The Zen of Handy : Home repair: People who have never used a screwdriver discover that being handy is an attitude.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Susan Kuchinskas is an Oakland free-lance writer covering real estate, design and architecture

"It's too bad they didn't teach me home repairs in college instead of literature," Bobbie Probstein said. "I would have read the books anyway, but I could have saved a lot of money on repairmen."

Probstein, a Santa Monica photographer and writer, decided a year ago that she was going to learn to fix things herself after spotting a flyer for handyman Chas Eisner's Women's Home Repair Workshop in West Los Angeles.

"I had tried a few repairs on my own without much success and had done the usual dumb things, like calling the repairman when a fuse was blown," she said. "The class paid off immediately. I described a problem I had with some locks on my sliding glass doors, Chas told me what to get, and for a few bucks I replaced everything myself. It was great, because it was the world's simplest job, and it gave me a sense of accomplishment."

Probstein, and others like her who take classes at adult education programs and businesses like the Chatsworth-based the Learning Tree, find that there's no need to envy those souls who go through life fixing things without anguish or bandages. Being handy is an attitude and a way of looking at the world. And anyone can learn.

"Most people can become handy, at least to a degree," said Beverly DeJulio, who writes a syndicated column, appears on ABC's "Home Show" and is known nationally as "Handyma'am." "Even just tightening screws is a very useful skill."

DeJulio learned the art of repair in desperation when, as a single parent in Chicago, her basement sump pump broke. Short on cash, but loaded with gumption, she mended the pump, although not without some messy mistakes. She went on to become a fix-it ace, making a career of showing others how.

"Even people who don't inherently have good manual dexterity want to be self-sufficient," said Alan Rice, a research engineer at Caltech in Pasadena.

Rice, who runs a proton accelerator facility and surface analysis lab, is responsible for managing and maintaining the equipment in a number of laboratories. His job also involves being a "handy coach" for new students, who are expected to build their own apparatus.

"Our students come from very academic backgrounds, and many have never held a screwdriver in their lives," he said. "Our experience is that this can be taught."

The benefits may extend beyond lower home repair bills.

"Becoming handy could give you more self-esteem," said Karin Romp, a Van Nuys psychotherapist. "If you are able to accomplish something you didn't think you could, it gives you a boost. And a repair problem is easier to tackle than other life problems, like a job you're not happy with or a bad marriage. You get immediate tangible results."

Gretchen Thompson, a Culver City employment and college relations manager for Toyota, and a graduate of Eisner's class, agreed. "Although I can't say I left there feeling I would remodel my house, I have an appreciation for the physical part of my home that I never had before," she said. "It gave me a whole new confidence level. I will never be intimidated at a hardware store again."

The benefits of becoming handy seem clear. We can save time and money, enjoy surroundings in good working order, even enhance self-esteem. Why, then, do so many of us hate the thought of fixing things?

It could be the fear of failure, according to psychotherapist Romp. "We tend to believe that adults don't fail," she said. "Then, when we do, we tend to over-generalize: I failed again, I always fail, I'm just a failure."

"Handyma'am" DeJulio agreed: "I think that intimidation is the first thing that holds us back. Fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of making whatever it is worse."

Fear of failure is especially understandable when it comes to work on your own home, according to Carol Forman-Galea, a construction management consultant with Coffey Development Co. in Encino. She teaches a class in "Effective Management of Home Improvement" for the Learning Tree.

"When one is doing an improvement within one's own home, one is involved on an emotional and psychological level, as well as the physical, because one's surroundings are changing. Home should be a safe haven, and the image of our home being disrupted from repairs is enough to put the best of us into a tailspin."

For some of us, there may be gender-based deterrents, as well.

"Women get a message that it's not OK to be handy, that that's what a man's supposed to do," Romp said. "And that there's no point in trying to develop the skill. No. 1, you won't be able to; No. 2, you'll threaten men."

But actually, the tool-inept female may have an advantage over the tool-inept male.

"Some of the principles of homemaking and repairs are the same," DeJulio said. "Cooking and sewing get you accustomed to reading and following directions, one of the most important things when you're starting home repair. Women are used to assembling the ingredients before we start cooking. In sewing, we learn to measure twice, cut once."

Handy people agree that the first step is developing the right attitude. This includes expecting mistakes.

"You have to at some point in your life be allowed the freedom to make mistakes and break things," Caltech's Rice said. "That's part of the scientific method. At the lab, I always expect a certain amount of disasters to transpire."

For some people, learning physical competence begins at the very beginning, with picking up a screwdriver. For those who say they don't know how to use a tool, DeJulio finds analogies between shop tools, kitchenware and office supplies.

"A meat-tenderizing mallet is like a hammer. A spatula is like a putty knife. Even a pencil is a tool. I know that everyone has at least used a butter knife to tighten a screw down," DeJulio said. "Well, why not just get a screwdriver? Suddenly, you're using a tool."

"Women who take my workshops generally don't know anything," said Eisner, who works as a handyman as well as teaching. "My first step is to tell them good sources, what kinds of tools to buy, how to work a fire extinguisher. After that, they learn how to hang planter hooks, how to put the toilet paper holder on the wall so it doesn't fall off. I start them off using the 'kitchen junk drawer tools,' the pliers, screwdriver and hammer they got from who knows where."

Then it's on to easy, confidence-building projects.

"Building a paper towel rack for the kitchen is a good way to get started because it teaches you to use tools," said Rice. "People always want to rip out their showers. But you have to be able to use the tools without stabbing yourself first."

Los Angeles property owner Joy Nuell began with unsticking her garbage disposal, then taught one of her apartment managers how to do it too.

"Taking things into your own hands is putting money in your pocket. And I love putting money in my pocket," Nuell said. "It's definitely empowerment. The more experience you have, the more competent you feel to deal with these things that come along in everyone's life. It's another notch in the belt."

* See related story, K7.

Seven Steps to Becoming Handy

* Look around to see what tools you already use.

* Start small--hang a picture, tighten a screw.

* Take a class, rent videotapes, invest in a good manual. ("Handyma'am" Beverly DeJulio, a syndicated columnist, recommends the "Reader's Digest New Complete Do-It- Yourself Manual.")

* Subscribe to magazines--they show new products and new techniques. Or read them at the library.

* Get information and personal advice from on-line computer services.

* Talk to neighbors and friends. Ask about problems that they ran into, or materials and tools that worked well.

* If you're more comfortable on a computer than with a hammer, explore some of the how-to computer programs available.

Good Tools

"There are tools for everything," said the "Handyma'am," Beverly DeJulio. "You don't need to rely on strength. Buy good tools. A good screwdriver is only a couple of dollars more expensive than a bad one."

DeJulio and handyman Chas Eisner recommend collecting this basic tool set:

--10- to 12-ounce claw hammer

--Screwdriver set: No. 1 and No. 2 Phillips; small, medium and large slotted

--7-inch needle-nose pliers

--8-inch slip-joint pliers

--Medium channel-lock pliers

--8- to 10-inch adjustable wrench

--Level

--Utility knife and blades

--Putty knife

--1-inch wide measuring tape, 12- to 25-feet long

--Flashlight

--Safety goggles

--Folding pocket-type saw

--Stud finder

Books and Software

"Better Homes & Gardens Do-It-Yourself Repairs," Meredith Books, 1985.

"The Complete Guide to Understanding & Caring for Your Home," James Madorma, Betterway Books, 1991.

"Fix it Fast, Fix it Right," Gene and Katie Hamilton, Rodale Press, 1991.

"Popular Mechanics Home Answer Book," Hearst Books, 1991.

"New York Times Season-by-Season Guide to Home Maintenance," John Warde, Times Books, 1992.

"Reader's Digest Book of Skills & Tools," The Reader's Digest Assn. Inc., 1993

"Reader's Digest Fix-It-Yourself Manual," The Reader's Digest Assn. Inc., 1993

"Reader's Digest New Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual," The Reader's Digest Assn. Inc., 1993

"Time-Life Books Complete Home Improvement & Renovation Manual," Prentice Hall Press, 1991

Software

Home Survival Toolkit (DOS/Windows), Books That Work, 1993.

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