Sad Plight of the Unhandy

A few years back, on a visit to Stone Arabia, a tiny hamlet in the Mohawk Valley where I was hoping to buy lumber from some Amish millwrights, I discovered an unusual word. The first Amish guy I heard use it (his name was Jacob or Gideon or Isaac or something like that) was talking about the length of boards he could cut for me. “Seventeen, eighteen feet, no problem,” he said. “Anything over eighteen gets rather unhandy.”


Unhandy. Interesting word, I thought.

But at my next stop (I was looking for a lot of siding so I needed to line up a lot of Amish guys), I heard the same thing practically verbatim. “I can go up to nineteen feet,” Samuel or Emmanuel or Isaiah told me. “Anything over that gets rather unhandy.” And just when I thought it must be an Amish carpenter thing, the word showed up again in a completely different context while I was making small talk with Sarah or Rachel or Rebecca, the woman I’d just bought a quilt from. “Yes, I like the snow too,” she said. “But too much of it is unhandy.” Again with the unhandy. I don’t know if the word’s popularity is an Amish-wide phenomenon (they didn’t make it up, I found it in Websters) but clearly Stone Arabia had embraced it bigtime.

I embraced it too that day, not because I find a lot of use for it in day-to-day conversation, but because it so perfectly describes me.

For all my tools, all my DIY books and timber framing manuals, I am decidedly unhandy. Anything beyond slapping a sloppy coat of paint on window sash or plugging a printer into a computer and I’ve got to pay someone to make a house call. I’m struck with dread whenever the lights flicker or the truck backfires. I’m racked with guilt at the sound of a dripping faucet. Why did I cut all those shop classes back in junior high? I ask myself. Why did I tune my father out that time he tried to show me how to fix a faucet?

Every now and then I’ll have a bout of ambition and try to overcome my unhandiness. I have books! I have hammers and screwdrivers and tape measures and that right-angled metal thing with the numbers on it! I can do this! The last time that happened was when I tried to convert what had been a small kennel into a chicken coop. I began by removing the siding—no sweat, turns out I’m pretty good at demolition. This left the roof balancing on a bunch of 2 x 4’s. And here’s where the trouble began. Installing windows, partitions, and an addition, it turns out, requires some basic knowledge of geometry and—gasp!—fractions, two of the other subjects I’d completely tuned out when my father tried to explain them to me.

Work ground to a halt. The skeleton with the roof on top sat like that for more than a week while I cowered in the house. Then one morning I awoke to find the whole thing mercifully blown over in the night (did you know siding is what gives a balloon frame its rigidity? I didn’t). “Damn, and I was about to start work on that,” I said as I dialed the carpenter. My wife wasn’t fooled though, the intense relief in my voice had been a dead giveaway.

It’s okay though, I’m fine with all of that. Years of therapy and lots of self-help books have taught me none of this is my fault, it’s genetic (turns out “skips a generation” is actually written right there in the DNA). I don’t have the DIY gene, just like I don’t have the dancing gene or the Learn-to-Speak-French gene. I’m never going to replace a set of spark plugs and I’m sure as hell never going to fix that damn faucet. But, thanks to my friends in the Mohawk Valley, at least I’ve taken a healthy first step toward self-acceptance: I’ve given a name to my affliction.

“Hello, my name is Paul Spencer and I’m…unhandy.”

The Wannabe Farmer

You can contact Paul at

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