Working with my Hands
I admire people who know how to work with their hands. Working with your hands is a different kind of intelligence. It is not one that comes naturally to me. The genesis of this was a decision that my father made. Because I only got to see him once a week, he took me to work with him most of the time. My dad fixed pool tables and juke boxes and pinball machines. He would open the back of a pinball machine and miles of wires would sprout. I was both fascinated and intimidated by his knowledge of where these wires went and what they did. I wanted to learn about the jukeboxes and pool tables as well.
My dad refused to teach me one thing about any of these machines. My job was to hold the flashlight or fetch the tool. He taught me to play pool and helped to teach me to love music, but he never taught me anything having to do with repair. It was a conscious refusal. He said, “I don’t want you to end up like me; learn to work with your brain.”
My hand eye coordination was very good. I could have learned. My dad said no. In one of our endless conversations, riding alone in the car, either transporting me or going from one job to the other, he told me that his dream was to have become a doctor. It was one of the few times that I saw tears in his eyes. “You’ll be better off learning to work with your brain.” That was what he said and I did not question it. Questioning my father about something like this was not a smart move.
My ability to work with my hands was manifested through sports. I was an ok pool player, except that I had glasses that I did not wish to wear. Glasses were not cool where and when I grew up. That did not translate into table tennis and I was a natural. It did not translate into football, and I showed talent there as well.
What I did very well was read and I knew how to talk. When my dad was being mean, he would say that I knew how to bullshit. That word stung like very few others. It made me feel inferior. At the same time that he encouraged me to be this way, it felt like he mocked me for it.
I was about to turn sixteen, and my dad got me my first fulltime, summer job. I would be helping to install aluminum siding. One of his friends had hired me. Two weeks into the job, I had to leave. I had flunked Latin and Geometry and would be required to attend summer school. My dad was incredulous. “If you did not pass these subjects, it was because you chose to fail, and now your failure is embarrassing to me. Don’t embarrass me again.”
I had hated Latin and Geometry. I had failed on purpose, but I did not understand that my failure would embarrass my dad. It appeared that the decision to rely on my brain had been a bad bet and my dad hated bad bets.
When young, I was pretty strong. I ripped the front a house away with a crowbar. I have dug ditches that were four feet deep. I enjoyed the labor. But there is a difference between brawn and working with your hands.
Working with my hands has always been elusive. I know how to take things apart but I am less successful at putting them back together. I always doubted that I took them apart correctly. Early on, that was particularly true of clocks. Later, there were other things. I did have brawn but I lacked skill in working with my hands.
That changed when I taught myself how to refinish furniture. I had a house filed with old furniture and I had the energy and need to refinish it. I stripped it and then sanded so late into the night that neighbors called and pleaded with my wife that I stop. I did, but the next day I was at it again, early in the morning. I stripped and sanded and discovered the magic of polyurethane. More than thirty years later, I have refinished almost each and every piece of wooden furniture in our home.
The sanding brought me comfort. It was like an unveiling. There were new worlds revealed from underneath the finishes laid on the wood. I could see visual progress each time I worked with the wood. I was finally working with my hands. I wore masks and goggles and gloves. I was relentless. Refinishing furniture became a love.
I worked with my hands in my gardens. There was the brawn of mowing the grass, both acres. My dog Keats would help me. He would sit just aside from the last pass of the mower and then move back just enough for the next pass. But in my gardens, it was both working with my hands and my brawn.
Working with your hands includes using your eyes in particular ways. It includes knowledge from your fingertips. Is the soil dry? Is the plant happy? Have you rooted out the aggressive, indigenous plants that tend to choke off what you wish to nourish?
There is that sense of tactile enjoyment when one works with hands. It is not unlike that sense of tactile enjoyment that comes from love-making. Knowledge and experience educate touch. Leonard Cohen wrote, “I couldn’t feel so I learned to touch.” That resonates in me. I always felt that I needed to learn to touch, After all, “I didn’t come all this way to fool ya.”
It’s that next line. “There’s a blaze of light in every word…* There is a blaze of light. There is a chance at furthering understanding in every word. It is closely related to working with your hands. They are integrated languages and intelligences. I love to caress wood. I love to caress flesh. There is so much knowledge in touch. Perhaps I am still working with my hands.
I imagine the feel the touch of the keys under my fingers and I wish fervently that it caresses the words. There is doubt. Is a clumsy sentence like a stubbed toe, or is it worse? Can a clumsy sentence mark you forever? It can for a time, not unlike the mistakes that one makes when first working with your hands.
I love the tricks that people who work with their hands learn. They come with adages like “measure twice cut once.” One also learns that the proper tool is an essential component to working with your hands. Tools sometimes replace strength but they do not replace knowledge. Feeling can sometimes substitute for knowledge, when you are lucky and the world bestows its magic upon you.
Dutch elm disease decimated the elms in the area where I made my home for twenty years. There was this dead tree that eventually split off and collapsed. I had a feeling about this once piece of the tree. It had once been a very, very large and thick branch but now it was about seven feet tall and a little more than three feet around.
I hauled it back to my barn slowly and with difficulty, using brawn and a good hand truck. Where it snapped away left an image that reminded me of a horse’s head. I sanded and filed the stump for hours and days. I shaped it to enhance what I had glimpsed. Then I added coat after coat of spar wax. I filled it with rocks to stabilize it and set it on an abandoned, slate circle, septic tank cover. It aged well. Birds and squirrels nested in it. I photographed it in the sun and in the snow. I looked at it every day and felt that swell of pride that comes from making something with your hands. In its second life at the age of ten, it collapsed. It was the rocks. I would have been smarter to weight it with sand. Inspiration can take you so far but, afterwards, knowledge can take you further.
The blend of aesthetics and working with your hands is an essential balance. Knowing what looks good and how to achieve it is a blending. Maybe it is a blending of form and function but maybe it is also a blending of imagination and reality.
Cooking is working with your hands and sometimes your imagination. My wife is an experimental cook. She loves to fly by the seat of her pants. Often, I have heard her say, “It doesn’t look great but I love the taste.” She never says that with a real swell of pride. When it is also beautiful to see she exhibits that pride.
Working with my hands will always be a fine mystery for me. For others, it is how they move through the world.
Working with my Hands