Better Life

How to Split Wood, Shuck an Oyster and Master Other Simple Pleasures

Exploring all the things left undone, the simple, do-it-yourself pleasures you somehow failed to master.

Once you’ve reached a certain age, you begin to think about all the things left undone, the simple, do-it-yourself pleasures you somehow failed to master. Like shucking oysters. Or splitting wood with a mighty, Bunyanesque axe. Well, you can imagine my delight when I happened to spot a book titled The Kaufmann Mercantile Guide: How to Split Wood, Shuck an Oyster, and Master Other Simple Pleasures. I quickly grabbed it and eagerly started turning the pages.

Okay, so maybe I was going for a cheap chuckle at the book’s expense. Gotta be honest, though: I really believe The Kaufmann Mercantile Guide is not only an ideal how-to guide for many Five O’Clock readers, it’s also an excellent source from which to cull a nifty list of New Year’s resolutions.

First, some background: The pedigree of this book can be traced to a blog created in 2009 by a Los Angeles filmmaker named Sebastian Kaufmann (perhaps you’re familiar) who’d become interested in “how things were made and how they could be maintained or fixed when broken.” Enter Alexandra Redgrave and Jessica Hundley, a pair of freelance editors who were inspired by the blog—“There’s an art to a simple task done well,”— and assembled a team of experts, writers, and illustrators to produce this handsome, user-friendly compendium.

The Guide is divided into five categories: Kitchen, Outdoors, Home, Gardening and Grooming. I found a couple of tasks in each category that I’m pretty certain I can accomplish over the course of 2017—and end up the better man for it. That said, though, there are some so-called simple pleasures in this book that may appeal to you, dear reader, but that I have no intention of pursuing. Ever. Preserve fresh herbs? Ha! Forage for wild edibles, ford a stream? Get real! Make soap, build a birdfeeder, start an urban compost? You gotta be kidding! Plant a vegetable garden? Hmmm, hold on. Rather than go for a mixed patch of lettuce, spinach, eggplant, and whatever, I sparked to the idea of growing some big, juicy tomatoes in the backyard of my Westchester home. While reading the clear and concise instructions, I said to myself, “Hey, I can do that,” and promptly slipped into daydreaming about my very own homegrown tomatoes nestled between slices of creamy mozzarella, bathed in extra virgin olive oil and blessed with a smattering of basil leaves.

I’d also like to try splitting wood. I have two fireplaces: one in my Westchester home and one in my New York apartment. No dice, said my wife Donna, who shudders at the thought of me wielding an axe. She’s convinced I’d do damage to some part of my anatomy. And besides, she noted, on those rare occasions when we do use the fireplaces, those colorfully wrapped Duraflame firelogs burn cleanly and efficiently. She had me there.

Looks like I’ll have to scratch that particular activity, but there are many others to choose from. Like learning how to poach an egg and smoke meat, stock a toolbox and hone your kitchen knives, cold-brew coffee and shake a cocktail. And speaking of cocktails, though friends and relations swoon over my Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, the Guide convinced me that I must ditch my glass jigger and buy a double-sided jigger that is made from pewter—“a low-maintenance material that builds up an attractive patina over time”—and hand cast in northern Italy. (The editors end many of their how-to chapters with a sidebar called Tool of the Trade—things that can help you get the job done and are a joy to use as well, like a Murphy curved-tip oyster knife, and a 16-ounce Estwing steel-and-leather claw hammer.)

The Guide’s tips on selecting and knotting a tie and folding a pocket square provided this old dog with some new tricks. Ditto packing smart for a trip and organizing a closet. Wish I had known that plastic garment bags don’t protect your wool sports jackets from hungry moths and the ugly little holes they leave behind. If I had encased a couple of my favorites in garment bags made of cotton or some other breathable material, I’d still be wearing, and flaunting, them today.

One more thing: As the editors warn, trying to master a lot of these tasks can get messy, and now and then you’re sure to screw up. But if you persevere, they say, you will experience the “singular satisfaction” of doing it yourself.

A “singular satisfaction?” Who knew? Guess I’ll find out.

The Kaufmann Mercantile Guide: How to Split Wood, Shuck an Oyster, and Master Other Simple Pleasures is available now.