Do-It-Yourself People Near and Far

Do-It-Yourself People Near and Far

Chana Shapiro

Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines. She is a regular contributor to the AJT.

I saw our friend Paul at the top of a tall ladder. It took me a second or two before I remembered that he’s 85 years old. Should he be up there, relying on his sense of balance and his unrequited love of fixing things? You bet he should, because he’s a do-it-yourself guy.

It’s easy to be impressed with Paul’s home repair résumé, but I have to admit that my favorite project of his is the owl house he designed and built from scratch. It isn’t every day one meets a person who figures out how to attract owls.

Chana Shapiro
Chana Shapiro

I wish I could do that.

It’s not for lack of trying. Long ago, my friend Myra and I had an audience with our school principal, Mr. Mueller, the person who could release us from Mrs. Hoagland’s boring sewing class. We wanted to transfer into woodworking. The idea of using real tools and wearing protective goggles was so much more compelling than tracing patterns and inserting collars.

We weren’t the only females who wanted out, but the other like-minded girls were cowards when it came to approaching Mr. Mueller. Unlike them, my big fear was that my mother would find out I had challenged a school rule.

But Myra assured me that our parents would be proud. When they saw “Shop” instead of “Sewing” on our report cards, they’d be thrilled that we were bringing home A’s. Myra and I didn’t expect to get A’s in sewing, Mrs. Hoagland being fiendishly strict about seams and hems.

Of course, Mr. Mueller said no.

Lest you think that this is a rant about the way things used to be for girls, you’re wrong, because to this day I use everything Mrs. Hoagland taught me. I have altered dresses and replaced zippers. Once I sewed a man’s shirt with French seams. I can put in darts and hems like a champ.

In contrast, my brother mastered a jigsaw and sander and made a beautiful recipe box, but is his life today any more fulfilling than mine? Well, probably, but that’s because he has a wine cellar, not because he took shop.

That takes me to the YouTube videos of “Primitive Technology,” which my grandson, Zellik, showed me. There’s this Australian guy — at least we think he’s Australian; he doesn’t speak on camera, so we don’t know for sure where he’s from — who makes everything he needs from scratch, all by himself.

We first meet him in an area he has cleared in the woods, and, through a series of videos, we watch him make his own tools from tree limbs, vines and rocks. Then he builds a number of increasingly complicated shelters, eventually a multiroom dwelling with a fireplace and a chimney.

Every item is handmade from natural elements sourced from the woods around him. No nails, no work gloves, no saws, no vises, no sander.

I know what you’re thinking: “Chana, are you that naive? Someone else obviously is present to video Mr. Primitive while he works, documenting the process. How many takes does each video require? After each episode, does Mr. Primitive sit beside the cameraman, drinking herbal tea, while they do the editing?”

To these challenges, I answer: “That guy can fashion a leak-proof roof out of woven pine needles, tree bark and fronds. Can any of you do that?”

Speaking of leaks, we had one under the sink. Plumbers were unavailable. I considered calling Paul, but I like to spread my neediness around. My neighbor Linda always welcomes a hands-on challenge.

She didn’t have to take shop in school because she comes from a family of builders, and she has the tools to prove it. With her bag of tricks and her confidence, she located the problem and figured out how to fix it. When I offered to pick up replacement parts, she was brutally honest: “I’ll go. You won’t know what you’re doing.”

She was right.

A couple of hours later, as she packed up her gear, Linda beamed, “That was fun!” You bet it was a whole lot more stimulating than sewing perfect hems.

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