html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: How to.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

How to.

I want to be handy and I want to dress attractively and stylishly. For someone with my resources, those should both be accomplishable, but approaching either goal seems like standing at the bottom of a tall cliff with no path to the top. How do you get up there? How do you get to the point where water on your bathroom floor has a source, and that source can be attributed to a problem and the problem has a likely solution that would involve using a known quantity of materials and type of tools and amount of time to fix*? How do you know which pair of pants will flatter your body and be appropriate to the occasion and will work with your shoes while conveying that you are a wickedly smart flirt? People do both things all the time and I can’t see their methods at all. For all I can tell, they just flew to the top of the cliff.

Except that I sort of know how they got there. They are interested in being handy, or they are interested in clothes. I am interested in food and I am scared to cook nothing. I don’t usually make ornate foods, but if I wanted to, it would just be a longer sequence of familiar steps than I am usually willing to do. I understand how food will act. My stirfry sauce starts with soy sauce, oil, garlic, ginger, salt, sugar. Sometimes I’ll add a blended tomato, for heft and a different flavor. But you know, if I don’t have a tomato? Well, oranges are another sweet acid; that’ll work fine, cut back the sugar. Baked goods are just a spectrum of flour, liquid and eggs; the continuum runs from crackers on one end to soufflés on the other. Making a cake, but don’t have the sour cream? Yogurt is fine, might have to add additional fat and something to calm the tang. If the cake doesn’t come out exactly like the recipe, well, maybe this iteration lands next to cake on the continuum and I call it a brownie. People will still eat it. I browse cookbooks and menus, and think about ingredients and make things with no worry about the end product. It’ll taste good this time, or maybe it will taste good next time.

Not as much as I used to be, but I am also interested in arranging Ultimate tournaments. When I started doing that I thought about them all the time. What are the qualities of the field facilities that lead to a good atmosphere? What schedule and seeding will provide a fair route to the finals for every team? How do I move the teams through their schedule? What are the organizers’ obligations to the players? I read the UPA Manual of Tournament Styles recreationally and then I read it again. I talked shop with other organizers, who sent me their spreadsheets calculating the field-food quantities after you put in the number of teams and predicted temperatures. I constantly critique our events, and love hearing from someone who is mad enough about something that she’ll give me a full-fledged rant about how some detail ruined her day. I’m sorry about that, but thrilled someone will let me know why something didn’t work.

I don’t feel like cooking or organizing are difficult tasks. Learning to do them never felt like work. Is that how being handy feels to those of you who are? How did you get there? Did you take things apart when you were little? Do you watch someone build a house on your block and notice how they put in the plumbing? Do you talk shop? When did you feel like you could walk into the hardware store and know what you wanted and what was an acceptable substitute? When did you know that there was a tool that would make that job easy, and without it you would take off your knuckles and hurt your back? Stylish people, are you interested when you browse fashion magazines? When does that stop making you feel like an unpretty slob, and instead start to become about the way you can layer fabrics? How do you trust your taste in anything other than plain t-shirts and jeans (just to pick any old example out of the air)? How do you judge whether your clothes are sending the messages you intend? Do you have days when it all flops? Are you horrifically embarrassed, or do you just take mental notes for the next time you might use a variant of that outfit? Either of you, do you think that I can get to be adept without the genuine interest behind it? ‘Cause I really just want being handy while looking fabulous to magically happen by itself.

*This is crap, by the way. I am a water engineer. I can diagnose flaws in an irrigation system from an aerial photograph. Why am I scared of a persistent leak in my bathroom that will eventually eat the floors and plaster wall?


Blogger Tom said...

take things apart when you were little --> "break stuff"

I wonder the same thing about clothes.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

But because you broke stuff then, now you aren't intimidated to re-wire an outlet? Or are boys scared too?

4:49 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

That's right; my past failures (at least in the handiness category, and a couple of others) made me fear those tasks less.

To a certain extent, I'm sure that not knowing better (then) allowed me to approach things without fearing them (now).

I'm sure, however, that one can make up for a late start by doing lots of reps... unless the quality one is attempting to banish has become integrated into one's identity (as is the case with me and not(stylishness)).

5:35 PM  
Blogger Dubin said...

You must be talking to me, right? I'm the one that you want to answer these questions, right? That's what I thought.

I am moderately handy, but being an architect helps because I have days, like today, when I go on a site visit and see how they've started the demo work and you can look into walls and into different kinds of assemblies to see how they were put together. You also get to see tools that you never knew about and you realize that such tools even exist. (You still are not going to run out and buy the whole tool corral, but you could try telling people about your problems and wait for them to say that they'll lend you their special tool for that.)

Another thing that happened today was that I was so tired when I got home that I flopped down and watched two segments of "Ask This Old House" wherein they mortised some hinges and installed a new lockset and hung the new door, and then they took apart a faucet and replaced the o-rings and fixed the leak. Not rocket science, but you always learn at least one thing you didn't know. You should get a TV, probably.

I am still handicapped by a fear of certain power tools after the Wurster Hall Woodshop Incident of '97, which limits the projects I take on. I like chop saws but not so much table saws. I like routers but not lathes. I like the panel saw, but I hate anything hand-held without a guard (like a "sawzall" or -- god forbid, a chainsaw -- crikey!). Ooh, I hate chainsaws. But anyway.

Ok, the clothes thing - I think you have to wait for A-Dub to answer that... she can tell you whether or not it ever flops. I think it does sometimes, but that's always what happens when you live on the edge.

6:26 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Why are you saying that it isn't rocket science? From here, mortising hinges and rocket science are the same.

7:30 PM  
Blogger Bob V said...

My recommendation is for you to find a woman who knows what she is doing and let her doll you up any way she wants with your credit card in hand.

I did this recently, and it helped me understand some of the rules. Ask questions. She might not be able to explain why something looks bad on you, but if you make her judge enough things, you can eventually figure out the reasons and learn to apply them later. I think there really is a science to it. It's just that there are a lot of solutions rather than there just being one best one. This makes it tough on the engineers, even the water ones.
By the way, fashion magazines are useless because they are for men or women in general, not for your particular:
- skin tone
- height
- girth
- neck length
- neck diameter
- inseam
- other assets (if you know what I'm talking about)

9:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The secret to handiness is not minding if you break something and have to pay someone to come in and fix it. You can buy books and tools and stuff, which all help, but if you set aside the money to pay a plumber before you dive under the sink, then you won't be heartbroken if it goes wrong. And it's fear of that, I think, that stops most people from taking the first step.

9:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since when do 'stylish' people "browse fashion magazines" and what is this obsession about clothes sending the right message?
Shouldn't one be comfortable in one's clothes?

Why this 'desire' to be handy? Is this to do with the last post?

11:45 PM  
Blogger amanda bee said...

One of my most pervasive memories as a kid (and I feel like I recently described this, so I apologize if I already used this story in a different comment ...) is of my father insisting that he would not raise daughters who could not fill a damn gas tank. Therefore, I had to pump the gas when I was about seven and my hands were not big enough to go around the handle and it always made that webbing between my thumb and fore finger hurt. I still resent him for that. I don't resent him for teaching me how to change a tire--that has come in handy because cars never get flat tires on slow moving city streets with ample parking and a phone nearby. No sirree.

Today, I ride a bike and almost never pump gas. I also fix things all the time. I sometimes think about it sometimes don't but I definitely got that from my parents, though my time on the Loth maintenance crew definitely improved my confidence. From time to time I call them for advice. From time to time I really screw up: I think something will be a good idea but I am wrong. Usually it involves a shortcut. My parents have sunset home repair books, which is where they look up stuff like plumbing when they have to fix the plumbing, and I know for a fact that they have those in the library.

By the way, electricity is a bad example: you *definitely* don't want to dive right in with that one. At the very least get one of those doo-dads that will tell you whether a wire is live, please! I had one (a gift from central maintenance, they gave them to everyone who came to some workshop. probably one on electricity) but it got stolen in the cross country move along with everything else in my toolbox. Bastards. But I digress. Don't just trust your circuit breakers to be accurate, is all I am saying. Get a sunset home repair book.

It isn't a gender thing. N. is totally competent with tools and fixes my bike for me all the time, but when we need shelves in the closet he say "oh. we should put shelves in the closet here" and I get out the level and the stud finder and a pencil.

6:01 AM  
Blogger amanda bee said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:03 AM  
Anonymous thelonious_nick said...

I don't really consider myself handy, and yet I've really surprised myself since we moved into our house about 4 years ago. I've fixed a screen door, installed hand rails on the stairs, fixed a constantly leaking toilet, and a few other things.

Nearly every time I've fixed something I think "oh, this is like the summer I helped my Dad make those wooden chairs and table for the dining room," or "this is like the summer I helped my Dad make floor-to-ceiling bookshelves." I'm not sure how you learn without your Dad showing you, and there are a lot of things I can't do because of that, but what skills I do have were passed along as family lore.

I agree about not taking shortcuts. Any successes I've had being handy involved doing things in a patient, step-by-step way, starting with careful observation of the problem, lots of measuring, buying far more screws at the hardware store than I needed just in case, etc. All my failures come from thinking I can do something in just a few minutes if I can just twist this metal piece back into place, oops, now it broke off and I'm really screwed.

7:09 AM  
Blogger Dubin said...

I'd like to revise what I said -- I realize you don't even need special tools for what you're trying to do. If you want to fix something in your bathroom, maybe do it like this:

1. Look around the bathroom and see where the water is coming from.

2. Look at that place and see what the removable parts might be. You probably already have a wrench.

3. Take the whole thing apart piece by piece with the wrench and write down how you did it. You could even take digital photos as you disassemble it so you know how to put it back together.

4. See if there is any compressible part, like a gasket, that's crusty-looking. Take that out and go to the hardware store and tell them you need a new one of those.

5. Reassemble. The worst thing that can happen is that it's the same as it was before and you now know what the inside of a faucet looks like.

Do you ever just have the urge to unscrew things that have screws in them? I have a Disassemble Urge that started a long time ago. I usually just want to take things apart. Hey, remember that scene in Short Circuit when Number Five is rolling around yelling, "NO DISASSEMBLE NUMBER FIVE! Stephanie! HELP! No disassemble!"

7:18 AM  
Blogger Dennis said...

My comment started to get a bit long, so I elaborated on it and made an entire post.

Here Megan, I give to you the blessing of the handy!

9:59 AM  
Blogger Dennis said...

Oh, and yes, boys are scared too. And every time I fix anything, I learn new stuff. Sometimes I learn LOTS of new stuff.

It's ok that you don't know what you're doing or what stuff is called, that's what the internets and the hardware store are for!

10:02 AM  
Anonymous UnderwearNinja said...

For most of my life, I've taken things apart that come apart, just do it. I always thought it was something everyone did until I was about 20.

Anyway, as for being handy.

Being handy is simple. Not easy, but simple. It's like any other thing you've ever done, and it all comes down to problem solving. Find your problem. Find the source of the problem. Fix the source. See if that fixed the problem. Repeat.

I guess along the way you have to think about the mini problems you'll face. You can't exactly start disconnecting hoses under your sink, unless you shut off the water leading to the hoses. A non-handy person might not think about that right away. But since I've diconnected a hose under a sink w/out shutting off the water first, I don't make that mistake anymore.

I guess the short answer is. Be ready to make a lot of mistakes. Know it's all made up of simple problems. It helps to drink beer, cuss, and have a friend help.

10:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Damn the internet, everyone else is handy and not particularly fashionable... It seems that my two cents on this will hardly matter, but here goes.

You are smart, can be engineering minded, and like to know how some things (i.e. recipes) work. So, I think that you're on your way to being handy. However, you don't have the gear gene, so that will hold you back. In many situations, the right tool is the difference between a quick fix and hours of frustration...

Because I love to tell stories about me, I like to think that my history will be illuminating... My dad was a do-it-yourselfer, he finished a basement or two in his time and is now into woodworking. Since I was small I wanted to know how everything worked, I'd spend hours with a penlight under the car trying to figure out what hooked to what and think about why. As an adult, my motivation has been based on not paying for stuff that I would enjoy doing or could do equally well myself.

Dennis has great points. Don't be afraid to break stuff. Don't be too proud to call in an expert if you can't fix it. (I hate plumbing and lack the plumbing finesse, so I had the plumber re-plumb my house and even put in the kitchen faucet. However I have muddled through a few ice-maker installs.) Be safe. Get a circuit tester and be sure that you turn off the right fuse before fiddling with a fixture or outlet. As for rewiring an outlet, many new outlets have the wire color written next to the terminal. :)

As for the chainsaw and Sawzall... Don't be dissing these! They are some of my favorite tools! They are both, in some sense, demolition tools. As such, they pack more power and are used in less constrained ways. This does increase the possibility of injury, but it also makes them very satisfying tools when used correctly.

If you have a tree, it will eventually lose a limb and that chainsaw is the best way to turn a mess in your yard into a pile of firewood.

If you're doing any remodeling, removing cupboards, moving a wall or doorway, or just working in tight spaces and need to cut through tough stuff, the Sawzall is your friend. I've used it to widen the door into my attic to install a whole house fan. I've used it to demolish an old wall after taking the load off it with a new wall. I've used it to cut a 16' by 7' section out of an exterior wall to install a garage door. That is cutting through an entire 2x6 exterior wall, siding, nails, and all! No other tool can do that! And, when we wanted to salvage boards, you can throw on a metal cutting blade and shoot between the boards cutting only the nails! How cool is that!?

The sawzall story above reminds me of another principal of handiness... Be incremental. Start with easy and non-critical stuff. Before you know it you'll feel confident jacking up a wall and cutting away the supports as part of a project. In that same garage project, I also replaced an old fuse box with a newer breaker box, reassigned the circuits, and installed a couple new ones including a 2-phase 220v. It was great fun and it all started with a willingness to install light fixtures or rewire outlets. The Home Depot: Home Wiring 1-2-3 (or something like that) was extremely useful.

Oh well, I could go on about home improvement or mechanics forever... Give me a call and I'll help troubleshoot your leak!


10:58 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Keep the advice coming, y'all. It is very encouraging. I still think that several of you are saying that you were interested in how your things worked and that lead naturally to your being handy.

T_N: I started cooking because my Dad made dinner every night and I wanted to be where he was.

11:14 AM  
Blogger Dubin said...

Oh, I wasn't dissing the sawzall. I just said I was scared of it. I have all kinds of kickback-into-the-head fantisies that make my hands sweat. I bet I could learn to get over it somewhat, but I haven't tried yet.

11:18 AM  
Blogger LizardBreath said...

I can't believe I'm jumping in on the 'fashionable' end of the advice, but here's a start:

(1) Give up on being very fashionable. It takes too much attention if you aren't interested. You're aiming for attractively well-dressed, not up-to-the-minute.

(2) Throw stuff out. For most badly dressed people, the problem isn't a limited supply of pretty clothes, it's an oversupply of ugly clothes. I'm not saying get rid of anything belovedly tattered and comfy; just that you should go through all of your clothes, and take anything that you don't love (either because it's pretty, or you have some other attachment to it.)

(3) If there's anything left in the 'pretty' category -- clothes that suit you and you like and look good on you, think of more of the same. You don't have to be creative about everything -- if you're a scoopneck black sweater person, there's no reason not to have three slightly different ones. So you're always in the same outfit? If it looks good, who cares.

(4)Don't shop in stores, shop off other people. People-watch for women who look kind of like you but are dressed the way you'd like to look. Do it enough to get the hang of who they are, so you can spot them on the street as 'that kind of woman, the ones who are stylish the way I'd like to be' and you have a sense of the kinds of things they wear. Then go to a store and buy the kinds of things they'd wear.

(5) If you've got friends who dress well, the way you'd like to, let them dress you. Mooch hand-me-downs (something that doesn't fit them right but works on you, for example) or make them take you shopping.

The one piece of advice to take if you only take one is (2) -- get all your ugly clothes to Goodwill. It'll make a huge difference.

The overarching theme to 3, 4, and 5 is don't worry about being lame or derivative. You don't care about clothes. They aren't an expression of your personality (for someone else, they might be, but not for you). So it's not phony to be imitative. Pick people to imitate and go with it.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Sweet Coalminer said...

If I were you, I'd find a store with a style you're comfortable with that's a bit more formal than the Gap, be it Ann Taylor, AT Loft, Banana Republic, BCBG, etc., and just go with a friend and try a bunch of stuff on to see what feels good and what flatters your (awesome) body. I think you'd look great in a smart pantsuit with a waist-length fitted (but generous) jacket and slacks just-below-the-waist in a dark pinstripe. Maybe with a bright pastel camisole underneath and medium, in-between-chunky-and-spike heels. Don't be afraid to try things you don't think you'd like.

It's hard because you don't want to try to look like a 20yo, and you don't want to look like someone's mom. Just something classy but trendy. And then spend a lot of money.

And don't forget shoes and accessories. I love a pair of Danskos any day, but I have a variety of heels in a variety of styles and colors.

Now that my body has forever changed shape, I need to go do this for myself.

I'm always amazed what Cory knows how to do, and he assures me it is from years of watching "This Old House". And he has no fear. But then, we rent.

12:12 PM  
Blogger amanda bee said...

my comment was too long. it had to go.

Lizardbreath captures the key points. There is a difference between stylish and fashionable. An anecdote worth repeating was this: when I worked in the House and Garden research department at the Conde Nast mothership, I got to witness absurdity like the season that spike heels and crinolines were all the rage and these women were teetering around in same looking moronic. I could never bring myself to say what I really thought, which was roughly This is an office. Not a tea party. Please. Go home and find something slightly appropriate to wear so that you look like maybe you are here to work.

I sometimes read fashion magazines, but I've gotten a little formulaic about the clothes I buy. Actually a lot formulaic. I went to France and decided that some people look fabulous in jeans and a t-shirt. Now I buy t-shirts in bulk. Some people might think I wear the same thing every day. They think wrong. I wear a clean t-shirt every day that happens to be identical to the one I wore yesterday.

Also, the clothing swap is key, especially if you are having trouble following Lizard Breath's disposal advice. Bring all your clothes that aren't working for you and you put them in a big pile and look at what everyone else brought. The secret advantage, at least for packrats, is that you don't have to throw anything away if you know you are going to eventually get invited to a clothing swap. Kind of attached to something but can't make it work? Put in your swap bag. I have gotten some great things from swaps. If you take something home and it turns out to be stupid looking or ill fitting or you just can't work it into your wardrobe, put it back in the swap bag.

You should host a clothing swap. In Sacto. Be real calculating about it and stealthily make sure you invite a lot of stylish people about your size. Just make sure you have a way to get the leftovers to a place that isn't your basement. Like Goodwill.

You could even host a pie and clothing swap.

3:20 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

People keep saying that you need a circuit tester... Don't you all have voltmeters?

7:43 PM  
Blogger amanda bee said...

Apparently we don't all have voltometers.

Speaking of which, I have this goofy solar battery charger that has a gauge that indicates the strength of the light on it and so should allow you to estimate how long it will take the battery to charge at that rate, except that of course the sun will never stay in one place long enough for a D battery to charge for 9 hours, so what would really help is a way of knowing how full the battery is. What do you use for that? Would a voltometer have some role in that puzzle, too?

2:29 PM  
Blogger amanda bee said...

voltmeter, voltometer. you know what I mean.

2:30 PM  
Blogger Bob V said...

lizardbreath nailed all the advice perfectly. I want to emphasize the importance of something he said under point #4. When you people-watch, make sure you are people-watching physically similar people.

For example, don't look to people with different complexions if you are trying to figure out what colors are safe for you. Similarly, pay attention to dimensions. The tall and slim should wear different clothes from the short and curvy. Don't look for those people you'd like to look like. Look for those people who look like you do naked but look better than you anyway.

4:51 AM  
Anonymous alameida said...

I second (third?) LB's advice. fashion is the type of thing you are really interested in or not, and I get the impression that a) you are not and b) you would consider the time and effort involved to be a waste. it seems to me you might profitably focus on the handiness instead.

but there are plenty of women who look good without following trends if they dress in an understated way. spending decent amounts of money on some neutral, good-quality basic pieces and then jazzing them up as needed is always a good bet. if you want to see what the hell you should jazz it up with, that is actually a fine time to go out and buy Lucky, the shopping magazine. it's fashion for people who don't have a lot of time and want to know facts (and you can buy the things right out of the magazine if pressed for time). I don't like it that much because I feel it is didactic and stifles creativity, but that makes it perfect for someone who doesn't want to be creative, particularly.
very much, get rid of the crappy clothes. and get a friend to help. and copy people. finally, yes, fashion experiments sometimes go awry. but you only have to tough it out till you get home.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Pandax said...

Hmmm, all week I'd been wondering why I hadn't seen you post Tuesday. I wonder if something's blocked on my work computer?

I'm not "stylish" but I am a bit of a clothes collector. I think people have already made the key points.

- Stick to a few well-made classic pieces that fit you well and accent with a few trendy pieces that you like.

- One rule I try to follow is if I haven't worn it in two years, it's time to donate it away. Unless it's something classic and in good shape, it's just taking up space in my closet. It's hard to give things up you think you might need, but it rarely happens. The same applies for things that are pilling or don't fit you right anymore.

- I enjoy browsing "Lucky" and "In Style" for ideas. I can't afford the $298 sweaters they tote, but certainly they can give you ideas on colors and styles you might like to combine (in a cheaper version).

- There are probably varying opinions about "What Not to Wear" show on TLC, but they offer good tips for different body shapes and career types. It may take several episodes to find tips that fit your body shape and lifestyle, but I think it's entertaining.

- Most importantly, go shopping with a couple of friends. They're a great extra set of eyes and might even suggest something that you didn't think of trying on.

12:02 PM  
Blogger lil miss dubin said...

in very brief, being handy and being fashionable are about patience. this is why i'm not handy at all: i can't force myself to get out a digital camera or notepad and neatly document everything i took apart and in what order, etc. so i can put it back together. for people who enjoy the process, patience with it is a given, and they don't think about it because it is automatic. for me, patience with clothes comes easy. picking out clothes and accessories is automatic and so i am kind of methodical about certain stuff (like i still lay out little bundles of silver shoes/clutch with silver-toned hardware/silver earrings/pewter wrap so i can see if i prefer all that to the pile next to it, in which are shoes with gold heel/hand bag with gold hardware/gold earrings/white wrap, etc.). this gives me joy and doesn't feel like work. i would love, love, love to be handy, but it feels like work. (also i'm really clumsy and might die if i attempted handiness)

ps: major props to bob v for deferring to a woman who knows how to dress him when it comes to the matter of dressing him. that's really the most dignified route for all parties.

pps: i learned again last night--for the 9,000th time--that if you think you can pick out a first-date outfit 40 minutes before you have to leave the house, and you are feeling bloated because you have your period, you are WRONG.

5:28 PM  
Blogger Bob V said...

The woman who helped me out was definitely the source of everything good in my fashion life. I, like most men, naturally gravitate towards blues, blacks, and grays. I let my friend force me to throw away 90% of what I had and replace it with things I'd never pick by myself. I have a pale green shirt with this ridiculous embroidered pattern that we bought. I literally got compliments from 3 separate women the first day I wore it. I still don't understand *why* it works, but I at least know that I wasn't helping myself by trying to blend into the surroundings.

6:58 AM  
Anonymous Jess said...

hmmm... might i recommend a little show on TLC called "What Not To Wear"... it is super for pointing out the most common nightmares (typically among women) and giving solid advice for how to avoid them.

i should also say that i am pretty fearless about handy work around the house and i attribute this to have a general contractor for a father. if i need pre-attempt advice or post-attempt correction instructions, i know i can just pick up the phone. a gal needs a similar emergency contact for fashion advice. you just need someone that you can call and ask, "Does a canary yellow tank top go with avocado green capris?" and get a reasonable answer.

as someone who is similarly able to make-do with on-the-fly kitchen substitutions, i know that you have it in you to do the same regarding fashion.

ps - i'm happy to offer free fashion advice in exchange for some of your cooking, which sounds divine!

3:05 PM  
Anonymous eddie said...

On behalf of the handy-but-not-fashionable, I'd like to thank Lizardbreath for the incredible advice. My entire life the concept of "wearing good-looking clothes" has been alien territory. After three decades I had finally settled into a handful of things that I felt comfortable in, both physically and stylisitically, but even at that I lean heavily on my spouse for validation. The urge to expand or alter my wardrobe strikes on occasion... thanks to LB I now have a practical way to act on it. Sure, it seems obvious now, but the feeling of being at the bottom of Megan's metaphorical cliff is astonishingly hard to overcome. Now I have a path to the top.

I'll try to return the favor.

As far as I can tell, being handy involves just four things:

1) Problem solving. This is not unique to fixing a leaky pipe. Problem solving has its own set of skills, like exploration, visualization, deduction, and creativity. You don't have to be an expert at any of them to be able to do it, and everyone can do it to some degree. You do it all the time in your engineering job. Being handy is simply applying problem solving skills to a particular domain.

2) Familiarity with the particular subject matter at hand. That means knowing something about household wiring, or plumbing, or cars, or windows and doors, or whatever. Some of these overlap a bit, many of them are completely unrelated. The good news is that it's easy to learn about any of them. And none of them require you to learn a lot before you can do anything - it's all incremental.

3) Familiarity with and comfort with tools. Different problems will need different tools to solve. Some are diagnostic, like voltmeters; others are used to take things apart, change things, and put things back together. You need to learn what various tools are, what they are used for, and how to use them. Here again it's all easy to learn and you don't have to learn it all at once.

4) Familiarity with certain specific techniques. For example, you'll need to learn that when loosening a stuck nut with an adjustable crescent wrench, if you're not careful you can round off the nut and make it almost impossible to remove. And that a squirt of WD-40 will often help loosen it. And that in some cases, a socket wrench will do a better job. And so forth.

Here's the bad news: there are a gazillion of those techniques and most of them are important. More bad news: the only real way to learn them is through hands-on experience coupled with experienced guidance. But don't despair - it's not as bad as it sounds.

Becoming handy is all about incrementalism. Start small and simple so that you can see how easy it really is. Then boldly try new things so that you can gain experience and confidence. Something like hanging a picture at its simplest will teach you (through experience) about using hammers and nails; going a little further with picture hanging might also teach you about levels, stud finders, drywall anchors, and screwdrivers.

When you decide to tackle a new project, do a little reading. Learn a little bit about what you're about to try - not too much, just enough so that you understand the general idea of what you're trying to do. You're shooting for basic preparation; actually learning what you're doing will come through actually doing it. Basic home repair books are good here, and the Internet may be helpful.

When a project calls for a tool you haven't used before, find out what it does and how to use it. Complex tools will come with instructions; read through them. Instructions for using simple tools will be in the basic home repair books. Once you've used a tool a couple of times, you won't need the instructions any more; you'll just know how to use it from then on.

When you hit a point in a project where you want something to happen but you aren't sure how to make it happen, think about whether you have a tool that would help. Look through the home repair book to see if there's a tool made for just such a purpose. Most problems can be solved with a very few basic tools; a few problems are best solved with certain very specific special-purpose tools.

And finally, those techniques: they'll just come with practice. Experienced guidance helps, either from books or from someone who's done it before. Just remember that experience means making mistakes; it's going to happen, and it's okay. You'll do it better the next time. Part of being handy is knowing that you can fix anything, even if you broke it yourself.

Now then. How do you get started? There's two ways. One, find something around you that's broken, or awkward, or out of place, or incomplete, and decide to fix it. Or two, find something that you won't miss horribly if something happens to it, then take it apart, and then put it back together. Either one gives you a problem to solve, something specific to learn about, some tools to practice using, and some hands-on learning of techniques. Start small and simple. Dive in with gusto. Keep your eyes open and your mind focused on your work. Before you know it, the world of physical matter will be yours to alter as you see fit.

12:03 PM  

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