an Audi, moved to the suburbs and forgot all of their idealistic bullshit. They demanded that the “Greatest Generation” step aside so that they could take their place, but now that it’s our turn, they’re holding onto their careers and statuses for dear life, refusing to let go.
Historically, the future has been grasped by those that want to face it head-on. Now, unfortunately, it seems that the next generation is being shielded from the imminent future by overaggressive parents that can’t imagine a world without themselves. Boomers are struggling with the prospect of being pushed aside and no longer being needed and how do they respond? By meddling. Their self-worth was wrapped up in their children and when those kids didn’t qualify for a soccer scholarship or their shitty garage band didn’t take off, the parents freaked out and now want to hold dominion over them until they die. (‘They’ being the kids because boomers are shitheads and we all know that shitheads live forever). John Haynes Holmes once said, “Society is always engaged in a vast conspiracy to preserve itself – at the expense of the new demands of each new generation.” That is a quote that fits baby boomers perfectly. I fear for the future generation because of the egregious sins of the previous one.
I’m grateful that my parents let me sink or swim on my own. They never accompanied me to a job interview (even when I was 16 and – gasp! – worked a part-time job in high school), did any of my homework or complained to the coach that I wasn’t getting enough playing time on the court. If I asked my mom to do any of those things she would have rolled her eyes and told me to grow up. I lived at home for that one year after college and my parents hated it even more than I did. They had worked their entire lives and now wanted to enjoy their retirement together without me coming home at 4 a.m. as I was trying to extend my collegiate exploits for another year. When I moved out of my childhood home, I was the third-happiest person in the world. I don’t need to tell you who the first two were. If I were to ask my parents for money today, there had better be a good reason – like there’s a ransom note somewhere in the immediate vicinity.
The more I think about it, the more I think that maybe I am a real man. Fuck James. I’m a catch! I own a home, pay bills, and can cook a decent meal. Sure, I may not be able to hang drywall, but neither can any of these useless mouth breathers.
They may not be struggling financially like I am, but at least I can go to Home Depot without having to ask my mom for the keys to the car.
Pierzy writes a weekly NBA column during the season, as well as columns revolving around other sports, hip-hop, movies, TV shows, food, beer, marriage, (impending) fatherhood, and many other topics. You can follow him on Twitter here.