Monday, December 17, 2007

52 Weeks Down - Week 31 - Learn to Do It Yourself I liked this article, in part because I identify. I grew up with handy parents, and I learned some things from them - cooking, chopping wood, making do - but I also missed out on others. Even though my step-mother is a talented woodworker, I never learned. Even though she does plumbing repair, I didn't pay attention. My father hunted, but I wasn't interested when he might have taken me and taught me to be a good shot. My grandmother and aunt were remarkably talented at knitting, sewing and crocheting - I've had to painfully learn those skills over myself without them. Can I just say how badly I'd like to have my adolescence and early adulthood back, so I could PAY ATTENTION when people showed me useful things.

Almost all of us need to learn new/old skill sets - even if we already cook, we have to learn food preservation. Even if we already build thing, we may have to learn to do them with hand tools, rather than power tools. And in some areas, we're starting from 0. What is timber framing, anyway? What's the difference between straw and hay, and which one do I want to mulch my garden with? How do you make a pickle? How do you make a running stitch, and will that fix that hole? What's greywater?

It can seem utterly overwhelming - so many things to do, so little time. Why even start?

Well, there are a couple of reasons. The first is while I'm a big fan of enriching your neighbors, and we do hire out for a number of projects, the truth is that sometimes, things just need to get done - now, by you. The second is that many of us may not always have the money to pay someone else, or the option of hiring out in tough times. And finally, even if you don't want to do something yourself, knowing the basics of how it works means that you don't have to get taken by someone you hire. Greenpa has a great post about that here, in regards to researching, purchasing and installing solar panels (something I have no idea how to do, btw ;-):

The thing is not to get overwhelmed. Just go ahead, and figure it, get started, and expect to make some stupid mistakes. Accept that it will take a good long while before this is as natural to you as it was to people who learned it from childhood - but that it will come. I'm not a patient woman, and the part where you sort of know how to do something but it takes six times as long as it takes a skillful person, you keep messing up and every step is painful is *NOT* my favorite part of anything. I get frustrated easily, and I just want to skip ahead to being a natural. But it doesn't work that way. You have to suck at things for a while first.

The best way to learn anything is to apprentice yourself to someone. Call up your neighbor the bow hunter, your grandma the canner, your uncle Al who builds boats, and say "I want to learn what you know - can I come hang around and help you. I'll do scut work if you tell me how." This is both flattering and useful, and most people will really like it. Books are good too - they can tell you the basics, and you can really learn a lot from good books - my favorite books for hands on type skills are books written for kids - they tend to be very, very clear in their directions, while books written arean't always. The internet is obviously a powerful tool too - video, for example, is wonderful. Taking classes can be great - but the absence of any of these things shouldn't keep us from starting, nor should our fear of failure ever prevent us from goinger forward

And eventually, your job is just to dive in. Never baked bread before? Well, there are some bad, horrible things you can do with baking break (a college roommate of mine somehow managed to make a loaf of bread that had the density of a collapsed star and the smell of newly made vodka - I still don't know how he did that), but if worst comes to worst, your compost pile will happily eat them. When you screw up, laugh and try again. And most of the time, things will come out fine.

So get a piece of cloth, and start cutting out quilt squares. Get a hammer, some nails and a saw, and build something. Got a broken appliance? Take it apart - maybe you'll fix it. At least you'll start to know what the inside of a toaster or a radio looks like.

The thing is, you probably will make messes, and horrible mistakes. But you'll also learn a lot - including some things that no one can tell you. No one, for example, can tell you whether you really do need a spinning wheel or if you can make do with a drop spindle until you know how much spinning you'll do and how you like to do it. No one can tell you whether you'll want a chainsaw or if you can be content with a bucksaw until you've tried. And once you've established some basic competence, you know whether you are going to like this enough to need an expert's equipment or if the cheap version will do you fine.

And then it is on to the next thing - read, research, apply, and while you keep applying, once you have some fluency and mastery, on you go to the next project. Feeling incompentent regularly makes you humble ;-). And getting competent regularly makes you proud.

So instead of lamenting what your Dad knew that you don't, just try it. Pretty soon you'll be calling up Dad and asking to borrow his belt sander.



Ani said...

I think that one of the best things we can do for our kids is to provide them with skills for living. I know that in my case, I didn't really learn anything useful from my parents in terms of skills. I grew up in a city and had to learn all of the things I now do, from growing food to preserving, raising livestock etc on my own or occasionally from asking others. It worries me as there are so many people growing up this way with parents who only know how to do the single job they are paid for and posess basic skills for running an urban apartment- but write a check for everything else. I have a number of friends dating back to high school and college days who live like this still. They make a whole lot more money than I but as the saying goes they'd starve to death with a field full of wheat and a fresh cow in the barn!

homebrewlibrarian said...

I grew up your standard suburban kid where both parents worked. My mother never had the knack for sewing or handwork like her mom had but she picked up enough cooking skills to be competent. My father could and did fix practically anything that had electricity running to it as well as the family cars. We didn't see my grandparents very often as neither set (nor extended family for that matter) lived close by. There weren't many elders with handy skills around us and even when we was around my mom's parents, I wasn't particularly interested in what they might be doing.

Many of the practical skills I learned came from my 20+ years association with the Society for Creative Anachronism. It's a medieval cultural organization that doesn't quite do true reenactments. But the field is wide open to learn how to do anything from way back when. I could, if I had to, make chainmail, caligraph a letter, make simple caps and hats, handsew clothing, dye fabric, and heck if I know what else. I joined the organization back in 1979 when I was in my late teens and had more enthusiasm than focus.

I developed some practical skills in gardening and non-refrigerated food preservation in the last couple, three years, mostly working with others often younger than myself. Knitting got added just a month or two ago after I attended a four session class. Now I'm looking into simple herbal medicines and fruit trees.

I think those of us whose parents were urban or the first generation to leave the farm grew up with less responsibilities than our forebears. I can remember spending a tremendous amount of time either watching television or wandering the woods behind my house. Certainly there were chores but they were minimal and fairly easy to accomplish. Nothing about what my parents did at home was of much interest to me because very little of it was of much importance. They didn't seem to make much of it either so there was no effort to pass that skill to the children. I think the one skill I got at home that served me well later on was piano lessons (which I actually looked forward to).

As life gets tougher it will become important to engage children in a whole different set of life skills. Not talking to strangers or accepting rides from them will not be enough. I recognize this need but I'm without children so my role will always be supplementary. But even that's going to be a stretch for me. I'm not sure how to develop a relationship with parents and children to be of any help at all. I guess I'll just watch for opportunities to be involved.

For some different perspectives and practices with regard to learning and the environment (particularly ecolearning for children) read _Ecological Literacy_ edited by Michael Stone and Zenobia Barlow. It's part of a series published by the Bioneers.


Peggy said...

“a loaf of bread that had the density of a collapsed star and the smell of newly made vodka”—sounds like the first loaves of sourdough bread I baked. Since then I’ve learned two things:

1. use a rye starter. I use the one in Peter Reinhart’s book, The Bread Bakers Apprentice. As many times as I’ve used it, it’s never failed.

2. use only flour that contains diastase enzymes. Diastase enzymes come from malted barley. An example of a diastase-containing flour would be King Arthur flour. Diastase enzymes break down the complex starches in the flour into food for the yeast. Without the diastase, even if you’ve done everything else right, the bread won’t rise. Ask me how I know.

I’m currently attending knitting boot camp. Here are my (current) favorite knitting DVDs:

“A Knitting Glossary with Elizabeth Zimmermann and Meg Swanson.” This DVD shows more than 100 knitting techniques. I turn to it often, but it doesn’t specifically teach you how to knit.

“Learn the Continental Style of Knitting” with Nenah Galati. The “continental” style is the style of knitting that Elizabeth Zimmerman and Meg Swanson use.

Lucy Neatby “Sock Techniques II.” Teaches how to knit socks from the toe up or the top down. Many designs of heels and toes. In one design the heel is knitted last, so the heel can be removed and replaced when it wears out. She has two sock DVDs, but the second sock DVD is the one I like. She also has a book out with all the patterns, but you don’t really need the book if you have the DVD.

Anonymous said...

You know, I complain about my own parents, on a stunning variety of topics. However, one thing for which I will commend them is that they did try to teach me many basic skills, even though they both worked. My mom did teach me to cook. My dad taught me how to shoot and use a gun safely (even though I abhor the things now--I could use one if I had to). I learned how to use most manual tools, and even a few power tools. I can follow a pattern; I learned how to knit & crochet, even though I had to re-learn it later (it was probably easier, though).

We're trying now to do the same for our kids. I have them in the kitchen as much as I think I can stand without committing a crime. And the kids help out in the garden where they can. Neither B nor I are particularly handy (any early training not withstanding), but I suspect we'll be picking it back up with our kids as we go along.

Anonymous said...

Learn to mend and repair clothing! A lot of basic repair work can be done with a hand needle and thread; a sewing machine isn't needed and often hand mending works better. A good book for this is Clothing Care and Repair from the Singer Sewing Reference Library published in 1985. It goes into a lot of detail whereas most sewing books don't cover mending at all.

Your own closet and second hand stores are full of items with a missing button, an open seam or a small tear. All of these items can be returned to service with not nearly as much trouble as making a new garment from scratch. Hems can be let down for growing kids very easily. Elastic waist bands that have lost their spring are fairly easy to replace as well.

Your sewing box should contain a "snap replacer". Get several bags of snaps (less than $20 for replacer and snaps in Wal-mart's sewing department) and you can replace many garment snaps without sewing. This item is also a terrific baby shower gift. Buy several seam rippers; they are cheap, get dull and can't easily be resharpened. Add a few double edge razor blades as well for opening hems.

Collect plain shirt type buttons wherever you see them and you can match a missing button close enough. When clothing has completely turned to rags, remove any interesting patches, zippers, and ALL THE BUTTONS before consigning the item to the workshop rag box. Buttons seem to last forever and the zippers and patches can often be reused.

Basic repair work will let your clothes last so much longer. It is really worth learning even if you don't want to make new garments from scratch. I do a LOT of repair work for my family and friends and it saves us money and time spent shopping for replacements.

Teresa from Hershey

Anonymous said...

We traveled to Canada via cargo ship when I was a babe in arms. My dad, a surgeon, packed enough surgical equipment and supplies that he could have performed any sort of emergency surgery or manoeuvre (i.e. bronchoscopy!) had need arisen whilst we were stuck in the middle of the ocean.

For quite a few months now I've been mulling over whether to ask him to write down a sort of " basic surgery for the layperson". What do you guys think? He is concerned about PO, CC, the future of the grandchildren, etc. and might find this something he would take on. On the other hand, it strikes me as a very large task.

Susan in Ontario

Anonymous said...

Generally agree, and also think attitude is a huge part of it for many things.

However, some things are designed not to be fixable easily for the end user. There's a lot of people that fixed their own cars before the 1980's that couldn't fix a more recent car. It's all done with electronic controls, and without having the expensive computer diagnostic kit, some things cannot be done.

Along the same lines, todays building codes and zoning laws seem more extensive and pervasive. Where our parents could have started to build an addition onto a house, today that will get you slapped with numerous fines without proper permission, which probably includes having work personnel "properly trained".


om siahdh said...

Sometimes I despair that my kids are not picking up these essential skills in spite of my efforts. They seem to take it all for granted, BUT.... then they go to a friends house for awhile and realize they DO know more about many practical things than other kids, and feel empowered (and tell me about it). My daughter told me the kids at school asked her if she lives on a farm (she'd been talking about our chickens, gardens,etc) I told her we live on an URBAN farm, so yes she IS a farmgirl. She loved to hear that. So, what I'm getting at is that our kids see the way we live our life, and take it in, even if they seem indifferent right now. Only now and then do I tell them, "OK, here is a Life Lesson. You NEED to know this." Mostly I just let the skills sink in through osmosis. Maybe I should be pushing this harder? It's tough enough to be kid these days...

Green Bean said...

I love this post! We are trying to do more and more things at home ourselves. Some things, I can still call people to ask for help (e.g., my mother in law for canning), which is nice. Other things I've had to learn from the Internet - like crocheting! Oh, if only I'd paid more attention when my grandmother showed me. It is wonderful, though, to get your hands in things and instills a real sense of pride.

My husband is great about this and will take on almost any home-improvement type project fearlessly. I'm gaining ground but my goal for next year is to start baking my own bread and to make my own yogurt. :)

Anonymous said...

For those of us who don't have elders around anymore from which to learn....

The Readers Digest put out a set of repair manuals for the home a few years ago that are excellent. Worth buying them used on Amazon.

The local community college nearly always has a course on small engine repair. Not only a useful personal skill, but a good way to generate a stream of income.

Your county agricultural agent is a great resource to learn about gardening if you don't have elders around to teach you. They also gave us plans for our first henhouse and told us good species to get, proper diet, fencing, etc. Though I haven't done it yet, they also offer courses towards gaining "master gardener" certificates which look useful and interesting.

The book--the "21st Century Smallholder"--is also a great resource, and I like "Square Foot Gardening" by Mel Bartholomew.


Anna Marie

Anonymous said...

My mother taught me all the domestic arts: knitting, crocheting, embroidery, mending, sewing, canning, cooking (although she hated cooking, considering it slave work). My dad fixed just about everything: the cars, anything electrical, simple woodworking and metalworking, and he knew how to blow glass, which impressed me very much but he did not offer to teach me. He also played the piano for enjoyment his entire life, as well as other instruments and singing.

I didn't learn the handyman operations, but I did learn to play the piano and sing. In pre-radio and TV days, nearly every family had a piano and someone who could play it. People amused themselves and each other, using their talents, creativity, and love for each other. This is completely different from passively watching TV and just listening to the world's finest orchestras.

My sister became a piano technician, learning all kinds of skills and the use of a tremendous variety of tools. She pointed out to me that the piano is a pre-(and post-) electronic instrument: you don't need electricity to play it, it can be maintained with hand tools, and with good care it will last at least 100 years.

I'm very grateful to my parents for all the skills they taught us. A childhood of watching (and helping) them perform useful household arts has engendered an attitude in my sister and me: yes, we can do these things. We can bake bread, make cheese, make pickles, replace a broken window, mend an electrical plug safely, and on and on.

--Lynnet from Colorado

Massagran said...

Hi, it's my first post on the blog, so hello everyone. As a physicist I laughed a lot imagining that neutron star or black hole bread!

Anonymous, you mention your dad writing a book about "surgery for the lay person". You may want to have a look at
Where_There_Is_No_Doctor for inspiration. You can find it

Otherwise, I live in the city, do theoretical physics but have inherited some practical knowledge from my parents (cooking, nutrition, enjoying the wilderness, spent vacations in farms during my childhood ). Don't worry om siahdh, it does sink in! :)

Now, at 28, I have started drifting away from the more theoretical framework. Working leather, making wooden and spoon bowls (cuts and mistakes assured the first time), cooking from scratch, starting an urban garden ... on my free time.

Good luck to all in the learning path.

Megan said...

My family is ready Farmer Boy (L.I. Wilder) right now and it's just appalling how many skills people had and how hard they worked. It puts things in perspective. It's really interesting to read from a local food perspective as well. Getting rid of our television opened up a whole world of useful activities.

Rosa said...

We read that Ladakh book in a college course and everyone was talking about how amazing it was that everyone in Ladakhi society had so many useful skills and could build a house themselves...I looked around at the kids in my class and asked (totally missing the fact that Ladakhis used locally available materials and non-electric tools) "Well, you couldn't do it by yourself, but you can do part of it, right?"

Nope. None of them had ever poured concrete, squared studs, or shingled a roof. I had never thought about being a young able-bodied person who didn't do any manual labor. It was the beginning of class consciousness, for me.

But as I get older I realize that all of the skills I have are useless without the underpinning industrial society. Doing it yourself with purchased materials is just one step back from just writing a check to a skilled person.

I see that progression in a lot of people - first you learn to knit. Then you start thinking about spinning. Then you get a raw wool and card & clean it. Then one morning you wake up know, we could probably handle a few sheep around here...

homebrewlibrarian said...

Rosa said:
"I see that progression in a lot of people - first you learn to knit. Then you start thinking about spinning. Then you get a raw wool and card & clean it. Then one morning you wake up know, we could probably handle a few sheep around here..."

That's what draws people into the Society for Creative Anachronism. There are people who are so into making shoes that they go all the way back to slaughtering the cattle and tanning the leather, making the wooden lasts with hand tools and so forth. I've heard of jewelers who mine (!) their own gold or silver, smelt, make wire, learn how to do lost wax or braising techniques, the whole ball of wax. Mind you, this is not the majority of participants but a very small number and those are spread out all over the world. Course, I also personally know a fellow who has studied Renaissance German sword technique from the original texts and trained with even more geeky international people to become a rather noted trainer himself. Give this man a long sword and he can take care of himself in a remarkable number of ways. Not exactly the sort of skill you might need in the days to come but I certainly want him on my side.

Before I left the organization I got sucked into an interest in cooking over an open fire (hearth cookery), seasonal eating and root cellaring. Seasonal eating was the only thing I went anywhere with but I dabbled a bit with root cellaring but didn't get so far as open fire cooking. Still interested though.

However, even during the medieval period (and earlier) those who wove fabric did not necessarily start with the sheep. Jewelers didn't mine their own metals and shoe makers didn't raise cattle. Specialization happens when there's a large enough community where everyone doesn't have to know how to do everything themselves. The Amish can attest to this. I'd like to think that would be the model for life in the future as opposed to the pioneer model of everyone having necessary subsistance skills.


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