COLUMN: "Do It Yourself"

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. A version of this piece was featured on yesterday’s episode of “Between You and Me” on 91.7 KAXE, which is taking part in its “Do It Yourself”-themed fall fundraiser. Join today!

Do it yourself
By Aaron J. Brown

We live in a “Do It Yourself” nation, supposedly. If you ever get tired of working on your house you can crack open a Keystone Light, eat some pretzels and watch fancy folks from geographically indistinct suburbs fix their house on one of a thousand cable home improvement networks. Sometimes these shows are focused on redecoration, where a designer with a one-word name like “Fantanta” turns a house that looks like your house into a house that is owned by someone much, much fancier. Other times these shows simply document a young couple attempting to buy a home – usually in places where starter properties sell for a half million dollars. For the prices these people pay for a middle class house they could buy a whole city block in most towns on the Iron Range. And also a spec building for manufacturing rubber goods. And you’re welcome!

At one time these shows were on all the time in my house, but not so much since our twin boys were born. Now we avoid these programs because we do enough chores that we don’t need to watch people do additional chores on the teevee.

As a couple, my wife and I have a checkered home improvement past. During the construction of a roof rake in 2002 we encountered a major marital crossroads. We learned that our respective temperaments limit our team jobs to painting and child care. Anything else must be done by me or her alone.

Certain tasks are worth doing yourself. Mowing lawn is my favorite. The task takes some time, especially out in the country, but the lawn machinery is simple enough for a panda bear to operate and the end result smells and looks fresh. But when my septic tank needs pumping I’m willing to pay.

Frankly, that’s the problem with being a guy like me in northern Minnesota. It’s not like I don’t know what hard work and MacGyver-like ingenuity are. I was raised in an environment where my dad rigged a fix for a cracked axle on the family station wagon and then drove us home on his rusty handiwork, all the time saying that if the axle broke we would die. I get the implications. But I always liked writing and media stuff, see. I went to college, see. And I don’t know what I’m doing insofar as cars, engines, machines, appliance repair or electrical wiring is concerned. I could learn, but doing so would distract me from updating my blog.

I know lots of people who swear by the do-it-yourself lifestyle. Many of these people have construction skills and hand-eye coordination, two things I lack. Still, my philosophy is this: Why spend three days trying to do something yourself when your time, even at minimum wage, is worth more? Also, I like the feeling that my house won’t cave in and my electrical wiring won’t shoot lighting bolts at my family. That’s the kind of security that experienced trades people can provide, well worth the investment.

I suppose if our economy collapsed, if our nation rattled apart in civil unrest, if half our population died from disease while the other half was forced to serve warlords in an endless battle for resources I might do my own sheet rock. May as well not bother, though. Few homes will escape the nightly air raids unscathed and I think Home Depot will be one of the first places looted when the government falls. Really, it’s all highly theoretical.

Maybe I would become a D-I-Yer under other circumstances. Until I’m given a good reason, though, I remain a P-F-I-A-K-I-T-W-D-Ter. Pay For It And Keep It Together With Duct Tape. Our people don’t have our own cable network yet, unless you count ESPN, but that’s fine with us.
Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Contact him or read more at his blog His recent book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” won this year’s Northeastern Minnesota Book Award.


  1. DIY is a somewhat religious experience. Religion tries to teach us how the world works, or shapes our view of the world. When you wire your own house or fix your own axle you gain an intimate understanding of how that piece of your world works and thus have a richer understanding of the world. It may also help you to meet your end but at least it is on your own terms based on your own success or failure.
    As far as economics are concerned most skilled trades demand a rate that is usually at least double my upper-middle class wage. If I am going to be a northern cheapskate, I might use the 15 minutes between the kids’ bedtime and my collapse to save myself a few bucks over the $75+ an hour a plumber, electrician, or mechanic might charge. In most cases it can take me at least 3 times as long as a professional and still be cost effective, especially considering I may use time that I wouldn’t otherwise be using to make money. Even if I could be making money in that time, it still helps the intellect to focus on different problems, such as the meditative drone of the lawn mower.
    The middle ground could be in the extras. Taking the family truckster to a qualified mechanic is good to get it done right and quick so everyone can get to where they need to tomorrow and safely is a good idea. Tuning up a boat motor where time is not of the essence gives much the same experience without as much of the downside. Just keep a paddle and a cell phone in the boat.

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