On Being Handy

kids dig hole and bury selves in sand
Early Handiwork, circa 1972

No Assembly Required: three little words I long to hear. Call me many things, but handy does not come to mind.

Artsy, quirky, eclectic (eccentric?), and kind of out there–I have many signature traits. But building a cabinet or tiling the bathroom or fixing a fixture that needs a little this or that has never really been in my toolbox. Accordingly, I tend to glorify the manual trades and all manner of tradespeople who assemble the the workaday world.

I remember this disproportionate feeling of accomplishment as I fastened the final screw onto a standing cabinet door from Home Depot. As I stepped back to admire my handiwork, I glanced over at the photo in the manual. Huh. My door looked a little different. Was it upside down? Or inside out? It seemed I’d assembled a sort of mirror image of the intended cabinet, a fun-house version of the shiny display.  Sigh.

A boyfriend of mine was a closet artist, precise and skilled with blueprints and tools. He had visions of becoming an architect, but he couldn’t sit still. He was always in motion, a hands-on type:  builder of beds, sheds, and walls, physical or otherwise. As a carpenter, J was intermittently employed and often surly; he was a good carpenter, a natural with tools and mechanics, but his pessimism chipped away at job satisfaction. When a dear friend of mine offered an earnest, almost child-like compliment–sincerity was her signature trait–J was taken aback.

“You’re a carpenter?” said my friend, a massage therapist and talented aesthetician.”That’s amazing. You are an artist, J. You beautify the world!”

Normally prone to scoffing, J  was visibly pleased.  “Wow, thanks,” he said, shifting in his seat. “Never thought of it that way.”

They say what irritates in others reflects something irritating about ourselves. Hmm. They also say that qualities we admire in others reflect what we wish to cultivate ourselves. To the latter, my personal life has included several chefs, a musician or two, and a handful or architects/ architects-in-training; it’s like my artsy seeks some handy.

Time and again, I’ve tried to cultivate more manual skills.  I was a stubborn child (still am) and often shrugged off needed help because I wanted to figure it out on my own. “Do myself” was a common refrain throughout childhood; I skipped the object pronoun it, apparently, favoring an outburst: “do myself !” No matter the task or my lack of expertise, I wanted to figure it out on my own.

Scraping varnish from boat
Scraping aboard Gypsie 2012

I was about seven years old when my more conservative grandma, Rose, from New Rochelle, New York, shook her head and tsk tsk’d me as she often did when faced with my strange, unabashed declarations.  I had just done the dishes for the first time and I felt totally accomplished when the dishwasher was filled, the last pot was hand-scrubbed, and the sink was shiny and empty. “I’m going to do the dishes every night!” I declared. Grandma Rose shot me an alarming look: “Jamie, don’t say that!  You might not always feel that way. Then where will you be?”

“Harumph” was my response, or whatever passed as ‘hogwash’ in 1977.  Whatever, Grandma Rose! I always remember that conversation because, sure enough, my fascination with doing dishes wore off. And yet, that feeling of really getting it done stuck with me.

In my early 20s, the ‘do myself’ mantra led to “Jamie’s Home Garage.”

I’d just finished college and was home for the summer, feeling capable, empowered, and ready for car maintenance. First up? Change my headlight. I confirmed the bulb for the model/shape/ specs on my Toyota Tercel. then successfully dismantled the defunct orb and implanted the new one.  Everything fastened back into place, my lamp was ready to roll.  I couldn’t wait for twilight.

I took a test drive around my mom’s apartment complex, right around sunset. Things looked pretty good! As the sky grew dark, however, I was flummoxed by a haphazard slant of light. It wasn’t the street lights, and it wasn’t a satellite. I pulled over to investigate.

Turns out, my new headlight was a little crooked. If this were a concert, it’d be criss-crossing the audience for that lucky fan making her way to the stage.  (OK, not that crooked, but my prolonged efforts found me waxing dramatic.) Annoyed, and then amused, I pondered whether to retackle the project. The headlight worked, I determined, plus the other one was straight. Good enough. Besides, slightly crooked seemed to suit me.

Humbled, but not yet defeated, I proceeded to change the oil. This gave me a huge sense of satisfaction, actually: here was something I’d been paying someone else to do every three months, give or take 3,000 miles. Now, I could do it myself! And I didn’t at all mind getting dirty, surely another sign of my increasing handiness.

Quite pleased with myself, I glanced over at the old oil. Maybe because I was new to the oil-changing game, but the whole ‘how to dispose of engine oil’  thing threw a wrench into my manual laboress fantasies. After driving around to find someone to pay to  get rid of the gloop trying to get rid of the gloop, I may or may not have understood the temptation to throw fast food containers and/or large appliances out one’s car window.

The novelty of ‘Jamie’s Home Garage’ had worn  off. In the scheme of things, I decided, throwing down $40-odd bucks for a quarterly oil seemed a doable part of adulting.

And yet, 25 years later, I still remember that little thrill of figuring this stuff out, despite the  hiccups. That ‘do myself’ feeling feels good when it comes to manual tasks.

Cleaning my house, like really cleaning it, always feels like a coup.  Moving out of rental properties over the years, I developed an unbeknownst-to-me talent for scrubbing forgotten corners. And by forgotten, I mean places the property manager never thought to notice/clean in the first place. “I crank up Concrete Blonde and crawl into the cupboards,” said an old friend, on tackling a nitty gritty house cleaning.  Music is key.

The apartments I’ve vacated have always been cleaner than when I moved in. And yet, a couple times a year, I’ll happily pay someone else to spend a few hours on the apartment. I prefer to save my talents for move-out.

Leaving no doorframe uncleaned as showed me another budding talent: elbow grease.

I was a construction worker once, for about a week; a ‘paver layer,’ the guys clarified, a distinction I of course wore with pride. It was 1997 during off-season in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and I needed some more work.  The boss picked me up at 6:30 a.m. sharp Monday morning and we drove to the site. The guys didn’t flinch. They nodded hello, then walked me over to a patch of ground; apparently, I would be building a sauna floor. I was left with a pile of stones, some grout, and a loose idea of how they went together. About an hour later, one of the guys leaned over my backpack to turn up the classic rock station, which was fine by me: Bad Company and Carhartts definitely go together.

Batman of Pelican
Batman or Pelican

I was the only girl on the site that week–likely ever–but instead of being mocked, flirted with, or simply dismissed, I became a curiosity. And by lunchtime on Wednesday, I became a sounding board.  The guys started telling me about their home lives—tentatively at first, and then, robustly, asking my advice on “women” issues and father-daughter dilemmas.  By Thursday morning, I was Dear Abby.  Whenever I had an opinion on that morning’s spat with a girlfriend, or what the wife might like for her birthday (last year’s crock pot didn’t go over too well), the guys would turned the music down and cut the power tools for a minute.  I was pretty proud of my grout-laying skills, and whether or not they were pleased, my co-workers humored me.  I got a big cheer when that final paver was laid.

And then, after a full week of stones, advice and early, early mornings, I decided I didn’t want to pursue paver laying. Like Grandma Rose cautioned, the novelty had worn off.

But I still love classic rock, especially Bad Company, and I wear my Carharrts when I rock climb.

My friend Holly gave me a pep talk before I left for Wilmington, North Carolina, to pursue a masters in creative writing.  At age 42, I was apprehensive about leaving my longterm life in Aspen, Colorado for the wilds of coastal North Carolina, where I knew no one. “You have no idea what’s going to happen,” Holly said. “None. That’s exciting!”

Holly was right. I had no idea I’d walk into a bar and meet a boat captain and his wife over $2 PBRs (I might have expected the beer part), then find myself prying decaying teak with a drill bit and a rubber hammer. And loving the effort of it all.

Those first friends were/still are a magical, family who’d fallen in love at sea, and they’d recently inherited Gypsie, the 57-foot Ketch Irwin they’d sailed on. After ‘picking me up at a bar on their date night,’ we joked, the Bells–and their three small children–became my adopted family.

“Hey, you look pretty strong,” Tracy said. “You should come work on our boat!”

It was the best job offer ever. I was lonely and out of sorts, and needed to sink myself into something concrete. Soon, Gypsie became my best friend.

Working on Gypsie involved a variety of unskilled yet tenacious labor–my specialty–including pulling her leaking deck and scraping varnish off her hull.

I was strong, and I didn’t mind getting grimy and hot–a quick jump in the marina, though not pristine, temporarily cut the humidity. I took to sleeping on Gypsie, my new BFF (Best Floating Friend). I’d work all afternoon, then head below deck to write, read, and ponder my new reality. Insert cocktails on deck, sunsets over the Intracoastal Waterway, and manual labor selfies. I loved it.

I became a fixture around the marina, coming and going enough that I felt like a floating caretaker. Soon, the marina residents nicknamed me Gypsy.

“I never would’ve thought you  worked in an office all day,” said M, of my former life. M lived on the boat next to ‘Gypsie, and the residents called him Bob Dylan, aka the crazy-haired-era Dylan.  “I mean, you just look like a complete and total hippie.”

I laughed. “You know, I fancy myself a bohemian more than a hippie,” I replied. “But I see your point.”

I was taking a break from the heat and the drill bit to chat and watch pelicans. It’s never really a break though, just life on the water: when your office is a boat, looking around the world is part of the workday. I’d greet whomever walked by, grunting over my task and eager to share any meager progress– how I’d managed to free an especially rotted slat; how stubborn a row of rusted screws got after decades of salt, storms and beating sun. Small talk becomes big talk when dolphins surface starboard, and there’s no bad time for a beer.

Music playing, I found a way to hammer without tweaking my wrist, crouch without hurting my back, and straddle the deck so my toes or ankles didn’t get caught in the crossfire.

I thought of J the carpenter, how he smelled like lumber and left his work boots and lunch cooler outside the front door. I admired his handiness and loved the sight of his boots outside the door, but when he came home from work, he never had  much to say.

He was probably just tired, I realized, after a long hot day on deck; or maybe he’d processed his thoughts out on the job. Because working your body lets your mind stretch out. I know I found some clarity out there.

These days, my manual obsession lives on the kitchen counter.

My mom loved buying coffee beans whole, a thing I had never done. I’m a total coffee snob and appreciate whatever it takes to perfect that art form, but I never had a coffee grinder hence always bought ground. Recently, this changed.

manual coffee grinder
Handy Caffeine, 2020

As though trying to manifest a ramped-up coffee game, I bought a bag of whole beans before I had a grinder. The beans sat on the counter for a couple weeks, like a to-do list item I kept moving back. Pandemic shopping had cramped my style, as in I didn’t do much of it, and I never knew what was open. I started at Wal-Mart, a place I go about once a year. Of all the gadgets on the blender/coffee-maker/brewed contraption aisle, I couldn’t find a coffee grinder. “Should be right here!” said the sincerely helpful clerk, also searching for the mystery machine. “Says we have one left!”

I tried another box store, but same result. Household goods were rarer these days, I knew; had coffee grinders gone the way of toilet paper?

I called the coffee-tea store in downtown Wilmington, and yes, they were open. Excited to cross this off my list, I asked the clerk about coffee grinders. “We have one, I believe. It’s the manual kind. ”

Manual coffee grinder? That’s a thing? I pictured Keebler Elves or Santa’s Workshop, industrious creatures just chiseling away at those coffee beans because magical places have electric outlets. It looked the part, a little wooden box with a metal handle and a miniature drawer with cute knob that apparently caught the grinds. I was skeptical–did it work? Did it work in less than an hour? The clerk didn’t know anything about the model. “People seem to like it?” she offered. I called another coffee snob friend of mine, who’s incredibly handy, by the way, thinking she’d have some insight.  “My roommate has a manual grinder,” she told me, “and she really likes it. She says it’s meditative.”

Confirming their refund policy, I decided to give it a go. I really wanted to tackle those beans, and all the coffee grinders in Wilmington were sold out.

This little contraption makes me so happy. I’m not cracking the beans by hand, no, and someone else built the machine, but the hands-on effort of turning that handle till I feel some resistance makes me feel like I’m foraging for my own coffee. I love opening the miniature drawer to find it filled with grinds. Turning the handle takes a bit of grit–I sometimes get a forearm pump! It’s like I’m splitting my own beans, or whittling for caffeine… after emptying three drawers full of labor into the press pot (I have to push that handle down, too)  I feel like I’ve earned that cup of coffee.

* * *

My fascination with boats continues, as does my admiration for working with one’s hands–however simple the mechanism. And despite the sagacity of Grandma Rose’s caution, I’m still prone to bold proclamations.

Dinghy in Deshaies, Guadeloupe
Dinghy off into the sunset, Guadeloupe-West Indies, 2015


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Katherine Arnott-Maheu says:

    This is LOVELY. I’d love to read more of what goes on inside your head. I see so many parallels…to life!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Why thank you!!! How nice that you read and truly enjoyed. Means a lot. Thanks for writing!


  2. Ken says:

    Love it. And love the boat-repair bit especially as a few of my friends are boatyard rats too. You make it sound “meditative” though, which I guess it is – just like that coffee grinder 🙂


    1. Oh yes, the coffee grinder is the best. When I’m feeling lazy though, I go ground 🙂


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