It’s Just What I Do

Growing up on a farm necessitated learning a little bit about a lot of things, but most importantly, learning how to become self-reliant. Farm living is the perfect incubator for hatching the jack of all trades. When you live miles from the nearest store and scrape by on a budget that doesn’t allow for buying expensive replacement parts or paying exorbitant labor charges to professional mechanics you learn to fix what you’ve got with whatever you have on hand. You do it not because you want to but because you have to.

Many people who visit an old farmstead will notice a lot of “junk” lying around. But junk is in the eye of the beholder, for the seasoned old farmer knows that “junk” represents a gold mine of spare parts. With a welder and a cutting torch, just about any old rusted piece of machinery can be repurposed into something useful. “What are you looking for?” I once asked my dad as he scrounged through his scrap pile searching for a something, anything, to help him repair whatever piece of equipment had broken at the time. “Not sure,” he replied, “but I’ll know it when I see it.” The lesson? Never throw away anything that might still be useful.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been working on a vehicle and had someone ask me, “Are you a mechanic?” Well, technically, no. I’ve never earned a paycheck by turning wrenches, but I’ve been turning wrenches literally since I could walk. One of my earliest scars came from a four-way lug wrench and a stubborn Jeep lug nut when I was just a tiny tot. I’m not a mechanic, but I know a thing or two about cars. I rebuilt my 1974 Jeep CJ5 from the ground up. There’s literally not a single bolt on it that I haven’t touched.

I’ve also butchered and prepared my own meat. Goat, beef, deer, elk, bison, rabbit, squirrel, pheasant, quail, chicken and probably a few others I’ve overlooked. “Are you a butcher?” they ask. Well, technically no, I’ve never earned a paycheck with a butcher knife, but my dad has, and I learned a lot about animal anatomy from watching him turn steers into T-bones. Transforming a living beast into food is not magic, it’s a methodical and scientific process, and anyone who eats meat should try it sometime to gain an appreciation for its source.

Repeat this “Are you a…?” question and answer process with any number of skills, from rifle marksmanship, archery, carpentry, electrical wiring, plumbing, welding, painting, cement work, logging, woodworking, gardening, heavy equipment operating to farming and ranching, etc. I’ve never earned my living by doing any of those trades professionally, but I know something about all of them and can muddle my way through each of them with varying degrees of expertise.

People often ask, “How did you learn how to do that?” while watching me perform some task of skilled manual labor, to which I sometimes struggle to reply. I’ve never taken a specialized course in any of those things, they’ve all been self-taught or learned from watching my dad or someone else do them. Some things I learned from watching YouTube videos or reading books. Other things simply by trial and error. I pity people who are so fearful of failure that they never attempt to learn a new skill. If you don’t make mistakes you’re not trying hard enough, and if you don’t even try at all, then shame on you.

I’m not passing judgement on anyone who doesn’t know how to do any of those things. Being a jack of all trades doesn’t make someone more or less worthy, and certainly has nothing to do with “manliness.” Though these things are traditionally associated with masculinity, there’s absolutely no reason they should be. There are plenty of female jacks of all trades, and we should encourage more women to embrace the do-it-yourself lifestyle and discourage clichés about skilled trades being manly.

I also embrace plenty of skills and interests that aren’t traditionally associated with masculinity. I read. I write poetry and prose. I like to cook. I draw and sketch. I love music and film and all things artsy. No, I’ve never had formal training in any of these things, either, but I tackle learning them with the same determination and curiosity that I applied to learning metal-work or automobile mechanics.  I cook with the same trial and error method I apply to everything else. No recipes needed, just go with the flow. Sometimes it works out great, but if it doesn’t, oh well, lesson learned, try something different next time.

I write with the same approach. I’ve never sat in a workshop and had my work critiqued by a circle of black-clad chain-smoking depressives. From years of voracious reading I know which sentences sound right and which don’t. Write, edit and repeat, simple as that.

I don’t want to veer off into a tangent bemoaning the state of the world and pining for the “good old days.” Being a jack of all trades isn’t generational and shouldn’t be viewed as such. However, our modern culture has become much more attuned to a throw-away lifestyle where broken things are tossed and replaced, rather than repaired, and this does make me sad. Smart phones are very expensive, but too often when their batteries get weak or their screens get cracked, they are replaced rather than repaired, even though replacement parts are cheap and widely available, and the repair process is not complicated.

In Kenya, where I live, it is incredibly difficult to find a good used vehicle that has been properly maintained by its previous owners. Not because spare parts aren’t available, but because 90% of Kenyan car owners either don’t know how or are uninterested in performing basic vehicle maintenance. When something breaks, rather than purchase the appropriate replacement part, many people often skimp by having a “jua kali” mechanic patch it up good enough to get buy. Thus, it’s incredibly common to find used vehicles with fuses that have been dangerously replaced by copper wire, or radiator hoses patched together from pieces repurposed from various vehicles. It’s not at all uncommon to find a car shod with tires of four different brands or even sizes.

Some of this is due to economics. People save just enough to buy a used car, but then have no budget for maintenance, so they make do with deferred or improper maintenance. A little dose of do-it-yourself automotive knowledge would go a long way toward keeping things running just a little longer. Considering that a vehicle is many people’s single greatest asset, caring for it only makes common sense.

Owning a used 20-year old vehicle in Kenya has tested my jack of all trades skills, as I have replaced so many parts that were either improperly repaired, neglected, or patched together from an incorrect source. Replacement parts haven’t been difficult or expensive to obtain, for the most part, so I struggle to understand the mentality of the previous owner who botched so many things so badly. I have done the bulk of the repairs in my own driveway with only a small collection of simple hand tools and basic knowledge.

Someday I’d like to open a jack of all trades school, where curious DIY-ers could come and practice picking up new skills in a safe environment. Consider it a Hogwarts for learning the everyday magic of practical skills. A hands-on lab where experimentation is not only encouraged, it’s mandatory. Want to learn how to re-tile your bathroom floor? Come on over, we’ll do a quick course on tile-setting and grouting. Curious about how to do basic arc-welding? Sign up. I’m no expert welder, but I’d be happy to show you the basics. Oil changes and tire rotations? That’s easy, let’s give it a go.

I just wonder if I build it whether anyone would come?

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