I sing in praise of puttering

To putter is to improve the things at hand the way one cannot with the world at large.

Linda Bleck

I am an inveterate putterer, but I come by it honestly. My father was a putterer deluxe. From my earliest years I harbor images of him tapping this, rearranging that, trimming, tightening, and adjusting. I recall, when I was 5, sitting on our back porch on a sunny summer day, watching as he fiddled with our rickety wooden screen door. When I asked what he was doing, he told me that it didn’t make the right sound when it shut. After some careful hand planing, he pulled it open, released it, and we both watched – and listened – as it slammed against the jamb with a decided crack!

Tuning a screen door. Who ever heard of such a thing?

Well, now as an adult, I understand. Puttering is not diagnostic of someone with time on his hands (my father worked long, hard hours at his regular job). It is an outlet, an indulgence, a satisfying way of tinkering with one’s domestic environment the way one cannot do with the world at large.

I’ve had a difficult time communicating this to my college-age son. Anton recently bought a used car. I was proud of him for negotiating a good deal. When I looked it over, I noticed a tiny but clearly burgeoning spot of rust. Like a superhero out to save the day, I swooped down on the imperfection with a piece of sandpaper and a small bottle of clear nail polish from my cache of puttering resources. Anton watched as I sanded the spot and then coated it with the nail polish. He rolled his eyes. “Someday you’ll understand,” I told him.

As a rule, I do not usually conduct such public performances. Puttering is, by and large, a solitary act, and putterers are modest people. They observe small things that most folks simply abide – a picture hung askew, a squeaky hinge, a wobbly table leg. It doesn’t take much effort or time to right such deficiencies. But once again, there is something in the sensibility of the putterer that makes amending them deeply rewarding.

Allow me to bring all of this home by outlining my recent Saturday here in lovely Maine. After my ablutions and breakfast, I removed the laces from a pair of worn-out sneakers and used them to tie up my tomato plants. I then repaired a garden hose with electrical tape (knowing it wouldn’t hold past this summer, but puttering does not promise miracles or permanent fixes). Moving right along, I patched my cracked watering can with silicone and set it in the sun to dry. 

My eye then caught a missing shingle from the garden shed. Having no replacement shingles and knowing it wasn’t possible to buy just one, I cut a large soup can, flattened it out, and – voilà! – there was my replacement. There followed, in languid succession, a walk in the woods to gather a bucket of pine needles to mulch the blueberry bushes, a jaunt down to the river to collect some smooth stones for the border of my garden, pruning the apple tree, replacing a vinyl shutter, resurrecting a sunken paving stone on the front walkway, unclogging the bird feeder, and finally, propping up a sagging step.

All of this risks giving an impression of endless, and perhaps mindless, activity. But nothing could be further from the truth. The beauty of puttering is that it is emblematic of the luxury of having control over one’s time, responding to the needs of one’s home and hearth as one sees fit: If I don’t replace the bulb over the back porch today, I can do it tomorrow, or the next day, or not at all.

Puttering, you might say, has set me free.

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