My mother is fond of saying she’s tired of doing things “the hard way”.  She usually says this as she’s about to take us out to dinner or purchase something disposable instead of reusable.  It’s as if her whole life she’s been needlessly complicating things and she’s ready to sit back, relax, and call a gardener.  Well, she’s only half right.

Maybe she has been doing things the hard way, but there’s no stopping her now.  Yesterday, for example, she and my father drove up to his brother’s house in a suburb of Boston to pick up my sister’s former vehicle, a 1990-ish Honda Del Sol.  It’s been sitting in my uncle’s garage since my sister realized the downfall of her teenage fantasy that she wouldn’t have to schlep anybody around if she had a convertible with no back seat; she now has to regularly schlep people around for her job as a case worker.  So her little car went to my uncle’s garage.  He never drove much – just to pick up groceries an cat litter, and doesn’t seem to drive anymore, so his garage was just waiting for a car my family had no use for, but couldn’t part with.  Last week, my parents stopped by my uncle’s house and checked on the car.  My dad thought its clutch was shot, and figured that if the disuse had done it harm, it might be time to sell the little car.  Mom called the insurance company, and found out that for about “a dollar a day,” they could add it to their policy.  They have no need for the Del Sol.  Mom already has 2 useless cars taking up space in their garage: a 1973 MGB, and my brother’s former car, a 1989 Honda Prelude.  My brother ditched his car when he became Metro and Urban, and discovered the MBTA.   So if they need a convertible, they’re covered.  And if they need ridiculous sound systems that eat up trunk space and make the car impossible to ride in (the amp takes up frivolous space where seat padding might have once been), they’re covered.  Why not bring home another useless car?

That strikes me as doing things “the hard way” – perseverating on keeping, insuring, and maintaining cars they have no use for, rather than selling them, banking $2K for each, and reclaiming garage space. 

While I try to eschew their kind of craziness and logically flawed stratagems, I also find myself undertaking ventures that, while noble in theory, end up needlessly complicating everyday tasks. 

Am I Handy?  Is Mr. Apron?  Then why do we attempt home improvement tasks, only to get frustrated with each other and dissatisfied with the results?  Though we successfully (with my father’s initiative and guidance) installed cork flooring in the kitchen, I see the flaws we left behind, and the unfinished trim we have yet to install.  We are not professionals, yet we undertake jobs better suited for guys named Bob or Frank wearing paint-stained coveralls. 

It’s not just grunt work I try to do myself.  It’s also crafts.  There’s a new spirit of DIY that is infiltrating the Interwebs and my generation.  It’s an amalgam of a new Arts & Crafts movement (a turn of the last century movement which sought to rebel against mass produced industrial labor) and a “recessionista” frugality brought on by the current economic woes.  Though I myself haven’t started doing any crafting specifically because the stock market tanked and unemployment exploded, it’s finally considered au courant to be thrifty.  People are embracing my mentality at last.  If only this had happened when I was in middle school, I might have stood a chance at being cool (Who am I kidding?  It would have taken a continental shift for me to be cool back then.). 

On craftster.org, a website and online community dedicated to do-it-yourself crafts and inspiration, you can often read posts beginning like this: “Well, I saw it in a store, and I thought, I could make that myself!”  So we go home and do it, often cheaper, often with higher quality materials, and often customized in a way that isn’t available commercially. 

But sometimes it’s not quite the same, because we don’t have access to commercial grommet machines or industrial sewing machines, or the right kind of stretch lace.  We’re not electricians, yet we insist on wiring light fixtures.  We’re not apprenticed wood-workers, yet we convince ourselves we can build shelves and cabinets.  We’re not pastry chefs, yet we try our hand at profiteroles and custards, and bacon-flavored Jell-O.  We try fondant and upholstering and tailoring and book-binding and silver-smithing, all in the name of craft and the DIY spirit. 

Where did this come from?  Where did the drive to turn our craft rooms into mini-factories originate?  Why aren’t we still tatting doilies for the dining room table and making needlepoint canvas tissue box covers with clever sayings by Jesus? 

For me, personally, the DIY spirit has many origins.  From a young age, I saw my mother sewing.  I saw she could make clothing unavailable in stores.  I loved the yearly birthday suits she would make me in my childhood, and it was only natural I learned to sew.  Both sets of my grandparents struggled through the Depression, and while it affected each of them in different ways, I believe I did not escape uninfluenced.  From my father’s parents, I inherited that noble value of home maintenance and being Handy.  My grandfather was a notorious skin flint, who would go miles out of his way to avoid the nickel toll on the Massachusetts Turnpike.  Their house was furnished simply, and there was nothing frivolous to be found.  My father, too, is cheap.  He’s an embarrassingly bad tipper at restaurants, and never met a project he couldn’t get into, from shelves to desks to bookcases to coat racks.  He’s not so much into details, having ADD, but he generally does good work (the bookcase he built me for my 8th birthday to house my paperbacks now hangs sturdily in our living room and hides our DVDs.).  He never cleans up the sawdust, but he’s definitely competent.  My mother’s parents, having survived the Depression, started collecting “valuables”: clocks, National Geographics, pianos, shoes, stuffed animals, dolls, you name it.  While I’m sure they had unearthed many unbelievable garage sale finds in their lifetimes, the result now is my attitude that I’ll make myself find a use for the extraneous crap in my life.  Mailing envelopes are reused until they disintegrate, take-out Tupperware finds myriad new lives storing food, sewing supplies, and seedlings.  While I’m not a hoarder, I do try to see a new life in many things others would throw away.

Now that we’re done blaming my family and the 1930s economy, we can address the difficulty with my insistence on doing things myself.  If I want to paint the bedroom, reupholster the dining room chairs, make new window coverings, wire a pendant lamp out of a colander, and sew new baby gifts for all my pregnant friends, it’s going to take longer than just going to the store, hiring an interior decorator, or calling a handyman.  With the glut of cheap products from China, it might end up actually costing more; it certainly costs more in my time and energy.  When I’m done, non-professional upholsterer/electrician/seamstress that I am, I see only the inevitable flaws that result from my hack-job.  Even if I am a fairly competent human, with the skills necessary to measure, design, and create, I have to balance the control I gain when I do something myself, with the predictable short comings that result from my inexperience or lack of expertise.   More than that, I’m realizing I have to balance my desire to have complete control over my home furnishings with my desire to have my home completely furnished.  If I wait for myself to conceive, create, and finish projects, it will be a long time till we can finally have a house-warming party.  Which of course I would insist on catering myself.

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