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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Of Course You Can

New Fence

Originally uploaded by nodigio

There have been recent articles in places like, the New York Times, and CNN about DIY activities in a down economy. In a broken economy, such skills are even more important. In the prosperous past, people paid other people to do things for them – wash their cars, color their hair, mend their roof, install a fence, build shelves, even to do their laundry and care for their children. With job losses hitting every income level, paying someone else to so these things may not be possible anymore. If the “end of the world as we know it” arrives, it may be even less possible to hire someone else to care for your children, let alone raise and butcher your pig, or milk your cow.

I hear a lot of excuses for not doing things yourself: “no time”, “want it done right”, “dunno how”, “no tools”, “all thumbs”, and so on. These are mostly excuses. How are spending your time now? Reading blogs, eh? Playing computer games? Watching Hulu? None of these are going to help you if you lose your job or society collapses. And folks like me, who do know the business end of a knife, well, we may be willing to teach now, while things are still good, but when it becomes a survival matter, I’m sorry, but I will not be as willing to spend my time and resources on someone who refused to prepare themselves for living a life outside of a prosperous cocoon. All those reason above are excuses, not reasons. A valid reason might be “I have no arms” or “I’ve gotten old and frail and lack the strength to do what I once did.” Everyone else needs to learn at least the basics of the things they use on a regular basis.

We currently live in a highly consumerist society, and our former presidents did us no favors by encouraging us to continue in a consumerist lifestyle. The goal has been to make ever more money so we can pay people to do things for us, presumably to give us more free time. In reality, though, we’ve had to work longer hours to afford all those things, so that mythical free time remains elusive. That’s why we think we can’t spend time doing or learning to do things for ourselves – we so busy chasing the money.

Unless we make a lot of money, it really can’t buy us time. We still have to drive to a restaurant, wait for the meal to be prepared and served, wait to pay for, and drive back – in a time slot that we could have used to cook a nice meal from scratch at home for less money and been able to do other things at the same time. There are a lot of things that, once you learn how to do them, will take much less time to do yourself than to hire someone else to do for you.

What those DIY skills are varies depending upon where you live and what kind of lifestyle you hope to keep. Cooking your own meals is only one of a number of DIY skills we could easily have. Doing basic auto maintenance like oil changes, putting in new air filters, checking the anti-freeze/coolant levels, and keeping tires properly inflated will give you a familiarity with your car so if you do have to take it in for more advanced care, you’ll be able to describe what’s wrong to the mechanic and resolve the issue faster.

Sure it may take you longer than a pro to get it done, and it might not be quite as tidy, but on the other hand, you won’t stress over a fencing company trampling your carefully tended gardens, and your bookshelves may be not be as pretty, but they’ll be sturdy and they’ll be the right size to hold your books. You’ll never learn how to do something if you never allow yourself to do it. Of course you’ll make mistakes; that’s what learning is about. You learn from your mistakes, make corrections, and move forward, whether it’s a math paper or building a chicken coop. You can help neighbors build their chicken coops before you build yours and learn from those experiences so your coop is built the best you can, plus, having helped your neighbor, they’d be inclined to lend you their tools or help you build your coop.

What do I think people need to have as their basic DIY skills? I have 12 categories I think each person should be capable of doing so they don’t have to rely on others for it.

Cookery. Don’t let the fancy French words discourage you. The basic techniques are simple. Most people rely on the same few dishes for daily eating and only a few extra ones for holidays. The skills you learn for everyday cookery translate easily into festive holiday cookery – for example, think of that Thanksgiving turkey as just a bigger chicken and voila! You know how to cook a turkey. Make a list of the foods you eat frequently, weekly or monthly, and add in those foods that you find to be comfort foods. Use this list to start learning how to cook. You don’t need a lot of tools to cook, either. With a cooking pot, a frying pan, and a knife, you can cook practically anything.

Laundry. It’s much simpler than it looks and if reluctant teens can do their own laundry, so can you. Try doing part of your laundry by hand once in a while, and hang your laundry to dry outside on nice days just to keep practiced at it so if you end up having to do laundry by hand, you will already know how. You can save a lot of money laundering your own clothes.

Auto maintenance. Do as much as you can yourself. Not only is it cheaper, but you’ll be more familiar with your car and when something goes wrong, you’ll be more likely to know what it is. Changing a flat, doing the oil change, putting in a new air filter, topping the windshield washer fluid, changing windshield wiper blades, jumpstarting a car, and checking the anti-freeze/coolant are the bare minimum to know.

Grow something to eat. It doesn’t have to be a full 5 acre garden of independence, but try growing salad greens, for instance. Those can be grown indoors as well as outdoors, and you can eat them straight from the pot they grew in.

Start a fire. Whether it’s laying a fire in a fireplace or starting a BBQ, firestarting is a basic skill we should all know how to do.

Basic CPR, the Heimlich Maneuver, and basic first aid. You never know when these will come in handy and everyone should be able to do basic CPR, the Heimlich Manuever, stabilize a broken bone (not necessarily set it, that more advanced), staunch a deep cut, wrap a sprain, remove a bee stinger or splinter, check a fever, apply a poultice, ice a swelling or bruise, measure out medications, and other such basic things.

Basic sewing. You don’t have to be a couture seamstress, but knowing how to thread a needle, sew on a button, darn a sock, stitch a hem or a split seam, or sew on a patch are skills every man, woman, and even child should know how to do.

Tying knots. You don’t need to know many, but a double half hitch and a square knot will get you through most things.

Using basic handyman tools. Hammer, saw, screw drivers, staple gun, wire cutters, pliers, level. These tools will allow you to do most small and basic home repairs, from repairing a leaky roof to hanging a straight shelf. I built a chicken coop once with a hammer, staple gun, and wire cutters out of 1×2s, 2 little brass hinges, and some chicken wire. It lasted 14 years longer than I ever expected it to, and now it’s still useful for holding tree trimmings in one place until I can chop and chip them down. You’ll use these tools to repair roofs, doors, windows, shelves, drawers, vacuum cleaners, DVD players, TVs, computers, dripping faucets, and all kinds of small tasks about the house.

Housekeeping. How to clean your house from making beds to washing dishes, from rug beating (or vacuuming) to washing windows, from hanging curtains to organizing closets and pantries. Most of it’s pretty simple and very little of it takes more than a few minutes at a time to do, so these can be done during commercial breaks, while you’re talking on the phone, or waiting for your pasta water to boil or your page to load on your computer.

Basic lawn care. Mowing and trimming trees and hedges are the barest things you need to know. I’d include simple gardening and the care of lawn and garden equipment – and being familiar with manual tools like reel mowers, and scissor style clippers will be useful if power is a problem.

Basic self-defense. This is a wide category for me because I include things like learning basic manners and courtesy as part of one’s self defense strategy. I find I can defuse a lot of testy situations by being nice. And when nice fails, other methods need to be well practiced and in place. I don’t particularly care if it’s martial arts, guns, knives, fisticuffs or improvised weaponry, so long as you are better than merely competent in at least one – enough to save yourself (and your family) if you need to.

The bonus about any of these skills is that if the economy goes south and your money isn’t worth the linen it’s printed on, you can trade these skills for other things and expand upon them to make your life more comfortable.

There are, of course, a great many more things you can learn to do for yourself: knitting, house painting, small engine repairs, fencing, become expert at any of these things, budgeting, prioritizing, inventory, animal husbandry, veterinary care, medicine making, etc. There’s no reason for any of us to be incompetent and clueless about how our lives operate. We don’t get operating manuals for life and living, so we have to rely upon those who learned these lessons before us and passed them on to us. Reading and writing are excellent skills to have – longhand writing, not text-speak or l33t so there will be no confusion about what you wrote. You certainly wouldn’t want some pharmacist puzzling over a prescription written in l33t, would you?

And there are a number of other skills I think we should all have acquired as children, either from schooling or our parents. Budgeting, household finances, balancing a check book, job interview skills, driving, buying a house, negotiating skills, buying a car, and so on. Some people would include things like opening a bottle of champagne, and choosing the right wine, and tying a necktie, so on, but while those are certainly useful skills, you can survive just fine without them.


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