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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"

Q. And they're close personal friends with the chicken who made their breakfast.

A. Exactly!

Q. Do your kids ever report surprise among their friends if they let on that everything in their lunch boxes didn't come from the grocery store?

A. They definitely do. My kids' friends come over to check out the chickens, and they're surprised to discover that chickens lay eggs at all. Then they're amazed to find out that the eggs are edible. When we'd give their friends eggs to take home, instead of eating them like we thought they would, they built little playhouses for them, or dressed them up, or decorated them. Our eggs are special because they're not from the grocery store.

Q. Throughout the book you introduce master DIYers. You call them "alpha makers." You say that "their secret isn't so much what they have as what they don't have: a fear of failure."

A. Fear of failure held me back from being a DIYer for many years, especially after a few early attempts at home improvement projects went awry. We're trained in school to equate mistakes with bad grades — something to be avoided at all costs. The alpha makers were somehow able to dodge that. They think that mistakes are just part of the creative process, and maybe even the best way to learn. Coming up with a way to fix mistakes challenges your creativity and your critical thinking skills and your resourcefulness. Often you end up with something better than what you planned on in the first place.

Q. You're generous about giving credit to people who helped you learn to do things. Do you think, though, that one of the things that puts people off from getting involved in DIY projects is that there are some pompous jerks who use their expertise to put other people down, rather than help lift them up?

A. I have not often come into contact with that kind of person. Take making cigar-box guitars, for example. The premier website for cigar-box guitar makers has about 3,000 people on there, and they post photos of their builds. They're so open and kind and generous with their time. One of the things that I liked so much about the DIY movement — I haven't done any scientific studies on this — but I think there are fewer jerks in the DIY community than in the public at large.

Q. When you write about killing your lawn as a prelude to turning your suburban plot into a farming operation, you pretty much out yourself as a bad student. You took a class in how to get rid of grass, and then you whiffed almost all the details of the instructions.

A. I didn't properly prepare to do the lawn killing, and it did take longer. But in the end it did still work. If I had really paid attention, I might have been turned off by all the planning and preparation, and I would never have gotten started in the first place. I'm a dive-right-in-and-see-what-happens kind of person, and I end up getting results that eventually work out for me. That's probably why the book has so many mistakes, because my method is filled with a lot of trial and error.

Q. Do you think that consumer advocates and product reviewers — like Consumer Reports , for instance — should include maker-friendliness as part of their evaluation criteria?

A. That would be fantastic. So many products now have stickers on them that say, "No User-Serviceable Parts Inside." And they're almost impossible to open, because they're glued together instead of screwed. So they're mystery devices, and when they break, there's nothing to do but throw them away.

Q. If more people start advocating for accessible, "maker-friendly" design, we'll get more products that make "reuse, recycle" a truly practical option.

A. And it's an advantage for companies that produce maker-friendly products, too. Take the espresso machine. The industry has been around for over a hundred years, but nobody thought to build in a water temperature control system. Around the year 2000, a group of hackers installed these special proportional integral derivative temperature control systems on their machines, and posted online how they did it. It took off like wildfire among espresso geeks. A couple of years later, manufacturers started incorporating that technology into their machines. If more products were designed to be open to user innovation, companies would benefit. The user base becomes a research and development team. Everybody wins.

Q. Your dad was trained as an electrical engineer and did all kinds of practical things when you were growing up, but you didn't really pay much attention, then. But you turned to him for help with making an automatic door for your backyard chicken coup. How did he react?

A. He definitely increased the amount of time he was willing to spend showing me things. It made him happy. We're all happier when the people we care about take an interest in what we're doing.

Lynne Warren lives in Maryland.

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