Deliver Help and Hope to Hungry Seniors This Thanksgiving Season. Donate

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."

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.

Join the Discussion

0 | Add Yours

Please leave your comment below.

You must be logged in to leave a comment.

AARP Membership

Discounts & Benefits

    Next Article

    Read This