Category Archives: The View

The Xylo

In our post about the car search, I mentioned that Nancy recently bought a nearly 100-year-old xylophone. It was her first e-bay purchase, so an adventure in more ways than one. She is now the proud owner of a Deagan 844 “Drummer’s Special,” manufactured sometime between 1917 and 1929—three octaves (C5 to C8), Honduran rosewood bars, plated resonators. (Deagan introduced the 844 in 1915, with pitch A=435. They switched to A=440 in 1917. Nancy’s instrument is stamped A-440, so is a 1917 or later model.)

The xylo needs some work. The felts on which the bars rest have lost most of their cushioning ability, there is a century’s worth of dirt, rust and grime to be cleaned up, and the rear frame rail that supports the incidental bars arrived broken. But, the important parts—the bars and resonators—are in good shape. All the musicians who have heard it praise its acoustics. (The photo shows the instrument without its resonators, temporarily mounted on a Z-stand. The colored stickies are place markers for a complicated passage from Shostakovich’s “Polka of the Golden Age” that she is working on for the next concert.)

Nancy's xylo without resonators
Nancy’s xylo without resonators

We have decided to build an entirely new frame. Applying a temporary fix to the broken rail revealed more weak areas in the original frame. Nancy’s goal is to have a high-quality instrument to support her band and orchestral activities, not a meticulously restored antique. And, while Deagan built the “Drummer’s Special” series with portability in mind, we are hoping to improve on that aspect. We are playing with several design concepts, but are not far enough along to publish anything yet. Stay tuned.

While you wait, check out SuperMediocre, a blog/website that follows a father and his middle school son as they construct, from scratch, a concert-grade xylo for the son. That quest involves digging into the math and physics of tuning wooden bars, a number of empirical experiments to verify/refine what was learned, and the actual shaping and tuning of 44 Honduran rosewood bars. Lots of hard work. Lots of father/son interaction. Lots of the joy of learning and doing. To get the full story, you need to start at the beginning, which in blog format means going to the bottom of the stack and reading up towards the top. It’s worth the effort.

Love Cars, Hate Buying

We have been looking at cars. Nancy’s beloved Audi wagon is 14 years and 210 thousand miles old, and it seems prudent to begin thinking about its replacement. We’ve had a lot of cars, it seems, but when one is meeting our needs, we hold onto it for a long time. We bought this one used, have had it ten years, and are responsible for more than three-quarters of those miles.

In many ways, it is still meeting our needs. Its seats are the only ones in which Nancy could sit for long periods without discomfort, and that includes other vehicles, sofas, and a long series of office chairs. The station wagon configuration has worked for us, too. The Audi routinely transports band instruments and gardening tools; frequently is pressed into service for the dog, bales of pine straw, and pots of perennials; did yeoman’s service when we emptied Mother’s house before selling it; and has on occasion hauled 300-pound rocks for Nancy’s ornamental garden.

But her hauling needs are growing. Nancy is playing mallets and miscellaneous percussion for two community bands, a community orchestra, and a church ensemble. She started small—one band and a borrowed set of student practice bells (glockenspiel). Then she bought a full-size set of orchestra bells, and started joining other groups. That means her 35-pound instrument has to be loaded into and out of the car six to ten times a week, along with its X-stand, a music stand, mallets, sheet music, and the hand cart we use to roll it to and from the car. But wait!—as the infomercials say—that’s not all. For one group, she also plays bass drum. For two others, xylophone. The drum and xylophone belong to their respective bands and normally reside at the practice sites. But, as concerts near, they, too, get carried around in Nancy’s car.

For now, the Audi wagon is just barely big enough, if we are content to be constantly reconfiguring: seats up, seats down; cargo mat in (for dirty gardening work), mat out (for musical instruments and other “clean” uses). But Nancy recently bought her own xylophone—a fine 100-year-old instrument. It needs some refurbishment, but once we get it fixed up, I suspect she will be taking it back and forth to practices and concerts. This one has resonators, and will require a more substantial stand than does the borrowed one. I am sure we could fit everything into the Audi, with a few more contortions. But the inconveniences are mounting.

So, there is our dilemma. We are looking for luxury car seats and utility van roominess. SUVs don’t quite do the trick. Nancy wants to sit down into a seat, not climb up to it. And the loading heights are fearsome. Remember that 35-pound set of bells? The xylophone with its resonators will be as heavy—and larger with a much larger stand. Utility vans and the boxes-on-wheels that have come out in recent years are, well, Spartan. Full-size wagons have mostly gone out of production, and would, in any case, not solve the space problem. Minivans come close, but the seats are somewhat higher than she finds comfortable, and surprisingly, do not offer passenger-side 8-way adjustability. With all the motors on modern minivans, for side doors and lift gates and so on, why not two more, so the front passenger could adjust the height and tilt of the seat bottom?

I have been wondering if one vehicle can do what Nancy needs. Should we consider two—a stripped down box for local hauls (music, gardening) and a conventional car for long trips and general transportation? I am not ready to give up the open bed of my pickup; we have too many needs for mulch and gravel. Half our carport is already taken with a 280-Z whose fix-up is on hold while our son works to get established in another town. So that would mean four vehicles sitting at a two-person household.


I have been reading online reviews, studying Consumer Reports, looking at ads. The starting point of all the advice assumes you at least know the type of vehicle you want—a small pickup, a mid-sized sedan, a large SUV. It is hard enough, from such a starting point, to choose the models and options and to decide whether to buy new or used. The latter is a hard choice. I have an unhappy history with cars purchased new. I have done that twice, and twice had financial reverses force me to trade down. I like the idea of buying a three or four year old car and letting someone else absorb the initial depreciation. That’s the only way we ended up in the Audi. Yet, the electronic safety features on today’s new cars seem too good to pass up, so we’ll at least consider taking the new car plunge again.

But first, we have to get to first base. We have to settle on a type of car.


We learned early on that if you want dimensions, you have to measure them yourself. The only thing the sales staff or literature know is volume. Nancy’s instruments have length, width, height—as do most things you put into a vehicle. I crack to a salesman that volume only matters if I am a party planner with a load of balloons.

We are, perhaps, not typical car shoppers. Waltzing in with tape measure and notepad in hand, we are not interested in a test drive or a list of features or the JD Power ratings.  “Do you want to look at the engine?” No, thanks. We assume it has one.

We ask how the rear seats can be collapsed or removed, then put them through their paces. Is there a way these tracks, these lugs, can be covered? How smooth and level is the resulting deck? Can we slide an instrument case in without catching on some hardware?

Mercifully, we draw salesmen who are intrigued and amused. Only one, out of more than a dozen, tries the high pressure tactics. He’s young, still has lots to learn.


It is done. Nancy’s new ride is a minivan. After more than a month of “maybe this, maybe that,” the choices and tradeoffs and preferences seemed all at once to pull us to a convergence. With end-of-season incentives, we could get a new car for the price of a two-year-old one. We did end up with the same color as the Audi.

Gone are those luxo Audi seats, the leather still supple and un-cracked after all the years and miles. Weighed against 210 thousand miles, the trade-in value of the whole car was not even close to four figures. We’d have given that much to transplant the seats to the new minivan. “It will void your warranty,” is the salesman’s dry response. As if I’d seriously considered taking a welder’s torch to a brand new car. (Nancy says her heart leapt when I mentioned the idea.)

The result is a compromise. Most of life is, I suppose. We gave up some creature comforts for hauling capacity. Even the “8-way” adjustability of the driver’s seat promises more than it delivers. The seat-height range is high-higher-highest. Nancy is a long-legged 5’ 7-1/2”, and is barely comfortable at the lowest setting. I read that the “average” adult female in the US is 5’ 4”.

On the plus side are modern cameras and safety systems and other “i-features.” On the plus side is all that room for hauling. On the plus side is the peace of mind that a long trip is not a risk. On the plus side is that new car smell.

Summer Winding Down

“Is it normal for there to be no bird song and no insect buzzing?”

I am hiking to Hen Wallow Falls with West Coast son, who’s visiting this week, and have been conscious of the silence for the last quarter mile. Inwardly, I am reflecting that the older I get, the less I know about more and more.

“I was noticing the lack of birds,” he replies. “I do hear some insects, though.”

They must be masked by my tinnitus.

It is great to spend time with him. Last night we saw Violet at the Clarence Brown Theater. (Highly recommend) Today, this hike in the Smokies. During the week, the dew point has dropped from the high-60s to today’s mid-50s. After weeks of August’s heat-induced doldrums, it is energizing to be outdoors again.

At home, we are waiting for the turtles to hatch. For the third year (non-consecutive), we observed an Eastern box turtle leave the woods and deposit her eggs in the gravel walkway behind our house. Nancy placed an upended milk crate over the spot to mark it and protect from foot traffic and other hazards. Then she marked the calendar. The youngsters should be emerging soon.

School is back in session. Tomorrow is the last of the summer breakfasts to be prepared by our men’s group. One of Nancy’s bands will give its last summer performance on Monday. The black gum in our front yard is busily shedding its summer foliage into our pond.

Summer’s winding down.

Soon I’ll not be able to use the heat as my excuse to stay out of the garden, out of the shop. I’m glad. Some good projects await.

For all its joys, I will not miss summer. I am ready for what comes next.

Threads

We were walking the dog, and I was telling Nancy about several ideas recently encountered and bouncing around in my head.

Item: Richard Rohr has been writing about liminality, sacred space. “We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of ‘business as usual’ and remain patiently on the ‘threshold’ (limen, in Latin) where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. … That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible. … The threshold is God’s waiting room. Here we are taught openness and patience as we come to expect an appointment with the divine Doctor.” It dawns on me that the disciplines of The Artist’s Way (see my post on the reading fast), and all the contemplative disciplines, seek to put us into liminal space.

Item: In two recent “Almost-Daily eMo[s] from the Geranium Farm,” Barbara Crafton writes of the creative arts as openings into liminal space (without using the term). In response to the Mary and Martha story (Luke 10:38-42), she recalls that she and her brothers were intense readers, to the point of being called lazy. But she defends them as “honoring their Mary selves. … sitting quietly with our hearts somewhere else.” On another day, she cites the impact of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the Walker Evans/James Agee collaboration illuminating the plight of Alabama sharecroppers in the Great Depression. She reports that David Simon, creator of the television series The Wire, writes, “Famous Men is the book that made me ashamed and proud to be a journalist-all in the same instant. Reading it made me grow up. Or at least, it demanded that I begin to grow up.”

DSC03034Item: I am pondering the role of reading in my life. For all its joys and its capacity to move me into sacred space, my reading fast illuminated for me how I often use reading not as a gateway but as a wall. Even after Nancy has opened for me the world of dragonflies and hummingbirds and frogs outside my dining room window, I am more likely to eat my lunch with a printed page or e-screen before me than to pay attention to the vibrant life just a few feet away. But it is not reading that is my problem. Rather, it is my underdeveloped disciplines of presence and attentiveness. As if to underscore the point, Nancy comments on how long it has been since she has seen “that pond” in operation. “That pond” is in front of the house we are walking past, a house I have walked past several times a week for many years. I have never noticed the pond.

All this and more is rattling around in my head, and I am trying to explain it all to Nancy as we walk.

“So,” I conclude, “I have all these threads and I don’t know what to do with them.”

“Weave,” she replies.

Here I sit with a lap full of threads. Ideas and ideals form the warp. My actions are the woof. I am trying to weave a life.

Prodigality

Prodigal Summer is one of my favorite Barbara Kingsolver novels. Among its many gifts is redeeming that word, prodigal, from its Sunday School connotation of degeneracy and firmly implanting in my mind the second definition, the more positive notion of nature’s extravagant and lavish abundance.

Lavish Abundance
Lavish Abundance

This is indeed a prodigal summer. The bank along our driveway is a riot of bee balm, cone flower, four o’clock, zinnia, black and blue salvia, butterfly bush,  black-eyed Susan, and wild bergamot. Despite a month wasted attacking windows and car mirrors, our bluebirds have managed to reproduce. An Eastern box turtle laid eggs behind the house. The daily show of goldfinch and cardinal and house finch and ruby-throated hummingbird and robin and bluebird continues just outside our dining room.


A few days ago, I glanced at the frog pond and saw the most frantic splashing and flailing about—two frogs in belly-to-belly combat.

The brief video clip here does not do justice to the ferocity I first witnessed; by the time Nancy had arrived and switched the camera to video mode, the pair were nearly exhausted.

Calmly This Time
Calmly This Time

A day later, the same pair were engaged in amplexus (frog sex). The female, on bottom, Nancy has named Xena. She’s the brave one who does not dive when humans approach, recognizable by a mark on her left jaw—a distinct blip in the green-black boundary. She’s a fierce woman-on-top in the video. From Nancy’s reading, territorial fights are not rare, but would be expected between two males. Why Xena was fighting her future sex partner is a mystery.


The Economist says of the campaigning leading up to the recent Brexit vote, “Knowledge has been scorned … (b)asic facts have fallen by the wayside …,” and that the campaigning has exacerbated “the growing void between cosmopolitan and nativist parts of the country, the diminishing faith in politics, the rise of populism, the inadequacy of the left-right partisan spectrum in an age when open-closed is a more salient divide.” Sound familiar?

A lone gunman kills or wounds more than 100 people in a gay nightclub. Gun sales rise, as do the share prices of gun makers, and both sides in the gun control debate claim the carnage bolsters their arguments. Sound familiar?

The father forgives his wayward younger son and throws a party to celebrate his safe return. Steady, obedient older brother resents the welcome given his sibling. Sound familiar?


Despair comes easily in today’s world. We are beset on all sides by intolerance and tribalism and fear that “the other” is a threat to our livelihoods if not our very existence. Where can we find our antidote to despair? I turn to words: My weekly dose of Parker Palmer and the rest of the On Being crew, local writer Stephanie Piper, and others.

Bee and Bee Balm
Bee and Bee Balm

I also try to wrap my scarcity-oriented economist’s brain around the notion of abundance, to meditate on bee balm and bluebirds and the eggs of frogs and turtles, to shake off my older brother righteous indignation and trust the prodigal father’s lavish abundance.

In Praise of Good Design

I mentioned that there were no personal injuries resulting from The Big Dig (see Fellowship). But there was one casualty—my reciprocating saw. The shaft that drives the blade snapped. I have had this saw for ten years or so, and while I haven’t put a large number of hours on it, those hours were hard, root cutting ones. For a near-bottom-of-the-line homeowner special, it has served me well.

Repair or replace? I find a parts list and diagram online, set out to tear it down, and hit a conundrum. All the screws I need to access are underneath the rubber boot that encloses the lower end of the saw, and to remove the boot requires getting to those same screws. In other words, to remove the boot, I first need to remove the boot.

I have been a critic of much industrial design. All too often, I pick up a consumer product, try to use it, and conclude that the designers did not take the obvious step of trying to use their own product. How else could we end up with garden carts that tip while being loaded, and whose undercarriages bang ankles unless the user limits his/her movement to all but the most mincing steps? Or vacuum cleaners whose accessories will not stay on their designated mounts? Children’s toys that do not work? What is the excuse for dishwashers that claim to hold a service for twelve, but have no place for cereal bowls, serving dishes, or leftovers containers? No one I know serves dinners for twelve; everyone I know has leftovers. Who are these dishwashers designed for?

HP-35, Remote, and iPod
HP-35, Remote, and iPod

Consequently, when I find a well-designed product, I want to sing its praises. In a drawer of my writing desk are three such products: one of the early click-wheel iPods (Apple); a remote control for a laptop computer (Apple); and a 1972-vintage HP-35, “the world’s first scientific pocket calculator” (Hewlett-Packard). My HP-35 still works off the charger, though the battery pack is long defunct. I don’t have much need for trig functions or exponentials these days, and if I did, would likely turn to my computer before digging the HP out of the drawer. But because I am still a fan of Reverse Polish Notation, and because this calculator brings back fond memories of my first professional job, I keep it. How many devices do you have from 1972 that still work?

My iPod no longer works—hard drive failure. I keep it in part for nostalgia but mostly because it is still a beautiful instrument. The click-wheel was a clever interface whose misfortune was to have been quickly overtaken by an even better technology, the touch-screen. And the case, with its curved corners and edges, begs to be held.

Back of Remote with Battery Door
Back of Remote with Battery Door

I am frankly baffled by the concept of a remote control for a laptop. I never used mine. But the device is a visual delight and an engineering masterpiece. The case is a single bar of aluminum. No screws, no seams. “How did they put it together?” I wondered. The answer is that all the internals are inserted through the battery door. The same could be asked of the iPod: “How did they put it together?” In that instance, a flawlessly executed friction fit.

Which brings me back to my broken saw. How did they put it together? Amazingly, I have been unable to find a YouTube video or other answer to that question. Our best guess is that it involves heating and stretching the rubber boot, which is what Nancy and I did to get inside. She had to start with a palette knife, to make a place to insert a screwdriver blade and begin pulling the rubber back. Then gripping with pliers and turning the boot inside out as I held onto the saw body, we pulled. Hard tugging and pulling, the kind of effort that prompts you to check behind you for a soft place to fall if it gives suddenly. Tugging and pulling punctuated by our laughter at the absurdity. Uncovering the first pair of screws, we recheck the diagram. Two more pairs of screws to go! By the time we are through, the boot is a tangled mess, but has not torn.

Saw Rotor and Stator
Saw Rotor and Stator

The three visibly damaged parts would cost half of the price of a replacement saw. Is something else on the verge of failure? Would we be able to re-stretch the boot back into place? I have decided to replace, not repair. But the whole exercise of dismantling that tool has given me a respect for its designers. In its clean lines, its performance, its ergonomic feel, and its mysteriously hidden methods of assembly, it reminds me of the aforementioned Apple products. Even on the inside, where few would ever see, the components are cleanly designed and executed. No rough edges. The rotor and the frame for the stator windings are minor works of art. Well done, Ryobi!

Post Script—Friends Mike and Roni recently introduced me to the writings of humorist Michael Perry, and I was reading his book, Truck, during the above events. In a nice bit of synchronicity, while I was thinking about design, good and bad, Perry’s book introduced me to industrial designer Raymond Loewy. Check him out. Check out Perry too. Celebrate good design and good writing.

The Fellowship of the Shovel

We have in our Memorial Garden two ornamental cherry trees. There were four, but two had to be removed, as they were too close to concrete walkways and their roots were knocking the concrete off-kilter. The remaining pair are not so close, and yet could potentially disrupt other sections of the walks. The arborist-suggested remedy was to dig beside the walkways, snip any offending roots, then install a metal barrier against further intrusions. We had done one tree last year, the shortest section of walk, but still needed to treat the other. The task: a thirty-foot trench, one-and-a-half feet deep, with attendant root cutting. I invited some friends to the party.

Thus, “The Fellowship of the Shovel” convened one recent morning. There were five of us, and more willing to help. But, frankly, five post-retirement guys wielding mattocks and shovels and saws and sharp-edged flashing was quite enough to fit into a thirty-foot trench. I am happy to say there were no injuries, at least none reported to the crew chief. Two hours spent in pleasant company. Thanks, guys!

The “Fellowship” was mostly a subset of a group of men who convene early each Wednesday for prayer and study and fellowship.  David, our assistant rector, had the vision to assemble such a group, and with his leadership and patient encouragement, it has coalesced into a dozen or so regulars. These men are doers, responders to need. When I issued a church-wide call for help through a short-term staffing vacancy in our nursery, two-thirds of the volunteers were from its membership. We are about to begin our third summer of cooking breakfast each Sunday for the entire parish. The breakfast fills the space between early and late services left available by the summer hiatus of the education program and allows the two communities (early risers and the rest of us) to mingle. It is a group of men unafraid to show compassion, to be vulnerable, to talk of faith and doubts and joys and sorrows.

That I am a happy member of this group is a surprise to me. My earlier experiences with all male (or even mostly male) groups have left me feeling like the ballroom wallflower—watching from the sidelines, not participating in the action; I more easily integrated into mixed or predominantly female groups. How much of the change is due to some kind of growth in me or how much is due to the character of the individuals in the group, I cannot say. I am, however, proud to be one of them.

A Tribute to Mothers and Fathers

On this Mother’s Day, I pay a tribute to both of my parents and to my in-laws as well. Nancy and I come from long-lived stock, all having made it beyond 85 years of age. Out of our four parents, three are still living.

My father died nine years ago, after several years of declining health. But he had worked until well into his seventies—physical labor, cleaning carpets—until Alzheimer’s robbed him of the capacity to manage himself out in the world. Two traits characterized my father: hard work and diligence. In my childhood, before he was self-employed, he would come home from his eleven-hour day, then, three nights a week, be off again to a meeting at church. He was a servant leader, selected not for charisma but for his faithfulness at getting the job done. For a number of years, his regional church duties included attending the annual national convention, requiring punishing 600-mile-a-day drives to and from the convention site in order to cram it all into his single week of vacation. My brothers and I, who were his helpers after he’d left the office job to be a self-employed carpet cleaner, remember with no great fondness longing to call it a day, while he would scan his work for spots no one else could see and work them one more time.

Having grown up on a farm, he’d done a little bit of everything. From him I learned a little about building fences and simple structures, keeping baby chicks alive on cold early spring nights, saddling and riding a pony, hoeing a garden and staking tomatoes, and that an electrical connection is no good unless you first have a solid mechanical connection.

My mother worked a full career as a school teacher (first and second grades), retired at the normal age, and has lived almost as many years post-retirement as she put into her working life. At age 90, she was still living alone, driving, and visiting “shut-ins,” people often younger than herself who could no longer get out of the house for church and socializing. That independence came to an end a few years ago, but even within the confines of her nursing home, the constant stream of visitors and the interactions with fellow residents testify to her social and nurturing nature. When Jay was born, Nancy’s mother was not available, so mine came to stay with us for a few days. Nancy still tells how my mother quietly, almost invisibly, kept the kitchen and laundry going, was there when asked for advice, but carefully allowed the new mom take the lead.

Mother, too, was a farm child. My childhood summers included “putting up” large quantities of food for the winter: shelling peas, stringing and canning beans, shucking corn, picking blackberries (and scratching chiggers), making jams and tomato juice and pickles. We almost always had dessert with our meals and, until her move to the nursing home, most of my adulthood visits with her included bringing back with me some homemade cookies or cake or pie.

Nancy’s parents have had some medical ups and downs, but are currently healthy—still driving and living independently, snowbirds making an annual migration between homes in Florida and Tennessee. From her mother, Nancy got her artistic eye and ear; from her father, mechanical aptitude; from both parents, the gifts of curiosity and a sense of adventure. From her mother, Nancy learned to question medical authority and get a second opinion (today they refer to her affectionately as their “medical director”); from her father, how to be a good assistant and anticipate the needs of those around her (a much-appreciated attribute when we work on projects together).

When Nancy and I were dating, her mother would carefully tell me how she prepared various dishes; knowing Nancy’s disinclination to cook, her mother assumed it would be up to me to keep us fed. Her mother is highly organized, and as our wedding date approached, she prepared detailed to do lists for Nancy, Nancy’s father, and herself. She was careful not to presume, but when she offered to do the same for me, I gratefully accepted.

The house we bought was a handyman special—still structurally OK, but sadly bereft of basic maintenance. I was out of town on business during the pre-signing inspection, so Nancy’s parents accompanied her. They pointed out broken locks and non-functioning electrical switches and outlets, while sellers’ realtor appeared disinterested and unsympathetic. Then Nancy’s father touched together the bare wires that once fed an over-sink light. The resulting flash and pop were marvelously effective at getting the realtor’s attention.

Among the deficiencies of the house was a rather grubby laundry area in the rather grubby garage. Shortly after we’d moved in, I got a call at work from Nancy, telling me that her dad was tearing out a wall, in preparation for constructing a proper laundry room. To this day, our laundry/utility room is affectionately called The Walter Room.

To our parents, and to parents everywhere, thanks.

Tools

Once upon a time, I was picking up a washing machine for the local agency that passes used furniture on to those in need. For some reason, my partner and I drove separately—two guys in two trucks, but not a tool between us. The apartment-dwelling donor was also tool-less. We could not get the water hoses off barehanded and spent much of an hour chasing down a pair of pliers to do the job. I am determined that will not happen again. All our vehicles have at least a rudimentary tool kit.

I tend to do odd jobs wherever I go: parents, church, work (before I retired). As time goes on, my in-truck tool bag gets heavier and more eclectic. Besides the usual screwdrivers and pliers and wrenches, I have work gloves and disposable latex gloves. Electrical tape. Teflon plumbing tape. A circuit tester. A torpedo level. A line level and masons’ nylon string. A 50’ measuring tape. Heavy duty scissors. Eyeglass screwdrivers. Ear plugs. Disposable dust masks. Garden shears. Stakes for marking and laying out. These days there is barely room for the groceries behind the seats of my little extended cab pickup.

When I began woodworking, I had never used a power tool except a drill. A circular saw was a frightening thing to me. So, being scared, cheap, and contrarian, I decided that my new hobby would be hand tools only.

During this hand-tools-only phase, I ripped two-inch rock maple with a panel saw, smoothed a glued-up table top with plane and cabinet scraper, cut blind mitered finger joints with back saw and chisel. I no longer have the patience for such tasks, and long ago overcame my queasiness about power tools. But those formative experiences leave me awed when I consider the stamina and skill of the lumberjacks and pit sawyers and cabinet makers of our pre-industrial past. Power tools make it all too easy to forget.

Using hand tools is one way to learn humility. In an earlier post, I mentioned that the seemingly healthy pines in my woods tend to fall over. But we had one that died standing. It had always had a significant lean and, a number of years after its death-by-pine-bark-beetle, was looking half-rotted and hazardous. For safety, I decided to drop it. Being one of the few people in Tennessee who does not own a chain saw, and at the same time being the proud possessor of my grandfather’s two-man crosscut, I gathered my number two son and the old crosscut, and we laid into that “rotted” trunk.  Inside, we found a hard, seasoned core. It nearly defeated us.

In addition to my grandfather’s saw, I have acquired a few other antique hand tools. Most are still usable, and my hardware-loving wife allows them to be displayed in the house. Three wooden-bodied planes I found at a flea market are in pretty rough shape, yet I have been able to make shavings with two of them. The left-handed half-hatchet my brother found for me feels custom made for my hand. The balance scale my other grandfather used for weighing cotton bales would be usable, if I had a beam to hang it from and something heavy to weigh. My draw knife reminds me of the one my father taught me to use as we stripped the bark off some pine poles to make a ladder.

Don’t get me wrong. I have grown to love power tools. My table saw and cordless drill/driver seem nearly indispensable now, and there is a Tim-the-Toolman moment each time I get a chance to use the hammer drill or reciprocating saw. I’d like a drill press, and Nancy dreams of a band saw, although we’d have to acquire a larger shop first.

However, I have discovered that more and bigger tools are not always the answer. Over the winter, we had to have some trenches cut through my in-laws’ yard. I scattered some annual rye grass seed and some straw, waiting for the backfill to settle. Now it is time to re-level the yard and get some permanent grass growing. So earlier this week, I rented a small tracked machine, the kind that you stand on the back of and pretend to be a heavy equipment operator. I imagined using it like a dozer, remembering how loose the soil was when the trencher got through with it. Silly me. It turns out my in-laws’ yard is made of brick-in-training, which did more than “settle.” “Set up” is, I think, a closer description. Fortunately, we haven’t yet been through the kiln of August.

The solution? A tiller. What the one-ton machine couldn’t do, the 50-pound tiller could. Set the spike and let it chew. Reset and repeat.

Even my beloved drill/driver is sometimes more than enough. After too many trips to retrieve it from the shop, just to make a hole for a cup hook, I have been lusting for a set of gimlets to keep in the house. Just what I need—more tools.