Jack of All Trades, Mistress of None

Sharon July 22nd, 2007

Well, if the typing here gets really poor, my advance apologies. At our local
“Preservation of the Union 1865″ celebration, friends of ours gave us a kitten they had need of a home for. The kitten finds my typing endlessly entertaining and is trying to eat my hands, which is a real speed reducer. We’re still trying to find him a name - something Unionist and Civil War related seems appropriate. If only General Lafayette McLaws had been a northerner - “McLaws” really is a good cat name. Suggestions for relevant unionist (not necessarily military) figures are more than welcome.

The other night I was mulling over my need to acquire new skills. I want goats, and have to learn to milk them and trim hooves. The house needs some minor repairs that I could probably do myself with a little study. And I am trying, painfully, to become a good enough seamstress to actually make myself something I would be seen in public in. And I was struck by the sheer number of things I have to learn, and have learned to do, often in a quite half-assed way over the last few years.

This isn’t wholly new territory to me. English Literature is one of those fields that steals a great deal from other sources. I once made a list - to study Early Modern Poetry I also studied Greek, Latin and French, took graduate courses in History, Philosophy, Economics, Art History, and Demographics, and picked up a fair amount of Sociology, Anthropology and Politics. And I came out of the process with a limited but functional ability to talk in each of those fields. Someone who really knew what they were doing would laugh at me, of course, but that was fine - what I had managed to achieve was the ability to synthesize.

And, of course, when I started writing about peak oil and environmental issues that meant more physics, geology, history, mathematics, biology, meterology and statistics. Again, no one would ever mistake me for an expert in any of the above fields, but I’ve gotten so that I mostly understand what real experts are talking about, and I can, again, synthesize it - I can bring together politics and physics, for example. And I don’t mind being laughed at by the people who really know what they are talking about.

The funny thing is that almost everyone in the peak oil and climate change movements are operating outside their fields. Richard Heinberg, for example, studied politics and music, not depletion rates at school. Julian Darley used to write screenplays. Vandana Shiva studied physics before she became an environmental activist. James Kunstler is a journalist. Even people like Ken Deffeyes, who are experts in a particular area (petroleum geology) find themselves getting out of their fields and offering investment and political advice. It is the disease of new fields and new realities - everyone is stretching themselves out of their natural range. And in many cases, I think that’s good. For all that deep expertise is valuable, there’s also value in looking at things from an outside perspective.

Agriculture is the ultimately “jack of all trades” job - not only do you have to hold all the basic farm knowledge in your head, but there’s mechanics (gotta fix the equipment when it breaks down), metal working (don’t have that one yet), tree felling (I only do little ones, and I don’t touch chainsaws), biology and chemistry (soil science, animal husbandry), botany (plants), dealing with what I’m producing (herbalism, fiber production, cooking, dyeing), and…you get the picture. Add to that the skill sets that go with frugality and dinner, and it is quite a range of things that I haven’t even attempted to the ones I have. Sometimes it gets a little overwhelming.

The good thing, however, lest one get overwhelmed, is this. In order to develop functional skills at something, you don’t actually have to devote that much time or energy to it. You simply have to develop a very basic, functional knowledge. And once you’ve done that, you can improve upon your skills, or teach someone else so that they can do so. You don’t have to be very good at these things.

For example, let’s take knitting as a model. What’s “good enough?” A good enough knitter knows a few basic stitches and techniques, and the rough outlines of garment constructure. He knows what tools he needs, and which one he doesn’t, and he does it well enough to teach someone else how to knit. But the great thing for the person who doesn’t like knitting that much, or hasn’t very much time to do it, is that all he really has to do is be able to make a basic sweater, gloves or socks. It doesn’t have to be a really pretty sweater, just keep someone warm without falling apart. Getting from 0 knitting knowledge to a basic sweater is a matter of months of spare-time work, weeks if you can take a class or get lessons from someone really knowledgeable. It doesn’t take years. A couple of good books, and he’s set for pretty much any purpose.

And let us say that our knitter likes knitting fine, but would rather cook. The good thing, is that he now has enough skill to teach the basics to his children or his spouse or his friends in his community. And with a good book, once the basics become muscle memory, his son can become an expert knitter, based on Daddy’s teaching and self-teaching.

The same is true for almost any skill. I think people are often intimidated when they approach creating an even partly self-sufficient life by the sheer number of things they have to learn to do. Now it is true that if you live in comparative isolation, you have to do all those things to your own satisfaction - not necessarily well, but at least well enough to content you and not make your life more difficult. But if you are imagining a future of pulling together with other people, and those other people don’t know it yet ;-), it is good to remember that the knowledge you need is actually pretty basic. You don’t have to be a great talent at anything - just jack of all trades (or all the ones of use to you), and master of none.

Sharon

22 Responses to “Jack of All Trades, Mistress of None”

  1. Raphaëlon 23 Jul 2007 at 11:24 am

    Hi Sharon,

    I am rather happy with this post.
    Mainly because its content helps people (me included) to realize that there is no need to spend years learning each things.

    A very vivid exemple is the one of my father (who lives in the country) who begun last year to keep bees. Last week he extracted honey for the first time since at least 30 years (yesterday he gave me three pots).
    He used information from books, and surely some memories from his childhood, but my point is that he learnt alone how to do this in a not so long amount of time.
    I’m sure next year I’ll be there to learn how honey-extraction is done.

    Another example concerns me directly, two years ago my father showed me how to skin a rabbit. In fact it’s rather easy when you know how to do it. But in my flat near Paris (France) it is a skill it would have been rather difficult to learn.

    Lastly, yesterday I (first time in all my life) showed my father how to make something : bread using leaven. And I’m sure he will now know to make good bread.

    In fact all this does not requires large amounts of time.

    Your post is really inspiring me.

    Thanks.

  2. VtDocon 23 Jul 2007 at 12:40 pm

    How about Beecher (after Harriet Beecher Stowe) for the cat?

  3. Chrison 23 Jul 2007 at 2:05 pm

    Perhaps Horatio would be a suitable name for the cat.

    Horatio Gouverneur Wright (March 6, 1820 – July 2, 1899) was an engineer and general in the Union Army during the American Civil War. After the war, he was involved in a number of engineering projects, including the Brooklyn Bridge and the completion of the Washington Monument, and served as Chief of Engineers for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (wikipedia)

  4. odographon 23 Jul 2007 at 2:13 pm

    Are people who make the most dire Peak Oil predictions noticeably operating ‘outside their fields?’

    I think so, and when I saw the title of this post over at EnergyBulletin, that’s where I thought we were going.

    Maybe this is just a humility thing, but when we start to introspect and question our assumptions, I think we should pause to think about why so many of us are so sure about dire outcomes … outside our fields.

    If we start to think of this as an area with both risks and uncertainties, I think we still see a need for preparation, and “insurance.”

    And of course we can live happy, prepared, insured lives … even if calamity never comes.

  5. jewishfarmeron 23 Jul 2007 at 5:11 pm

    Oooh, I like both Beecher and Horatio a lot - those are great. Unfortunately, however, my children got together and conspired to name him “Zucchini” while I was still looking through my Shelby Foote. So I’m out of luck ;-).

    Odograph, that’s a really interesting question. I’ll have to mull that over a bit. I don’t know that anyone is fully operating within their field, and certainly that is *NOT* true of climate change - generally speaking, the most dire climate change predictions come from those who know best. But as for the peak oil crowd - I’m going to have to think about it. And I guess it depends on what you think are “dire” and what’s operating out of your field. For example, when talking about the consequences of peak oil for society, whose field is the wide range of historical and social prediction? Is Kunstler, as a social critic “in his field?” I’d tend to say he’s more in his field than Matt Simmons is about political outcomes, but you could make a case either way. I’ll definitely have to mull that over. Thanks.

    Sharon

  6. Anonymouson 23 Jul 2007 at 5:34 pm

    Doesn’t this drive to be able to do at least “the basics” for every skill imply preparation for an extreme SF-style TEOTWAWKI-future in which human communities have dissolved and every household is thrown entirely upon its own resources? I used to think I should learn to do everything for myself, but this was not compatible with full-time work. Then, I further realized that in any plausible long-term economic collapse, I will still be better off exchanging services with neighbors than trying to rely on myself. (Of course, I live in an urban area and have lots of neighbors.)

    Say that I needed my plumbing repaired: a skilled neighbor who might be likewise unemployed would probably be happy to fix it for me in exchange for something I can do well, perhaps bake for him. This way, both of us enjoy the benefits of competency in both skills, which is why division of labor beats the “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” way of life. But my neighbor won’t be very happy to make that exchange unless my bread is better than my plumbing skill, which means I need to spend enough time baking to be able to do it efficiently and well; if I do that, it will mean that I have less time available to study basic plumbing. It’s hard to be both a jack of all trades and a mistress of any!

    Either you plan to make a living wholly on your own — this will be a very harsh life for your family — or you plan to get by, in the long term, by engaging in economic exchanges with a surrounding community. If the latter, perhaps you envision yourself being compensated for training others in various skills, like those basic knitting classes. In that case, basic knowledge of many skills may be the best thing for you. But if you envision yourself being compensated for the work of your own hands, it will do you no good to have learned a lot of skills only well enough to produce poor-quality goods slowly. I am a sometime knitter but am so lousy at it that I take an entire football season to knit one sock, which inevitably winds up far larger than gauge and too baggy to wear in a shoe. If goods from China ever stop flowing, rather than trying to agonizingly knit all my family’s socks, I’d be better off to find someone who is really good at it and trade with them. Come what may, I’ll always want socks; but it’s not important that I be able to knit them, just that there are people in my community who can.

  7. Anonymouson 23 Jul 2007 at 6:08 pm

    I ate zucchini last night - hopefully I won’t associate eating it with your cat, in future….but the way memory tends to work, I probably will. ;)

    This is a delightful, really useful post. Thank you.

    Another point - how much we have come to limit each other (and life) by relegating people to ‘fields’ - in the past, an intelligent person’s opinion or ideas were valued on almost any subject, even if they weren’t ‘an expert’. Sure, there is a lot more knowledge, many more fields out there today - but how many of them are really useful outside of our industrialized, consumer society?

    Whatever status there is in being, say, a top notch computer designer rather loses its shine (and value) when there is no way to make or even run computers…so how valuable is such expertise, really? Oscar Wilde was ‘only’ an author - but his observations about society and humanity were as astute and insighftful as any ‘degreed’ expert of today. I am very glad to see intelligent people stretching out of this limiting ‘expert’ attitude, fact-finding and forming useful or interesting ideas.

    How depressing it would be to look at the possibilities of peak oil, and realize that the expertise you now have, that you probably still owe thousands on your student loans for, will be basically worthless if the worst comes to pass…and that in future knowing how to knit socks might pay better.

  8. Matt Picioon 23 Jul 2007 at 7:11 pm

    If ever a blog post was awaiting this particular quote, this is that post:

    “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

    -Robert A. Heinlein (science fiction author)

    Wonderful post, Sharon - keep up the excellent writing.

    Respectfully,
    -Matt P. (long-time lurker)

  9. RASon 23 Jul 2007 at 7:52 pm

    Hey matt -drat it, you beat me to it!

    Good post Sharon.

  10. bentnailon 24 Jul 2007 at 12:32 am

    I grew up with the jack of all trades, master of a few idea. My dad would do the tune-ups on our cars, or build something. There wasn’t a Jiffy Lube around the corner in those days. It still boggles my mind when someone can’t change a tire on their care.

    When I graduated from EE at university and went into my first job troubleshooting and testing electrical equipment I think I used the metal working I took in junior high more than electrical theory. I had a small metal working shop in the back of my truck because I was always repairing and modifying switchgear.

    I think we have been successfully programed to think of ourselves as specialists in ever narrowing pigeon holes. I would attend professional conferences and bounce around between the various tables of specialists, although I was responsible for any one of them. I was mystified as much as they were astounded that I did all these things. “Why not”, I thought, “Didn’t we study all this stuff in school?” It appeared to me that specialization was a sclerosis of the mind. Or as my dad says, someone who knows a whole lot about nothing.

    Boy, I have my deficiencies and a lot to learn. I don’t think I’ve ever grown a successful garden - but I sure can cut grass! We will find the secret sauce will be recent “uncommon common sense”. The ones that get through the turmoil and transition will be those that belong to interdependent communities. Find something you like and do it well and you won’t have to worry. There will be a need for those with poultry knowledge, and mechanical ability (some really do have a gift in this area), or writing and entertainment. Vinter! Ya that’s a good one!

  11. shadowfooton 24 Jul 2007 at 3:11 am

    Good post. I’ve been working on learning/practicing food preservation this year. Mostly canning, so far — and once we’ve gotten through this autumn, I should be an expert, at least in preserves and spaghetti sauce (you should see how many tomatoes are on our vines this year).

    I agree we don’t have to learn _all_ of the skills for making/doing everything around the house — connecting to community for barter/trading is definitely the way to go. Even if you’re far out in the country, it should be possible to make it to a nearby larger town at least a few times a year — which will probably determine which skills are most necessary to learn.

    Definitely been working more on home skills, like laundry washing/drying (got a wringer a few weeks ago but have to set it up still). Already can bake bread, etc., but learning more about sauces.

    Weaving’s been the big one I’ve been working on, and will be selling scarves this fall. Also can do some massage therapy (currently dealing with a shoulder injury though), sewing, gardening, calligraphy, drawing/painting, and more.

    My husband Lyle and I will be moving into a community with dairy and wool producers, which means I don’t have to learn to raise and milk cows or goats, or raise sheep for the wool. I thought about it, but really don’t want to be tied down by the daily milking schedule, or stay up all sorts of odd hours for lambing season. But I would like to learn to make my own cheese, and I might be willing to pitch in for a day or two each week during lambing season so that my neighbor and their crew have another body to help out.

    I’m not too motivated to learn real soap-making yet — there are already some good soap-makers where we’re going. No really local candle-makers though, so we plan on doing more with that. We both have some experience with that already.

    It’s interesting thinking about all the different skills needed in a community and learning about them and what’s involved in actually doing something. Even if you decide not to pick up a given skill, it gives you a better appreciation for the work involved.

    Heather G

  12. Deb Gon 24 Jul 2007 at 3:42 am

    I think that the ability to synthesize information from a variety of sources is a specialized skill-and a very valuable one.

    As for lifestyle, I think having the ability to do a diversity of things is important, that diversity in general is important. I agree that we don’t have to do everything to an expert level-I’m going to be happy if my sweater just fits:)

    But I also think it’s our nature to find things we excel at as we learn new skills, just takes some experimenting at times. I’ll be making socks….

  13. Alanon 24 Jul 2007 at 7:16 am

    I agree that it’s fine (and quite likely beneficial) for people to synthesize knowledge from disparate fields. But such people need to always be aware that if they don’t truly know what they are talking (or writing) about, they leave themselves open to the ridicule of people who do know.

    I may not personally care if I am the butt of laughter because I said something that is provably wrong, but if I am trying to persuade other people of the correctness of my viewpoint, then a humiliating debunking from someone who really knows the facts will not only not help my cause, but will probably hurt it.

  14. LimeSarahon 24 Jul 2007 at 11:41 am

    One of the most immediately practical courses I took in college was “Traditional and Pre-Industrial Technology”. It was a lab course. I can knap flint, spin, weave, make and fire a pot, and throw a spear-thrower. We unfortunately didn’t have the equipment to get more than a demonstration of metallurgy. I made madder (and totally failed to make indigo, but now I know the theory) for my final project. Spinning is the only one of these I do *well*, but I could probably get significantly better on any of the other skills without more instruction from a live person.

  15. jewishfarmeron 24 Jul 2007 at 2:53 pm

    Anonymous - No, I don’t think it does imply adherence to an end of the world scenario. I don’t believe in end of the world scenarios, personally - I think that peak oil and climate change are going to make us vastly less rich and less comfortable, but that’s hardly the same as an apocalypse.

    I don’t see an “either/or” scenario here - where you live in total isolation or commune with your fellows for nearly everything. I think being able to meet your own needs is simply common sense now, while also recognizing no one is ever going to live in isolation or meet every need.

    But I think a greater degree of self-sufficiency has several benefits. The first is that many of the skills we’re talking about are in limited supply - perhaps in an urban area you can count on someone to really have the ability to work metal, weave fiber, etc.., and to have the time and energy to do it for you, and the willingness to do it in exchange for the skills you offer, but generally speaking, when the public economy stops serving us, the larger economy (much of which operates under the table), takes over - your neighbor with good knitting skills will probably still have to pay taxes and buy a few things with money, so unless you have something very valuable to offer, you might not be able to get as many socks as you want. Ultimately, you are betting on someone else.

    Plus, my observation is the that generally speaking, living within your means is easiest if you can meet many of your own needs. That is, if you don’t need to hire someone for many of your basic needs - whether by barter or in the public economy, it is easier to live frugally. Most of the people I know who have succeeded have been people who aren’t dependent on outside help for everything.

    So in a sense, I think these skills might matter more *now* than they will in the future - I want to reduce my dependence on China *today* not just when it becomes necessary. I can make my life a little more comfortable by doing my own home repairs *now,* I can make beautiful and useful gifts and take pleasure in doing them *now.*

    It doesn’t take the end of the world to note that everything you can do for yourself, without making yourself crazy is a hedge against the ordinary consequences of poverty.

    Sharon

  16. jewishfarmeron 24 Jul 2007 at 2:55 pm

    Matt and Rebecca - Thanks for the reminder about the Heinlein quote. I actually considered using it, since I rather like it. But I do think it emphasizes (as Heinlein was wont to) a militaristic viewpoint that I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to add here. I think it is rather less important that we know how to fight battles than do laundry ;-), one hopes.

    But I still really like the quote (and Heinlein, especially before he spent all his time writing about what people looked like naked ;-).

    Sharon

  17. Anonymouson 24 Jul 2007 at 5:20 pm

    Does anyone know of a book that has basic skills to teach children? As I sat with my 5-year-old as he changed batteries in a toy on Saturday, I thought how I would like to teach my children lots of practical skills like that and how helpful it would be to have a book laying out such skills. Obviously, as with the toy, it’s sometimes apparent what to teach. But I think it would be great to have a resource, a book that my children and I could work through …

    I’ve thought of “The Dangerous Book for Boys” but since I haven’t actually looked at it, I’m not sure if it’s appropriate. …

    Maybe I should get Scouting books?

    Advice welcome!

  18. Anonymouson 24 Jul 2007 at 5:50 pm

    Everyone imagines themselves knitting or sewing their own clothes and maybe even weaving their own cloth, but (except for limesarah, whose college I wish I had attended) not many of them imagine themselves cleaning raw fibers and spinning the thread and yarn. And that’s good. In olden days, women in cultures with a cloth-hungry lifestyle were essentially enslaved to the production of thread. It takes a dozen spinners to supply a single weaver; for the women and girls of a household to supply enough thread for its cloth, they had to spin constantly whenever they were not engaged in some other toil — even when they were walking down the road, they would be spinning. I wouldn’t want my descendants to live in that kind of world. The only way to spare females lives of drudgery is to maintain the capacity to spin thread with the aid of machinery - which is entirely possible without using fossil fuels. (No, hobby spinning is not drudgery; if you had to generate enough thread for all the cloth in your house, it would be.) I certainly hope that, as John Michael Greer once suggested, we will identify those technologies that make a major difference to quality of life and do everything necessary to preserve them.

    Indulging fantasies of regressing to the peasant way of life and doing everything by hand from scratch may distract us from that essential goal. Some people assume that in future there will be no way to buy finished goods, so they will need to buy raw materials and make everything. Right now, the wool for a pair of socks costs as much as a pair of socks at the store. If socks are no longer sold after the “collapse,” will yarn still be available? If not, will people in most regions be able to buy raw fleece? Maybe none of these things will be always available, but sooner or later, all will be. Even if the country were devastated by thermonuclear war, most people could survive a couple years without new socks or a new sweater. After that, goods would be available for sale, and that would include finished goods, because many individuals would be able to do better by producing value-added goods (socks) than raw materials or unfinished goods (thread) that sell so cheaply a worker can barely survive. The faster they started doing that, rather than each trying to make everything they needed in their own bunker, the better off we all would be.

  19. jewishfarmeron 24 Jul 2007 at 10:54 pm

    Anonymous, I agree with you that we won’t be producing all of our cloth. But that again doesn’t obviate the utility of producing some of it - for example, we’re likely to have enough commercial cloth to remake and scavenge for a long time - and certainly, industrial cloth production is not fossil fuel dependent - just slower without them.

    I don’t see an enormous need for large scale cloth production for some time - most Americans have enough clothes in their house to dress them for the rest of their lives. The objects they are likely to need to replace are small - socks and gloves, but especially socks. And spinning that much wool from the sheep (or rabbit, or dog, or whatever) is not nearly so difficult - and yes, I’ve done it.

    Yes, sock yarn is expensive. But you don’t need fancy self-striping sock yarn to produce a pair of socks that will wear as well or better than most commercial ones, be more comfortable and be cheaper. Any number of very basic yarns will do well.

    Again, I think the characterization of “everyone in their bunker” is wrong. I think what we’re talking about is “ok, we have limited money/trade goods” (which is true for some of us now) - maybe let’s not waste them on things that we could easily and cheaply do for ourselves. The reality is that if you have to call a professional for everything, or even most things you have to be considerably richer than most of us can count on.

    The reality is that all of us have some free time. Making good use of it makes sense.

    Sharon

  20. Correneon 26 Jul 2007 at 8:02 pm

    I think a few people may have missed the point about becoming more self-sufficient. It’s like they’re confusing economics with everyday life.

    I was just thinking this morning that I pretty much HAVE to learn how to do fix-it things. I have a list as long as my arm of little projects I’d like to do, most of which would help with reducing impact (setting up rainbarrels, fixing the toilet, taking out the broken garburetor, hanging the clothesline I bought 2 months ago, building more raised garden boxes, etc.) Every single one of these tasks seems overwhelmingly difficult to me.

    I have a husband who is perfectly capable of doing this stuff, but he isn’t disposed to doing any of it. Truly, he would prefer to do laundry and vacuum than ANY outdoor chore.

    Of course, I could possibly ask my father-in-law or my neighbour to do some of these things, but really, what could I offer these people in return? Baking? Babysitting service? They would just be doing me a favour.

    So, if it’s going to be, it is up to me.

  21. Danielon 28 Jul 2007 at 7:30 am

    Hi, Sharon,

    I just discovered your blog upon reading your fascinating population transition article (which I promptly sent to a whole bunch of friends). Then I read this. I know a couple more friends will be reading you now.

    I think it indisputable that comparative advantage, combined with mechanization/automation, has produced a vastly better quality of life for workers with the requisite purchasing power. Peasants used to own one set of clothes, workers in the last century one for work and one for church. Now look.

    Does that mean that Heinlein isn’t correct about the value of knowing how to do more than one thing? Not at all. Having a skill doesn’t mean having to use it to displace (inefficiently) the (more efficient) labor of others, but it does provide a hedge or insurance policy against the moments or times when the other person or her products are not available. That is good for peace of mind, and excellent for the occasional conduct of operations too small for a better-qualified professional to undertake, even if the economy doesn’t go way south.

    I’m like Bentnail, so I have a prejudice towards jackofalltradesism, but I think it also indisputable that it can be more efficient to use one’s own assorted skills (or hire a jack of all trades), providing that your quality requirements are not extreme. In any home, for instance, there are typically dozens of small fixes needing doing that don’t get done because a specialist’s travel will cost more than his labor on the job, shooting the aggregate cost of the many professionals into the stratosphere. Being able to do most tasks “well enough”, however, is, well, good enough, and usually better than doing nothing at all.

    Per the question from Anonymous about a book that teaches these things: It may not do any good. I learned as a child by doing. I took apart I don’t know how many clocks before I was five or six (and never got any of them working again!), and learned how things worked by doing them, trial and error. Only later, as I transitioned to verbal forms of learning, did I begin to read how-to books. Now I have scads of books on all the skills that I might need for some project some time, because I recognize that it is an efficient way to learn something without repeating mistakes. But without the basic knowledge of materials and mechanisms, and the confidence to apply it, the books would be considerably less useful. For instance, most of my friends who are not so mechanically inclined as I also know how to read, but they would draw a blank when reading my books. “What does this drawing mean?” “What’s a file?” “How do I hold this part?”, etc. etc. The background just isn’t there, and it takes time to get it.

    I would advise Anonymous to give her kids things to play with and take apart, find an adept adult with whom they can “work” and who can guide them in the use of tools and provide tips and tricks — and keep the books for herself, so she can instruct as best she can. (That said, the How Things Work books are great for illustrating things that can’t be found in a home.)

    My own daughter, now 8, is convinced I can fix anything. A younger child whose parents are divorcing once called and left a message on my answering machine: “Dan, please invent a wishing machine….” Makes me tear up a bit just to remember it. (I did, by the way.) What I do with their interest is show them how I do it, so even if they don’t take up my penchant for fixing things they’ll at least have an improved sense of their own abilities to try, and later in life not feel as helpless as my smart but clueless friends.

    Dan

  22. Susan Ochon 31 Jul 2007 at 2:23 pm

    One of the best ways to learn a variety of skills is to do the old-fashioned thing and become a 4-H leader.

    4-H is typically run by the extension office of your land-grant university. They will have simple curriculums for sewing, beginning with goats, etc, as well as things you wouldn’t expect (bicycle safety, raising llamas, cats, dog agility training, and model rocketry are all popular right now.)

    They often can pair you with an elder who has the subject knowledge that you need. You could do a 4-H group with just your own kids, but every community has kids who are in need of hands-on learning and caring adults, so it’s nice to bring a few along.

    I learned sewing and cooking in 4-H. I also got “dragged along” to a six week class on household electricity when I was about 12; that knowledge is still used regularly all these years later.

    Twelve years ago I volunteered to lead the 4-H Chess Club at our school because nobody else was stepping up. I didn’t know very much about chess, but have learned plenty over the years. 4-H has introduced me to a whole community of interesting people that I can call upon when I have need of practical advice.

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