The limits of duct tape

A Mr. Fix-It finds the entanglements of the heart less prone to easy solutions.

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My daughter, twisting to show me a bright red angry blister on her heel one hot summer afternoon, paused, stared at me earnestly, shook her head slowly, and summed up my life: "You're going to fix it with duct tape, aren't you?"

I fix things – from broken toilets to damaged body parts – efficiently, I believe, and creatively, but often with un-traditional, unsophisticated, and sometimes unproven methods. It is called jerry-rigging, a phrase whose origins fit the crime: It comes from some lashing together of "jury rig" and "jerry built," two terms with their own clear, careful, comfortable histories. As an entry into our lexicon, it was, fittingly, jerry-rigged.

I've fixed exhaust pipes with tin cans, finger cuts with duct tape and tissue, eyeglasses with coffee-stirrer splints, and nail holes with not just toothpaste, but cream cheese. I enthusiastically appreciate the guy with the small refrigerator doors carefully bolted to the rear opening of a truck cap – the Frigidaire tag pried off and the word "Ford" unevenly printed with a felt-tip pen. I excitedly point out innovators like the person who had a porch chair that was missing a leg and "repaired" it by propping the corner on a small doghouse, resourcefully bringing the chair to level and keeping the fellow's four-legged companion close by.

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I've had a plumber who, as he peered under my sink at a drainpipe system I'd patched together, let out a long, what-do-we-have-here "whoooaa," followed by a chuckle. A lawn mower repairman similarly chuckled, shook his head, then took a picture of the decorative plastic basket I'd used as a belt cover on my mower. (I don't think it was to train new employees.) I've grown accustomed to long, questioning looks from professional repairmen, and a slow shaking of the head from others who witness my handiwork, like someone walking away from the grave of a person who has died too young.

It hadn't occurred to me, however, that I might also be trying to patch up personal concerns like cracked feelings or leaky self-esteem with jerry-rigging, until one recent Saturday when two family members, a stranger, three dogs, and my spouse suggested it.

It began with my daughter, a teenager, who was facing a dilemma involving the way in which her group of friends might be splitting up. I offered some quick, multifaceted, unorthodox and, I thought, creative solutions. There was a brief pause, then a tongue-clicking sound. "These are people, Dad," she said, sounding like an old movie actress from a western trying to get her pig-headed father to change his stubborn thinking about native Americans or crop rotation. "This is my life."

I think I heard her mutter "Why do I bother?" as she trudged away. Or, "Oh brother." I'm not sure which. I don't think it was "Good idea, Father."

Later that morning, I spoke to my sister, and when I recommended a somewhat unconventional and complex but practical and thorough solution to a difficulty she was having with one of her adult children, she interrupted to stop me from further deliberation: "It's OK," she said. "You have enough to worry about."

I was thinking about this as I was walking our three dogs just after lunch, and passed a young woman with two children at the playground. Her son came running right up to our biggest dog, who is very friendly but looks threatening, and his mother warned him to be careful. "It's great he is so confident," I said. "Someday it will pay off. Maybe you can...." She cut me off with a look, and then a silence I'm sure she normally reserves for her meddling mother-in-law.

When I got home, I was breaking up a treat to give each dog a fair share, but the speediest of them got two pieces, another got a larger piece, and one got none. I began to explain to them how one was being selfish and one had eaten enough, and work out an equitable solution, when it occurred to me that they just wanted as many treats as possible as quickly as possible. None of them cared about my resolution; in fact, they looked a bit annoyed, and I think I heard a low growl.

Finally, my wonderfully patient wife, who has seen my handiwork too intimately and perhaps too often, made things clearer to me that day, though I'm not sure I got the point immediately.

We had a small disagreement where I'd come up with what I thought was a great solution, although she didn't seem entirely satisfied (I think I remember a tongue-clicking sound again). Then we were discussing two acquaintances with whom we didn't really care to socialize (they were self-involved). I asked her if my solution – a half-truthful but heartfelt note – seemed reasonable. She kept putting away the dishes for a minute, then stopped, sighed, and replied – sounding like one of those smart, wisecracking sitcom housewives who is fed up with her bumbling husband's nonsense: "Are you talking about the way you apply some whacky band-aid solution to life's serious problems?"

Sensing this might lead to another dispute, I began to dream up a solution. There was a problem here clearly, but fixing it might involve several steps....

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