Get Your Hands Dirty

Issue No. 6 | March 25, 2022

Friends, Americans, Countrymen:

For a materialist society, we’re strangely alienated from the material. Our educational system neglects useful skills in favor of meaningless credentials. The more detached one’s day-to-day work is from actual things, the higher status the job. New automobiles are laced with unnecessarily complicated computer systems, thwarting the amateur tinkerer and sometimes even highly-trained mechanics. 


In his 2009 book, “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” Matthew B. Crawford reminds us of the quiet self-assurance a man gains from working with his hands: 


“He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, because he has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.”


We didn’t put it so eloquently at the time, but we certainly felt “the infallible judgment of reality” trying to attach the wrong size tire chains to our Honda Odyssey during a blizzard a few years back. So too did we experience (once we could feel our fingers again) a certain faint sense of accomplishment when the task was done.


It’s never too late to do it yourself, even for the least handy and most desk-bound among us. No job is too small that you can’t utterly screw it up, and no eventual triumph over your own atrophied manual dexterity too small to celebrate. Install some shelves. Change your oil. Mount an 80-pound heavy bag from your garage ceiling and learn how to spackle after you create a fist-sized hole in the drywall. It will probably be more frustrating and time consuming than had you called in a pro, but you won’t easily forget what you learn. 


Sometimes being handy is simply a matter of having the right equipment with you. You could do worse than to arm yourself with one of Leatherman‘s fine, pliers-based multi-tools. Founded in 1983 by Tim Leatherman, the Portland, Oregon-based company offers everything from a traditional pocket knife to the ingenious Tread Tempo, a watch with a wristband containing 31 tools. 


If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. True, but better this than trying to hang a picture with your shoe. Hardcore Hammers‘s first product, launched in 2010, was a durable, made-in-the-USA hammer suitable for both framing and finishing work. Since then, they have expanded their line to include hatchets, axes, and tire thumpers, all as beautiful as they are functional. 


“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” said Arthur C. Clarke, which explains why those modern-day shamans known as car mechanics are so adept at making our money disappear. 


The dark arts of automotive repair no longer need remain shrouded in mystery, thanks to Alex Muir’s excellent, comprehensive, and free site How a Car Works. Detailed, well-illustrated tutorials will let you understand just how that belching metal steed transports you to work. And for a small fee, you can access a 20-hour video course in which Muir completely dismantles and then rebuilds a 2001 Mazda MX5 Miata.  


In Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 movie “Straw Dogs,” Dustin Hoffman plays David Sumner, an American academic who moves with his wife to a farm in her small English hometown. Any soft-handed keyboard jockey (this writer included) will recognize the special sort of emasculating helplessness Sumner feels when contracting local workers to do a roof repair that he himself would find impossibly daunting. It doesn’t help matters that one of these particular workers happens to be his wife’s old boyfriend. 


Work slows and resentment builds until violence erupts, forcing the timid and cerebral Sumner into life-or-death physical confrontation.  Controversial when released, “Straw Dogs” still packs a wallop 50 years later. The especially squeamish may wish to ease into it with a viewing of the more family-friendly but no less sadistic “Home Alone,” which took inspiration from Peckinpah’s exquisitely-staged bloodbath.


Some skills, like the ability to change a tire, we master in anticipation of something going wrong. Other skills we discover within us out of sheer desperation. French electrician Emile Leray had probably never planned on piecing together a working motorcycle from the remains of a wrecked car, but the prospect of imminent death can be a powerful inspiration. Driving in the Moroccan desert in 1993, Leray hit a large rock with his Citroën 2CV, destroying the front axle and chassis.  Contending with the blistering sun and his rapidly-diminishing stores of water, Leray spent the next 12 days converting his now useless automobile into a life-saving two-wheeler. He made it out of the desert (but not before getting a ticket for his unorthodox vehicle), and eventually drove his custom-made bike all the way home to France, where it still occupies a place of honor in his garage.  

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