Becoming Handy

***Today’s guest post is from Kristen, who writes at Sustainable Suburbia, as well as her personal blog, Narrating Kayoz. I am so excited to still be featuring these wonderful guest posts. Thank you to everyone who has written! I just love the chance to read your perspectives.***

Hi CJ & Apron Stringz fans!

When CJ first put the guest post idea out there, I immediately thought of a post I’ve been tossing around in the back of my head for a while, partly inspired by CJ’s post on little girls, lip stick and nail polish. It’s a post about boys and girls and their books, and why & how boys can enjoy books about girls, just as much as girls can (and always have) enjoyed books about boys. It’s also about why, “If you want to fix the male literary crisis, here’s your solution: Become a feminist.

But that post will have to wait a bit longer, because I’ve been reading Shannon Hayes and thinking lots about skills loss, and I can’t get my head back to kid’s books just now.

I’m currently reading (and loving) Shannon Hayes’s book Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, but the truth is I am not a radical. Whenever I compare myself to CJ (I know, a completely unhelpful thing to do), I am reminded of the line in the Dar Williams song, “The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis Of A Co-ed”,

“I’m not a leader, I’m not a left-wing rhetoric mobilizing force of one,
But there was a time way back, many years ago in college, don’t laugh,
But I thought I was a radical…”

Oh, yes, way back in college.

I turned 40 at the end of last year and sometimes I really feel middle aged and conservative and frankly, boring (not bored though – who has the time for boredom?). Settled and, yes, housewifely. (Actually I suck at being a housewife, but that’s another story).

This is where I am:

I am married to a wonderful man, who shares the work with me – paid and unpaid – pretty evenly. I have the three most delightful and dreadful children (okay, the youngest one’s not dreadful yet, but Three is just around the corner, and if you’ve ever had a three-year-old you know what that means). I have a mortgage on a smallish sized suburban block with a three bedroom house. I have visions of being off-grid, energy efficient, having composting toilets, rain water tanks and of growing as much of our own food as we can on a little over an 1/8th of an acre, including raising meat chickens.

What we do have is three chooks who give us eggs and lots of entertainment. We have only a tiny vegetable garden, since the couch grass more or less took over while we weren’t looking, when our two-year-old was a baby. We have a growing collection of herbs in pots in our sheltered front courtyard. We have a bunch of fruit trees, though three of them are yet to go into the ground, but only one mature one, an incredibly prolific lemon tree. We have half a roof full of solar panels – far more than we need for our own power needs, but being grid connected we figure the excess is going some small way towards making us carbon neutral. And we have two small rainwater tanks which generally cover the needs of our food garden.

What we lack, more than anything else, is skills.

Shannon Hayes explains how most mainstream Americans have lost the skills that would “allow them to live an ecologically sensible life with a modest or low income.” Mainstream Australians are in much the same boat. The particular skills she talks about in that paragraph – knowing how to roast a chicken, or using the leftover carcass to make a stock – I happen to have.  And most other kitchen skills I feel I’d be able to learn pretty easily, even if I don’t have the time or energy to get there just yet (homemade bread, I’m lookin’ at you).

But where I really feel lacking – and unfortunately my husband is not far ahead of me – is in ‘handy’ skills, like building and repairing things around the house and garden.

CJ had a post once in which she talked about her advantage in having grown up with hippy parents, so that she had a head start (compared to most people today) with being self-sufficient. [CJ if you know the post I’m talking about, throw in a link – I did I bit of a search, but couldn’t find it] I grew up with middle class, private school educated parents who barely knew how to hang a picture on a wall.

To be fair, my father was an only child who was sent to a boys boarding school at the age of five, spent most of his holidays at his grandma’s (probably a blessing), and pretty much survived by keeping his head firmly in books. My mother had a comparatively normal upbringing and probably could actually hang a picture – she certainly could now – but she was working part-time by the time I was six (when my parents separated), and later full-time, and so she really was part of that generation that Hayes talks about where women moved into the work force en masse and the corporate world responded by giving them more things to spend their money on, to reduce their domestic tasks, thus allowing them to work more and buy more things.*

Actually, my mother taught me to knit, though I do it badly, and to cook (more or less), and more importantly, gave me a lifelong (so far) interest in self-sufficiency and environmental stewardship. Although I don’t feel I grew up developing the skills I needed for that life, certainly we always composted, had a vegetable garden, and recycled all our cans, glass and paper, long before it was trendy.

I should also pay some tribute here to my step-father, who was of working-class farming stock and is still my go-to man when I need to figure out how to do something of a handyman nature. We didn’t get along well when I was a child, worse when I was a teenager, and I don’t know that I learned many actual skills from him. But I learned that you could do things yourself, you didn’t always need to call in a professional, and that knowledge was probably more important than any individual skills I could have gained.

When I was about eight, my parents (mother & step-father that is) decided to move to the country and become self-sufficient. They’d been reading Grass Roots magazines, and wanted to make the tree-change so popular today. That’s my memory of things anyway, I’m sure they might have a different story to tell. But – fortunately, I thought at the time – they were unable to sell our house in suburban Canberra, so the tree-change never happened.

But that yearning has always been there for them I think, and they passed it on to me. At 70-odd, and semi-retired, my mother now makes her own soap, laundry liquid, jam and bread. She’s finally convinced my step-father to get chickens, and of course their vegetable garden remains much more flourishing than ours! My sister, who lives in outer Melbourne and has a block maybe half the size of ours, also has chooks and an organic, permaculture style backyard. And my brother was the first in the family to have a worm farm. So although I feel I grew up without gaining many handy skills, I do have the philosophical support of family in my efforts to move to a more self-sufficient lifestyle, which I value highly.

So now I live on my suburban block with my own family and we slowly, slowly move towards a more sustainable, self-sufficient life. We’ll never be truly self-sufficient, nor do I even think that’s something to aim for. We live in a community, and developing community resilience and self-sufficiency is probably at least as important as what we do on our own little block.

But gaining those skills we have lost (as a generation) will, I think, be important for both those endeavours.  Hayes points out that many of the ‘male’ skills were the first lost to domestic households, when men made the move out of the home and into the industrial revolution. “[H]ow to butcher the family hog, how to sew leather, how to chop firewood” are the skills she mentions. Those were lost long ago, to most families. But how to fix your own car (or even judge what the problem is), patch up the hole in your plasterboard wall, or repair your own fence, are skills that my step-father certainly has, but that few of my own peers have.

Those are the sorts of skills I want to reclaim. Sure, I am making (some of) my own jam, using my mother’s homemade soap, and want to get more into preserving the food we grow (or even food we buy at the farmers’ markets when it’s in season). But I also want to be able to prune my own hedges, fix my own deck, build my own raised garden bed. Especially, I want to be able to use salvaged timber and corrugated iron, instead of feeling like I need to buy a kit, so as to be able to achieve a good outcome.

So that’s where it’s at for me. I am learning to crochet and preserve and cook seasonally, but I have my sights set on learning skills that use hammers and nails and saw horses.  What are your skills shortages, or what are you learning now?

By the way, where you will usually find me is at or  my personal blog, narrating kayoz. And that post on boys and books? It will probably show up eventually at my other, other blog, kayoz talks books. Now, what about those skills?


* I don’t mean to imply that my mother became a major consumer or even that she didn’t cook mostly from scratch – in fact I don’t think pre-packaged & convenience food really made it to Australian in a big way until the 80s and more so the 90s. But she was part of the generation that didn’t pass on many of the homemaking skills their mothers took for granted, like making jam or other preserves, or even mending clothes or knitting beanies, because a  simply lack of time, and probably also a perceived lack of need.

3 thoughts on “Becoming Handy

  1. Living in Alaska, my parents did learn and have all of those skills. We gardened (for food), they built their own house, chopped wood for the woodstove, my mom knitted and sewed baby clothes for all four of us kids, made jam, etc. It wasn’t until the family moved to WA that they started dropping all of those skills because it wasn’t as “necessary”, because doing it yourself didn’t always mean cheaper. (Except house repairs–those are always cheaper to do yourself.) It hasn’t been until now, 20 years later, that I’ve become interested in all those skills and started asking my mom to teach me. In doing so, I’ve gotten her more interested in it again and she’s started brushing off her own skills and remembering the joy she felt in things like baking her own bread and growing her own food.
    Good luck in your own quest to skill-up!

    1. Thanks Sister X. It’s great that you are able to go to your mom for that help. I love that my mum is getting back into things like preserving and making her own soap. It really helps to have a supportive community, and I love to be able to use her soap and exchange ideas and recipes :)

  2. I grew up with a single dad who built our house, gardened, harvested firewood (sustainably) from our bush block, cooked and cared for us two girls. I did not realise how amazing all this was until recently – when I had my own kids. Though I feel like I’m returning quickly to the values of my childhood, unfortunately the skills haven’t transferred and I’m having to learn about vegie gardening for myself and would love to have a smidgen of my dad’s practical skills and ability to put in a hard days work.

    On the other hand I’m rather handy in the textile crafts and the kitchen so I’m part way there :-).

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