When I was in financial sales, my mentor was a man named Jerry.

Jerry was a dapper man, always in a sports coat and slacks. His shoes were immaculate and shiny. He went through the carwash every time he filled his gas tank. His image and appearance were very important to Jerry.

We would have lunch every Friday, and on one particular Friday, he said he had to go to his mechanics when he left the restaurant because he had an appointment to get new windshield wipers put on his car.

I told him that was ridiculous – that he shouldn’t spend money on something like that, because it would be so easy to just do it himself.

“Hugh,” he said. “You don’t understand. I want to always make enough money that I never have to do it myself. It’s not just that I don’t know how to do it myself – but that I never want to know how to do it myself.“

That would bother me to no end. There is no way I would drive somewhere and then pay someone to do something I could do myself in literally 5 minutes without getting dirty or even inconvenienced.

But if there are two kinds of people when it comes to Doing-It-Yourself, Jerry was one kind of person, and I am the other.

It’s not even that I particularly enjoy putting on windshield wipers. I just can’t imagine paying someone else to do it. I can’t even imagine asking someone else to do it.

A few years ago, it was late on a Saturday and I was outside, measuring the spot for the new potting bench when I realized the faucet on the patio was leaking. Not a huge leak, but a pinhole of spray.

At first, I just thought the hose was loose, but then saw it was coming from behind the faucet. I got out my monkey wrench and when I turned the faucet to tighten it, the pipe broke off under the house. It was a 70-year-old galvanized pipe, and it had finally rusted through.

At the time I didn’t know where the water cut-off for the house was. Since it was gushing all over the patio and not in the house, I decided to let it spray while I figured out how to fix it.

I crawled under the house with a flashlight and saw the broken pipe was 1/2 inch galvanized pipe and what I needed was most likely a 10-inch nipple. Then I went to Home Depot – water still spraying all over the patio.

30 minutes later, I have a new faucet, a 12-inch nipple (just to be safe), and some plumbers tape, because while I own at least 10 rolls of plumber’s tape, I can never find it when I need it.

I crawl back under the house, holding a flashlight in my mouth, and disconnect the nipple, causing water to no longer spray all over the patio, but now to gush under the house and all over me.

It was then that I noticed the corner where the pipe is had, in the past, been some raccoon’s litter box, as now raccoon turds are floating in the water that is rising all around me.


I get the old pipe loose, and when I knock it out, loose mortar in the brick wall falls into the hole through the wall, keeping me from putting the new nipple in. Back out from under the house I go.

Back on the patio, I take a hammer and the old nipple and bust the offending mortar lose, and then crawl back into the raccoon-turd-filled swimming pool that is my crawlspace. This time I wrap the nipple with plumber’s tape, slide it through the wall, and with my monkey wrench, get it installed and tight. Water is no longer gushing under the house – it is now back to gushing all over the patio.

Then I crawl out of the raccoon septic tank, drenched to the bone and trying hard not to think about what germs are all over me, and then wrap the nipple that is jutting 2 and a half inches proud of the foundation wall (it turns out it WAS a 10-inch nipple after all, but I figured it was better to be proud than to be short) with pipe tape, and then put on the faucet, with water spraying everywhere, including all over me. Then it’s finished, and I turn off the faucet and everything is mercifully quiet again, except for the water dripping off everything, including me.

Elapsed time: 1 hour and 15 minutes. I paid less than $15 in materials. It was on a Saturday night, so it would have been an emergency plumber call at $175 an hour if I had been able to get one at all. 

I had never replaced a faucet before that day. I had a vague idea of how the plumbing works, and maybe $30 worth of tools. The biggest thing I had going for me was being willing to do it. Or, put another way, I had an orientation or a bent toward doing it myself. I honestly never considered calling a plumber.

On some days – like that one – it saves me a lot of money to do things myself. But sometimes, it really doesn’t.

Like right now, I’m in the middle of changing platforms for one of the newsletters I publish each week. I am not a coder. Or a programmer. I’m just a slightly above-average user of this sort of technology.

When I began blogging back in 2003, I taught myself HTML. And then rudimentary CSS, and learned how to do some basic work with databases and then PHP. Not because I really wanted to know how to do it, but because I couldn’t imagine having to ask someone else to change a picture for me on a website, or to tweak the font or increase the padding on an image. I couldn’t imagine asking for that sort of help even if I could have afforded it.

And along the way, I learned how to do lots of stuff, and for sure saved a lot of money.

But, as I said, right now I’m changing platforms. And the new CMS I’m using is one I’ve never used before. Like, it works entirely different than any CMS I had used before. But, I said, I can learn how to do this!

I then spent some 30 hours trying to figure out how to do it. I have been tied up for over a month – off and on – trying to work out a solution that was within my technical abilities. Have watched a dozen tutorials.

Yesterday I broke down and just paid someone to do it for me. They charged me $95, and now it’s done.

It frustrates me beyond belief that should it break, or I do something wrong and somehow screw up a setting, I will not be able to fix it, and will have to pay someone else to do it. I feel stupid because I couldn’t do it because I have all the tools to do it – just not the knowledge.

But sometimes, it just makes sense to pay someone else. It is hardly the best use of my time to learn a whole new type of niche tech that only does this one sort of thing that literally nobody else I know will ever use. That is very different from learning how, say, WordPress works, which powers ⅓ of the public websites on the internet.

It still bothered me more to spend that $95 than I care to admit. But that’s just the sort of person I am, I guess.

My workshop

On the 12th day, I’m grateful for my workshop.

When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time with my dad’s Aunt, Louise. Her husband, Lonnie, had died right before I was born, and so he was someone whose shadow loomed large in my childhood, but who I never met.

Uncle Lonnie was Louise’s second husband (y’all gonna make me devote a whole one of these to her before I’m done), after she divorced the drunk sign painter. Lonnie worked for Ford Motor company as a machinist, and had a good union job with benefits, but the thing that made him remarkable was that he was also a mechanical genius.

I don’t say that lightly – there were cars in the 60’s that rolled off Ford’s assembly line due to his patents (well, that Ford owned, that whole work for hire thing, you know). He wired the houses of pretty much everyone I knew growing up. He could plumb, do electrical, weld, build with brick, concrete or wood – he could do it all.

He had a workshop behind their house – a small 10×16 or so shed he had built, with his tools lined up above his workbench, a drill press and a lathe on the other side. And Aunt Louise told me that when he got home, he would eat supper, and then he would go out to his shop and work.

As a ten-year-old boy, I would go out to his shop when I would stay over at her house. It was dusty, having not been used since he died. The tools were gone, but the racks were still there, and so was his workbench. The lights he had wired still worked, and the fixtures he manufactured out of pickle jars still did what he had intended. It was a magical place. I would sometimes just sit there on a milk crate, soaking it in. I have, as an adult, been in gothic cathedrals and felt some of the same feeling, like I was in the presence of some higher intelligence just out of my reach.

Uncle Lonnie was the dominant man in my dad’s life after my grandfather died when Dad was 7.

My dad was a tinkerer – an inch thick but a mile wide when it came to skills. He could rebuild your engine, wire your house, fix your radio, cut down your tree, repair your air conditioner, weld a trailer, build a house. He wasn’t amazing at any of that, but he could do them all, and perhaps most importantly, he wasn’t afraid to try something he hadn’t done before.

He told me once that it had all started when he was 8 or so – his father had passed away the year before, and his mom was working at the grocery store on the corner for a dollar an hour – money was hard to come by, and there was none for frivolities. A lady at the church had a bike her daughter no longer used, and was going to throw it out – Dad took it and he and Lonnie rebuilt it.

“It was a girl’s bike, and it was in bad shape when I got it. But I didn’t have anything to lose, so I figured out how it worked, and then I asked him for help, and we fixed it. It was having that bike or have no bike, so I was motivated,” he told me once.

But Dad never had a workshop when I lived at home. We lived in a 1,000 sf home, the five of us, and there wasn’t room for things like that. And there wasn’t any money for things like that, either.

So, his projects would live on the kitchen table, or on the porch, or on the tailgate of his truck as an impromptu workbench. But he really wanted a workshop.

A few years before he died, he finally built one. He knew retirement was coming up, and he planned endlessly for what life was going to be like after he retired. He would build furniture, he would do blacksmithing – he had hundreds of pictures of pieces of furniture he saw out in the wild that he wanted to capture because he liked the way it was shaped, or fastened or was built.

But the shop just filled up with things  – projects he intended to work on in retirement – tools he got on clearance he would need in retirement – bargains on materials he would need in retirement.

My Dad was supposed to retire in June, but then the pandemic hit and he didn’t feel he could ethically leave his job as Emergency Management Director for his county at such a bad time. He died in October, from COVID.

He never got to retire, never got to build things in his shop, never got to while away an afternoon there, never got to actually use it, in any real sense of the word. His shop is nice, and a lot of thought went into it, but it doesn’t feel like anything to be in it, because he didn’t get to really make it his. It’s just a building he built.

After Dad died, I inherited some of his tools. Like Dad, I have always wanted a workshop. I always have projects going, and tools scattered everywhere and…

Then we bought a house. And a pandemic hit. And my Dad died having never used the workshop he longed for and looked forward to.

So this spring and summer, I built a workshop.

It’s small – 10×16. But I mostly use handtools, and I don’t use it for things that aren’t a workshop (like, this isn’t where the freezer or the bikes go), and so it works for me. I also like to tinker, but mostly I’m a woodcarver and small wood furniture maker, and for that it works perfectly.

In some ways it’s nicer than either Dad’s or Lonnie’s. It’s insulated, and I have a window unit air conditioner in it, and led lights and Wi-Fi and clerestory windows and a small TV and an Alexa for music. I really wish Dad could have seen it.

Mostly, I’m glad I get to use it while I’m still young enough to enjoy it. I’m glad I get to actually use it, get joy from it, and get to have a creative workspace that I don’t have to clean up when we need to set the table, a space that is mine to shape and be shaped by.

It’s not perfect yet, and in some ways is still unfinished. But most evenings after supper, I go out to the shop and work.