Sure, you live a perfectly fine life without whittling your own spoons or growing your own vegetables, but there's more to do-it-yourself projects than simply getting a job done. In his new book Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World, Mark Frauenfelder reports on his adventures in DIY land. The editor in chief of Make Magazine and co-founder of the blog Boing Boing talked to TIME about raising chickens, keeping bees, the joy of making mistakes and spending time away from the computer screen.
Did you make anything today?
I made an awesome cup of espresso that I downed right before you called.
You write about everything from constructing your own instruments to raising chickens to tutoring your children. What has been most rewarding?
I'm not afraid to tackle things that I haven't done before. I have already come to terms with the fact that I'm going to make a lot of mistakes. And that's O.K. I feel I can handle things that happen in my life now, and I don't have to depend on outsourcing everything to experts to come and save me all the time.
A big part of the DIY lifestyle is taking time to slow down. How can we find that time to make things and explore?
It's really hard to do, you have to steal it here and there from your life. I try to set aside a little bit of time each day to do something that allows me to slow down and just concentrate fully on a task. And it's really a good thing to do, because when I'm sitting in front of my computer I'm multitasking I have 17 windows open and website tabs and e-mails and blog posts, and it's all going on at once, just a swirl. And if I take a break and go outside and put on my bee suit and check out my bees, it's such a great experience. I'm not thinking about anything else except those bees. I'm really present in the moment.
It sounds like you've come to enjoy the bees. In your book you weren't sure what to think about them.
I actually harvested my first honey. All of a sudden I really like the bees. It changes the whole outlook. The whole family now thinks the bees are just wonderful.
You write about how it was hard at first to eat the eggs from your own chickens. How did you get past that?
Well, it took a little while. The chickens were like pets. I compared it to drinking my cat's milk, something like, "Ugh, thing came out of this chicken's body, instead of off a grocery-store shelf." And also the eggs looked different. The yolks were a lot more orange, and they stood out more and were more flavorful, which all turned out to be good things, but at first they were different from the kind of thing I had been used to my whole life. It was a little freaky. But over time you just get used to it. And pretty soon collecting those eggs every day is really fun, and you completely forget about the fact that they're from animals running around your yard.
In the book your wife threatens to write her own book about a crazy chicken man, wasn't it?
Yeah, things were getting knotty with the chickens for a while. It was like I was spending much more time with the chickens than I was with my wife and kids. A little stressful.
Was there one project that really annoyed your family?
The bees were trying, definitely. Bees sting, and so my wife was like, "The hive is going to sting everybody, they're going to bother people when we're outside, you don't know what you're doing" which is true, I didn't know what I was doing.
Lots of fascinating characters trot through your book, all of whom are interested in DIY projects. Is there one trait they all share?
They have a willingness to make mistakes, they've gotten past their fear of failure and their conditioning from traditional education here that says that mistakes equal bad grades. They're over that, which makes them much more willing to take chances and try new things. And the other thing is that they're the opposite of the stereotype of the inventor who's really secretive. Most makers are very open to sharing what they know, especially with people who are seeking information. It's so easy to go online and develop relationships with DIYers who share your interests.
The Internet can help get ideas out there and inspire people, but doesn't it just promote more Web-browsing, instead of actually making things?
There comes a point where and I think people can feel it when you're sitting in front of the computer and you're getting diminishing returns and pretty soon you realize you're just noodling around and clicking stuff and wasting time. There comes a point when you say, "O.K., I've gotten what I need from this, and I want to now do something." It just feels so good to be outside and using your hands and thinking with your hands. That's the way people have been operating since the days of the early hominids, and it's something that we are wired to want to do. To get back to that a little bit, in a way that's reasonable and makes sense for your situation, has really good benefits.
Aside from tutoring your kids for standardized tests, which you cover in your book, is there anything that one should not do for oneself?
I think doing things where your health or the health of other people are at risk you shouldn't do, like building an overhanging deck on your house if you don't have any skill with carpentry or understand static forces and things like that. As long as you're doing things where safety is not an issue, then go for it.