Sunday, November 21, 2010

I'm DIM: Doing It Myself

I am not what you might call "hands-on." Oh, I'm not one of those super-high-maintenance women, with the high-heeled snow boots and the weekly manicure. I once read a particularly snarky letter to the editor of Homemakers magazine after they featured Mila Mulroney looking chipper and pert on their cover. Imagine how much more money we would all have, the writer groused, if the taxpayers weren't springing for Mila to get her signature bangs trimmed all the freaking time.

That's not me. But neither am I one of those super-crunchy folks who are making their own bike seats out of locally-sourced goat leather and engaging in vermiculture in order to improve the spirit of my garden. I can barely sew, I kill plants by looking at them, and I don't know how to rewire a lamp or help birth a calf. Based on my current skill set, I would that useless, irritating farmgirl - the one who stares wistfully at the horizon and hides in the sweet-smelling hay of the barn, reading, instead of helping out with chores, singing, or carousing with the ruddy-cheeked neighbouring farmboys at the annual barn dance and/or parent-approved snogging festival.

Lately, I feel like there's been an explosion of the DIY culture. You can grow your own food. You can raise your own chickens (although not in the city of Toronto, which apparently has a by-law on the book prohibiting fowl from the downtown core - unless, of course, it's dead and presented on a styrofoam meat tray). You can join a co-op to invest in unpasteurized milk and futures on homegrown beef. Your kids can wear hand-made clothes while you menstruate onto "adorable" feminine products. Call it urban homesteading, the rise of the Etsy generation, or just a simple desire for city-dwellers to connect to where their stuff comes from.

It's interesting to think about it from a class perspective: a lot of my more granola-type pals, the ones who are growing their own food/biking everwhere/making their own beer, are doing it because, um, well: we're broke. I can't afford a metropass; ergo, I use my bicycle. My friends can't afford to buy new, eighty-dollar pants, so they pick up clothes from the Sally Ann. The "free to a good home" barter system that's sprung up on Craigslist in the last decade or so has netted clothes, fitness equipment, pet supplies (and the occasional pet), books, kitchen tools, furniture and more. The library and it's "free! But bring it back or we'll take your money" model of business has given us comics and cookbooks, the likes of which permanently collecting would be financially unfeasible.

And then from the other side, you have folks who purchase their handmade stuff and then behave like it makes them more enlightened. Look, I like Lush soap as much as the next gal, but when I plop down a fiver and receive a product in return, I'm not being special or using magical hippie powers to change the world. All I'm really doing is engaging in what's known as capitalism.

Now, if Etsy, Lush, Grassroots, or the Slingshot collective, or any of the businesses that promote the DIY/environmentally-friendly aesthetic, also accepted the fact that folks often "choose" to DIY not out of earthy lust but because we are poor people, and offered their goods and services on a sliding scale - equitableness is fun! - then I'd believe that their mission statement of being good to the earth and the people who live on it isn't just lip service. I know people gotta make a living, but when my choices are el cheapo No Name laundry detergent that's basically allergenic poison, or expensive retro detergent that won't give my family hives, there really isn't much of a choice.

Personally, I'm not totally useless: my culinary skills, while not particularly diverse (I, like most cooking-for-one types, make the same dishes over and over), manage to deliver consistent tastiness, and I will try new projects in the kitchen; "bloody zombie" cupcakes, anyone? I knit, I bake, I make the occasional collage or art project. I'm capable but not particularly experienced.

I'm wildly interested in things like canning food and brewing my own beer. Part of that interest comes from wanting to save a few pennies down the road - seriously, do you know how expensive fig preserves are?! - and part of it comes from half-seriously wanting to be ready should the end of the world descend upon us (hint: zombies!) Part of it comes from Canada being a nation built on farmers and homesteaders, and to ignore that cultural motif, while embracing fashionable buffalo plaid, seems disingenuous. Part of it comes from the desire to have skills, to be self-supportive, and to know how things work - things like pastry and beer have their own rules.

And part of it is just wanting to get my hands dirty. A lot of things in the DIY movement make your life harder - seriously, baking your own sourdough is a commitment - but in the end, you end up pretty much what you want, made with your own hands.

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