The shed

Middle-age does funny things to people. Especially men. I have a male friend in his forties who has suddenly begun saving up to buy 1000cc of rumbling engine between his thighs. Another now requires an annual men-only fishing trip to Lake Tekapo in New Zealand to be happy. And then there is my brother-in-law, who felt the urge to trek to the South Pole. For many men, middle-age seems to be a time of angst often remedied with testosterone-driven actions.

But not for my husband. He isn’t making plans to swim the English Channel or ride bareback across Mongolia or even beat the drums in a Native American Sweat Lodge.

No, my husband wants a shed. He dreams of a shed. He excites our three vulnerable young boys with plans to build solar-powered rockets, electric cars and other secret men-and-boys-business. In the shed. They egg one other on, describing the unlimited benefits of life with a shed.

“Just think of what we could do at the hard rubbish collection” says Dad, a glint in his eye. “Yeah,” agrees child number one, his face lighting up, “we could collect old computers and kitchen appliances and take them apart.”  “And we wouldn’t have to put away half-finished projects!” chimes in child number two, ecstatic at the thought. Number three is too engrossed in the homemade go-cart plans to engage in the conversation.

Possibly this obsession has arisen because I never acquiesced to my husband’s deep need in this area. It’s true that we have never actually owned a proper shed; he has been thoroughly shed-deprived. We lived in a flat in Paris for years which provided something called a cave. Each flat had its own cave, a pitch-black room in the basement of the building, about 3m deep by 2m wide by 3m high. Perfect, I thought, for storing the junk we only used once a year—like the inflatable rubber boat, the Christmas tree stand and the garden hose (we never actually used that one in Paris).

But I guess the cave wasn’t suitable for projects or experiments or, well, pottering. And the house we are living in now in suburban Melbourne was a compromise—I got a 21st century kitchen and he missed out on the shed. Again.

I am beginning to realise the error of my ways.

Recently while house-hunting for—of all things—a house, he and the children found the perfect shed. It is a three-car garage with a separate area for projects. Of course, no cars would ever find space to be parked there. By the time the “open for inspection” was over the four of them had assigned locations for the woodworking department, explosives unit, and bike repair shop. They took a vote, did some quick eyeball measurements, and decided there might even be room for a ping-pong table. Conveniently, this shed comes complete with a four-bedroom house. However, by the time my family had kitted-out the shed it was too late to have much of a look at the house. It’s all-right though; they’re not picky about things like that.

After observing this new and unusual behaviour in my own spouse, I began to wonder if it’s peculiar to him or a more widespread phenomenon. While I had heard rumours about the unseen world of men and their sheds, I had no concept of how deep and widespread it truly is.

Australian Mark Thomson, author of the bestseller Blokes and Sheds, started taking photos of backyards and sheds some years ago and gradually began to understand the important role of the shed in the lives of many men. In his book, Thomson chronicles the creations and the chaos of sheds he has seen, some “clean enough to eat off the floor” and others “total mayhem”.

“It was an almost spiritual thing for some people. There was a place where they developed their own identity… a calm spot, isolated from the rest of the world.”[1]

In an effort to support my husband’s newfound passion I order him a copy of the New Zealand magazine The Shed: Where Dreams Are Made Real for Father’s Day. It describes itself as a magazine for people who “on any weekend, are among the legions of people whose backyards hum, buzz, fizz and thump to the sound of a nation making their dreams come real.”[2]

While Dad enjoys his once-a-year scrambled eggs and raisin toast in bed, he and the boys glance at articles called Mastering the Lathe, Japanese Chisels and Engineering School Projects on Wheels, thoroughly entranced, and I think again about the appeal of the shed. Is it the place (his own space), what can be done there (tools and creativity) or who he does it with (his dad years ago, our boys today) that matters most?

Several weeks later we have a group of friends and their kids around to share a pot of chilli. The men and boys cluster around a pile of dead and dying electrical appliances which had recently been scavenged from the hard rubbish collection. While the women talk over a Shiraz and a platter of cheese in the kitchen, half-a-dozen pair of pliers, screwdrivers and a soldering iron are put into action on the floor of the dining room. And an hour later a 10-year-old electric water filter has been resurrected. What they accomplish doesn’t seem to be nearly as significant as the fact that it is done together.

That observation seems to fit with the concept of the community shed, a movement which has gained momentum inAustraliaover the past decade. A community shed is a communal site where men come together to work on a variety of hands-on practical activities. In 2002 a fledgling organisation called Mensheds Australia began researching this movement and exploring the potential of community sheds to benefit men’s overall health and wellbeing. Since then it has been working nationwide to collaborate with communities and health and welfare agencies to use Men’s Sheds to help combat isolation, depression and loneliness in men.

A 2007 survey of Men’s Sheds found that men who were involved in a community shed were happier at home, had an improved self-image, a strong sense of belonging and valued being able to give something back to others. Most sheds are geared toward older men (75% who use them are retired) but they come from a cross-section of social and work backgrounds with about 40% being qualified tradesmen. These men represent a group which is often difficult to reach with alternative health, education and support programmes.[3]

For Thomson, a shed is much more than just a building or a mound of tools. “To some people, the shed is like a personal compost heap where you build your life up into layers that then compress and give your life a sense of personal history. It’s like a personal museum. A one-person history. There’s that, oh, formal house, and then there’s the shed which is the informal house. And it’s in the informal setting that often the really important things happen in people’s lives.”[4]

Although my husband is not yet an older man, I can see that I should ta­ke notice of what I have learned about sheds. As we grow old together and I pursue my traditionally female approach to friendships and social interaction—talking more than doing—the shed may well be one of my soul mate’s keys to good health and happiness.

I’m beginning to think that maybe we should go back and buy the dream shed and three-car garage after all. It’s a bit pricey, but at least they are throwing in the house for free.