Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Right Tool for the Right Job

I learned how to untie knots at the foot of my father. I remember sitting with Dad around the kitchen table trying to untie a knotted string. Dad had this magnifying visor and these great big grownup fingers and they just weren’t delicate enough for this kind of job. I knew I could do it when I got the chance. Dad wasn’t eager to give up those chances very often, but I finally got to give it a try. He even let me try on the visor, but I could see well enough without it. My fingers were just right. I was very good at knot untying.

I thought from that point forward that if I just watched my fingers everyday, I could keep them from becoming those great big indelicate grownup fingers that my Dad had. I was diligent. I checked them frequently and they were always small and capable of great miracles with knots. I even practiced knotting and untying knots often just to be sure. When you’re small, the world is a big place, diversions are many and I soon forgot my mission.

I remembered a year or so later, but it was too late. The damage had been done. I was shocked that my fingers had grown big and clumsy. Today, knots could take over the world if they were so inclined.

My father was always quiet, much like he raised his son. He liked puzzling out problems, but not necessarily step by step. It was always more important to get to a solution than it was to work it from beginning to end. He once told me of how when he was a kid, he had made a whistle out of a willow branch by separating the bark from the underlying wood and notching it just so. Naturally, I implored him to make one for me; to show me how to make a whistle out of a willow branch. The problem was that there were no willow trees anywhere handy, so we used the next best thing -- a neighbor’s mulberry tree. I guess that some trees are interchangeable when it comes to whistles. My dad was good with that sort of thing. Not the whistle making necessarily, but the getting along with the wrong tree when the right one is not handy.

And so it was with my math homework. When I was trying to learn math, my dad was a very frustrating tutor. He always had an answer that matched the problem in the book, but he could not put the steps together so that I could comprehend them. I grew to understand later that it was because he actually left most of the problem solving steps out. It was that willow versus mulberry thing; for him, it was the whistle that was important, not the tree. This was very frustrating and confusing to a youngster who got more points for trying to solve problems the “right” way than for getting the answer right. Some Math teachers are funny that way.

The one area where my dad didn’t cut corners was tools. He always seemed to have the right tool for the right job. Our garage was full of odd shaped, double hinged, levered, spring loaded, wooden handled, metal thingamajigs for performing the most obscure tasks. Perhaps my favorite was this special tool. I have included a picture here so that you too can marvel at the wondrous things man hath wrought.

It has heft. It looks like it should be familiar, but on closer examination, it really makes no sense. What appear to be handles are really too skinny and small to apply much pressure without bruising the palm of your hands. The ends of the handles have odd shapes to them and the pincher type device on the other end really doesn’t pinch anything.

I watched my dad use it once. I marveled at its ingenuity. Those among you who are auto mechanics may have intimate knowledge of its usefulness. This tool has no practical function outside the world of automobile brakes. It can’t be used it for anything else, and if I had never seen it in action, I couldn’t even imagine how to hold it, let alone use it.

Well after I was grown, I once found one in the middle of the street. I stopped the car. I had to have it. I knew exactly what it was and exactly what it was for. It made me feel youthful and helpful inside, just like when I was sitting at my father’s knee watching him work on the car. I have kept this tool in my tool box for 20 years now even though new technology has long rendered it moot for my cars. All my children have enquired about it through the years. After I explain a little about what it is for, I say wisely and with a tinge of nostalgia that it is helpful to have the right tool for the right job. My children nod thoughtfully and then go back to play on their computer.

Occasionally, my boys would come to me for help with a project or with homework and I would try to be helpful. For homework, I immediately referred them to their mother. I realized early on that I had been taught well. My impatience with logical progression and providing the foundational steps for problem solving are virtually non-existent just like my dad. I am nearly useless as a teacher of all things academic requiring more than two steps. This is something that I fully recognized and acknowledged in myself in my early twenties, and to overcome these weaknesses, I married well. My wife is exceptional at this sort of thing and managed to be very helpful to our children’s succession up the scholastic ladder.

But, projects were different. I always considered any project a good opportunity for bonding, where we worked one on one to build something. I would always start these projects with a little dissertation on needing and knowing how to use the right tools. My boys were usually tolerant of these discussions, but I could sometimes detect some eye rolling impatience while they humored me. I made sure that they knew how to use the tools properly and safely, then I got out of the way. Of course, I remained in near proximity to answer questions and work out the problems that would arise, but otherwise let them discover the satisfaction in the results of their own work.

From the perspective of my inexperienced youth, I learned the lesson of the tools. I had always thought that my dad used the right tool for the right job, but with the wisdom found in my own maturity, I keep thinking about that mulberry tree whistle and working on my math homework. I know that the most important thing for my dad was to solve the problem, not how to solve it right way or the most elegantly. I suspect that my father may have cheated on his tool axiom once or twice and not let on. I know I have.


Holly Brooke Tolbert said...

Burleigh Smith was my grandfather! If you have any coo or funny stories about him I would love to hear them!

minder11 said...

Thanks for stopping by. I only saw Burleigh Smith through the snow of our Zenith Black and White TV, and occassionally about town with his camera. I remember the seriousness with which he delivered the news. I remember laughing at one of his promotional spots for the news where he talked about reporting the crime, the murders, the robberies, and the weather -- all in the same level of seriousness. I remember saying to the TV, "Come on Burleigh, this is Bakersfield."