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The Author Speaks

Homemade in the U.S.A.

Interview with Mark Frauenfelder, author of "Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World"

Suburban poultry wrangler. Cigar-box guitar builder. Kitchen counter barista. Mark Frauenfelder has discovered that his hands are good for more than tapping a keyboard and clicking a mouse.

A decade ago, he had ridden the dot-com wave to a flourishing career as a tech journalist, writing for magazines like Wired and the now-defunct Industry Standard. He'd even founded his own e-zine, BoingBoing, which has since morphed into one of the Internet's most visited (and profitable) blogs.

But when the wave broke and the freelance assignments ebbed, Frauenfelder and his wife — also a writer — found themselves longing for a different way of living: less about purchasing power and prepackaged "lifestyles," and more about self-sufficiency, with family time, rather than shopping mall time, at the center of daily doings.

After a brief attempt to set up housekeeping on a South Pacific island proved unsustainable, the family returned to Southern California, where Frauenfelder was shortly asked to become editor-in-chief of a new magazine, called Make. Covering a resurgent do-it-yourself (DIY) movement, he encountered a wild array of DIYers — men and women who were growing their own food, fixing their own vehicles, helping educate their own children, and generally using hard-won skills rather than credit cards to take charge of their everyday needs.

Far from anti-tech, Frauenfelder's makers post stories, videos and schematics on the Internet so that like-minded crafters can benefit from their ideas, disasters and triumphs. Paradoxically, digital technology has dramatically flattened analog learning curves for aspiring handy persons. Many of these new-breed DIYers were transformed from Frauenfelder's profile subjects to his real-life friends. Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World is the story of what happened when they inspired him to pick up a few new tools and try building that different way of living in his own backyard.

Between whittling wooden spoons and replenishing his family's yogurt supply, Mark Frauenfelder made time to speak with the AARP Bulletin from his home about how becoming a maker himself has altered his world.

(Read an excerpt from Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World.)

Q. There's plenty in the book about other people who are do-it-yourselfers, but really, this is your story.

A. At first I intended to report on the do-it-yourself movement, but then I "went native" and started getting involved more and more in the stuff I was researching. So I thought, I might as well tell it through my eyes, as I go through the process.

Q. And that let you bring in the experiences of your wife and daughters.

A. People who get interested in the DIY world, and think about trying it themselves, have to realize that other family members are going to be affected. Depending on what you do, it could be in a pretty significant way. That's something I probably wouldn't have thought to ask about if I had stuck with a reported story on the DIYmovement.

Q. A lot of people feel like their fathers used their DIY interests as a way to avoid everybody else in the household, instead of as a way to connect to the family.

A. There is this idea that DIY is just a way for the guy to go hide out in his man-cave, so he doesn't have to interact. Everybody needs some solitude once in a while, but a big part of the project was looking for the right balance, so that you incorporate DIY into your life in a way that's reasonable. I wanted to make my life more fulfilling, but I also wanted to make my family's life more fulfilling by doing this, too. So getting them to participate in, or enjoy the things that I did, was important to me. And that's one of the reasons that I focused a lot on food.

Q. It's communal.

A. Getting the kids to help gives them an understanding of where food comes from, and they have a greater sense of investment in it. They didn't really like to eat eggs as much until we started raising chickens, and now they like them, because they think, "Wow, I've expended effort in producing this food. I should eat it, and enjoy it, too."

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