Wednesday, October 29, 2008

From the Department of "Can't Leave Well Enough Alone"

The Black Dog has been worrying at me for about a month now, but the depression reached its nadir this past weekend following a visit to see my parents. My father has Alzheimer's, and it has rendered him angry, belligerent, paranoid, and, paradoxically, often whimsically erratic in his behavior (he is convinced, for example, that wily thieves break into his house to steal his socks). It makes for a stressful visit, the details of which I choose not to go into here. Anyone who has had a loved one with this disease knows what I'm talking about anyway.

What I will talk about is that I have learned through the years that my best weapon against depression is to make or build something (hence the spate of garden-building this past couple of weeks). So on Monday, the day after I returned from Midland, I went out into the shop and fashioned yet another handle for the Extraordinarily Effective Auger Compost Tool.

Mind you, I like tools. Always have. I like using them, I like making them, I like thinking about them. I am my father's daughter in this respect. My father grew up on a farm in northern Alabama, and back when I was a wee one, we used to go out there every summer to visit his brother, who still worked the old family homestead. When I conjure up those memories, what I see in my head are pictures of tools--plows, tractors, old rakey-things, corn-likker stills, deep in the woods and in merry disarray after the revenuers had made peace with them...

My father left the farm to go fight as a radioman in the Pacific during the second world war, and when he returned, he went to Auburn on the G.I. Bill to study engineering. He wanted to build tractors for John Deere, but Old Venerable wasn't hiring when he graduated, so he took a job out west with an oil company. An engineer for an oil company doesn't actually build things, though, and so for the rest of his life, in order to scratch that "build-things itch," he tinkered in his spare time. And oh, the things he made: Built-in bookcases for the house. A fancy grape arbor. A giant radio for the living room (the only radio in the neighborhood at the time).

Some of the things he built were actually his own wacky inventions--the automatic pecan sheller comes to mind. It is a machine I find rather alarming in its Rube Goldberg-ness, even to this day. (It was probably kin to the automatic butter-churn that he built for his Aunt Myrtis when he was twelve--the one that spun out of control and flung butter all over the ceiling of her farmhouse kitchen.)

There isn't any doubt that I inherited whatever it was that used to drive him to tinker and build. I can't explain what that drive is, though. All I can say is that it has something to do with the puzzle of a problem that needs solving, absorption in a task, and the satisfaction of making something that performs work.

My own tinkering usually involves woodworking. In my other life, I make canoe paddles, using hand tools in the process. I used some of these--a shop-built (homemade) bodger's bench, a spoke shave, and a drawknife-- on Monday to fashion another handle for my compost tool. I wasn't yet satisfied with my earlier effort, and thought I might try to improve on the design. Plus, I needed to make something.

I like using a shave. It is a singularly contemplative act. I sit on the bodger's bench, sunlight from the shop window falling on my work, a piano sonata on the radio filling the silence, a roughed-out version of an ash handle clamped in the jaws of the bench. I draw the shave across the surface of the wood and it makes a soft, chattering noise, like far away sandhill cranes. And the black dog retreats.

I wanted it to look like a rustic wooden tool handle, such as one might find on a farm in rural northern Alabama. Something that someone from the holler might have made using the old ways, in his spare time.



  1. Hi Susan - So sorry to hear about your dad's illness, that's such a cruel one for the families. I'm glad you found a way to beat back the blues and make something beautiful at the same time. Not sure what it does, but I love how it looks! As someone who has never made anything from wood in my life, I am in awe of your skills.

  2. Thanks, Karen. You should give it a try sometime. Woodworking is like everything else--it just takes patience and attention to detail. There is no reason you couldn't do it.

    Seattle has a wonderful wooden boat museum, where they teach classes in boat-building. I go there every time Walt and I visit the city and fantasize about being able to take one of the classes...

  3. My heart goes out to you and I know what you are going through with you Dad.You are so talented to be able to fashion things from wood.My Dad was a carpenter and he would have really appreciated your handy work. The auger looks good!

  4. Thanks, Lona. I have a lot of respect for carpenters, having seen the fruits of my own poor labors!

  5. That has to be the prettiest compost bin I've ever seen! Do you actually use it or is it just for show? :D

  6. it's the real deal, Wicked! Works petty well, too.

  7. Gorgeous handle, and if fashioning things keeps the demons at bay, more power to you. Mine can completely overwhelm my ability to do anything at all, unless I resort to, er, outside help, i.e., medication.

    Alzheimer's is the worst of the worst. My mother-in-law, here in town, is in the late stages,and my father has some form of dementia, but neither, amazingly, shows the sort of belligerent behavior that you describe, so I feel pretty lucky. One of my aunts, otherwise a very sweet, funny woman, did become belligerent with Alzheimer's. It's so odd, so strange, and so terrible to see how someone can be transformed. Good luck with this.


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