(I'm still writing on Y360 until I find a more suitable community, and can migrate my blog)
I'm getting ready to fly back to Boston to see my dad in person for the last time. He's terminally ill, with a month or two left to live. It's hard to be living 3,000 miles away – I have a relentless impulse to just put everything on hold and move back East for the next few months. I tell myself that realistically, we'd get on each other's nerves after a week or two, and I have obligations here as well. That rings hollow. How can I not be there for him? So it starts with this visit of 4-5 days – if it becomes clear he/we would like me to stay longer, I can make that happen.
What I want to reflect on right now, though, are some memories of him as my first woodworking teacher. I've written snippets about this in earlier blogs, but wanted to collect my thoughts here. Dad was the "handyman" of the house, building new stairs in the back, a storage shed on the beach, patching the roof, replacing plumbing, running electrical wire – you name it. The only time we called in a "professional" was for specialized tools we didn't own (like a roto-rooter for the sewer line).
Dad's work was always high quality. That's what I remember most – wondering how he always got everything to come together so cleanly the first time, without "do-overs" or lots of corrective action. As a boy my early attempts at birdhouses or boxes involved a lot of trial-and-error. Some of it was the need for skill-building – it took time to learn to cut a straight line with a hand saw. But temperamentally, I always felt my work looked rushed and sloppy compared to his.
Dad took lots of breaks, ostensibly to smoke his pipe. He could be maddeningly slow sometimes – I'd be helping with a project, waiting to finish so that I could go off and play with my friends. He'd take a break for a while, then come back to the job. I get it now – there are so many times in my own work when I know I'm feeling frustrated, on the verge of making an irreparable mistake, and what I need is a time out. I probably still don't do it often enough. But when I do take my time, I enjoy the process more, and the work is higher quality, no doubt. I can still have an impatient streak when I'm feeling frustrated, and continue to work at the self-monitoring needed to know when a break is called for.
Dad worked alone most of the time. I saw with my own eyes that one person, taking one step at a time, could accomplish a lot. Even this past September, weak from cancer, I believe he still managed to pull the water-logged wooden dock out of the lake for winter. This entails moving sections that each weigh a couple hundred pounds. Dad floats them to the shore, lines them up, and very carefully and efficiently lifts one end (taking advantage of leverage) up and over and into place. When my brother-in-law and I do it together, we just lift the section clear out of the water and drop it where it belongs. Yeah, we're faster, but I'm still impressed with how Dad manages this job by himself. It reminds me that I can accomplish big jobs (like building an entire dining set) if I just take my time, work efficiently, and not hurt myself by biting off too much at one time.
Dad is a tool minimalist – the opposite of Norm Abram. About the only power tool he used for years was a jigsaw (I was a teenager before the first Skil saw appeared in the garage). It's a versatile saw – it cuts curves and straight lines, and can manage interior cuts (e.g., cutting a hole in a panel). That, a tape measure, square, hammer and nails, essentially built everything I can remember. A power sander would be used if there was some basic shaping required. I try to remember that one can accomplish a lot with a basic set of tools. I own some more specialized tools for fine woodworking (router bits, a shoulder plane, etc), but even these can be forgone if one buys pre-made moulding and uses simpler joinery.
I'm sure there's more, and memories will probably keep coming to me throughout this trip. It helps with the grief to write them down, so I'll probably be blogging more frequently in the near future. As always, thanks for listening.