The Male Animal
By SRIDHAR PAPPU
At least he tried.
Some years back, Eric Feldman, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, decided to take care of an annoying problem in his Philadelphia condominium: an outdated shower and bath valve that controlled both the temperature and the water pressure.
First, he bought a new fixture. Then he unscrewed the pieces that held the old one in place. And that is when things began to go very wrong.
Water shot out with the force of a fire hydrant. Mr. Feldman, 57, put a hand against the opening, to no avail. “There was no way of stopping it,” he said. “So I did the very macho thing and started shouting for help.”
Luckily, an electrician was in the apartment, working on a separate project. He heard the distress call. When he saw the helpless Mr. Feldman in his own personal water world, he laughed. “It took him two minutes to figure out that down the hall there was the main water shut-off valve,” Mr. Feldman said.
Mr. Feldman said he never learned the basics of fix-it work, partly because his father took no interest in jobs around the house. When he attempts home repair chores these days, his wife, Stephanie, an architect, oversees him.
“The way the repairs usually get done in the house is I am up on the ladder trying to be macho, and my wife is telling me exactly what to do, so I don’t kill myself,” he said.
Mr. Feldman is far from alone in feeling inept when it comes to home repair. But even now, for many men, admitting that you’re unable to work with your hands can be embarrassing, even emasculating. The old ideal is represented by movie and television heroes like Harrison Ford’s John Book, who wins over the Amish with his carpentry skills in “Witness,” or Jon Hamm’s Don Draper, who displays his alpha status at a party by repairing a kitchen sink in an episode of “Mad Men.”
Joel Moss Levinson, 36, is another who avoids the tool kit. A comedian in Yellow Springs, Ohio, who became an early YouTube star, he counts as his only D.I.Y. accomplishments a shelf and a shoe rack.
“I have friends who say: ‘It’s so simple. Watch a five-minute YouTube video, and you can install the air filter,’” Mr. Levinson said. “I can’t even make it through the YouTube instructional video.”
He is aware of how his lack of handiness may strike others.
“We live in a society that prides itself on a very specific kind of alpha male concept,” he said. “We see how the alpha male looks in business, what the alpha male looks like in Hollywood. So I think there is an internal struggle for many of us who are probably beta males.”
Nathan Reimer, 41, realized he had to delegate repair tasks after he and his wife bought a bed-and-breakfast in Newfield, N.Y. With their first guests about to arrive, he took on the job of repairing a bum towel rack in a bathroom. After several botched attempts, he found himself staring at a large hole in the drywall.
Mr. Reimer, a web project manager at Cornell, has plenty of help in his side business as an innkeeper. His wife, Tara, and his father-in-law, a mechanic, are both handy. His 15-year-old son, Alex, has a workshop in their home where he builds things and takes apart old appliances to see how they work.
But Mr. Reimer is nevertheless busy around the house: He takes care of the cooking, and Alex recently asked for his help in building a website.
Although he rarely goes a day without seeing images of the latest birdhouse or renovated kitchen on social media, Mr. Reimer is content to leave such projects to others. “It’s not something I am willing to invest my time in at this stage of life,” he said.
Rob Zorch, 32, a supply-sourcing analyst in Richmond, Va., is another man more at ease with a spatula than a power tool. His wife, Kim Huson, takes charge of any chores requiring tools. She has proved herself capable of tearing up old flooring, repairing drywall and installing tile, among other home-repair feats. Recently, she bought a miter saw, which she knows her husband has no intention of touching.
Ms. Huson, 30, a data analyst, is happy with the division of household chores.
“Rob’s the one who cooks dinner,” she said. “He likes it. The two of us talk about not conforming to gender norms. I detest cooking. I’m bad at it. I find it miserable even chopping vegetables. I would go crazy if I was a nuclear-family wife from the 1950s. We take different ownership of the things each of us enjoys more.”
For major undertakings, Mr. Zorch said, his role is that of helper.
“I just don’t care to learn,” he said. “But it’s also the fear of completely wasting half my day and having to pay someone to do the job right. My free time is so valuable that I love to relax and not do that. And I would much rather pay for someone and have it look good or let my wife work on it, because she makes it look good. For instance, we built a patio, but all I did was, like, dig the hole for it. I couldn’t mess that up. It was literally just digging a hole.”