Not long ago, most everyday problems were solved with little more than one’s wits, a dose of common sense, and one’s own two hands. Virtually any appliance or piece of equipment in a typical home could be serviced with a little mechanical know-how and a basic toolkit. Do-it-yourself guides such as the Time-Life Home Repair and Improvement series provided all the instruction one needed to tackle even more complex electrical, plumbing, and carpentry projects. Of course, the guides left out how much actual time, sweat, and trial-and-error it would really take to get something done.
I was fortunate growing up to have an industrious grandfather who took every opportunity to school me in the ways of the handyman. He gave me my very first set of tools — a ballpeen hammer, flat and Phillips-head screwdrivers, a crescent wrench, socket wrenches, small vise clamps, some metal files, and a saw — all neatly housed in a metal Sears Craftsman toolbox, with plenty of room for additional tools as my skills grew. In our basement workshop, he would teach me the basics of repair, from simple woodworking to soldering, but the most important lesson of all involved no tools. It was how to be resourceful.
When MacGyver first aired on television, it was love at first sight. I devoured every episode with the hope of learning some clever trick or inventive use for an everyday object that might one day get me out of a similar jam, as young boys often imagine. With my parents’ permission, I got my hands on a Swiss Army knife. I didn’t want just any model, not even the one good old MacGyver carried around (apparently, there were several). I chose the biggest, baddest model available at the time, aptly named the SwissChamp. At 3.5 inches thick and boasting 33 tools, it was guaranteed to serve me well for a very long time. About twenty-five years later, it hasn’t let me down, although I still haven’t used every tool on that thing.
My tinkering tendencies have mellowed considerably over the years. The scope of problems I can fix with my own hands has shrunk to what I have the patience and time for, which usually involves common plumbing repairs, light woodworking, and anything that can be mended with superglue. Don’t even ask me about car repair.
Today, I rely most on the modern-day multi-tool: my iPhone. Nearly six years since its debut, the iPhone still amazes me; as a physical object, it does little more than provide a mirror reflection on its screen, but as an electronic device, it houses a telephone, television, radio, computer, address book, notebook, calculator, camera, camcorder, compass, level, flashlight, video game console, and much more. It won’t help me install a new washer and dryer, for instance, but it will help me search for a local appliance dealer, review customer ratings, buy the appliances, call to schedule installation, and set a reminder in my calendar for the appointment. Not that I’m proud of this pinnacle of human achievement, mind you.
The MacGyver instinct never goes away, though. I’ve recently become fascinated with the phenomenon of every day carry, or EDC, which promotes and even glamorizes preparedness for “situations ranging from the mundane to the disastrous” using a compact but high-performance toolkit. Whereas a simple pocket knife may have been more than suitable for daily needs a century or so ago, the modern “carry” typically includes a smartphone, a sturdy folding knife, a multi-tool, a flashlight, a pen, a manly wristwatch, and the occasional handgun. There are even preferred brands and discussion forums dedicated to the subject. I’ll admit that, except for the weapons, many of the items and the level of rigor and design that goes into them are impressive, but I wonder if the coolness factor of survivalist gadgets and shiny metal objects overshadows the spirit of utility and resourcefulness that every day carry embodies.
The ability to rise to the unexpected challenges of everyday life and figure out a solution on the spot, sometimes under pressure and with few resources, is becoming a lost skill. Technology can only carry us so far, but we may eventually find ourselves stranded, over-dependent and helpless to fend for ourselves without it. Real preparedness is more than having all the right tools for every predicament or every imaginable supply in abundant stock to counter existential risks. They mean little without the presence of mind to grasp a situation, determine the right action, and get the job done, however big or small.
How might we re-learn to be more capable, self-sufficient thinkers and problem solvers when we take our modern conveniences for granted? Boy Scout training for grown-ups, perhaps?