It is my general policy to avoid all wood-working jobs, but recently I have been forced to repair a rail fence in the parking area of our property. Last year I misjudged how close I was to the fence and knocked down a sizable section of it with our pontoon boat trailer. The instant I hit the fence, I knew it was going to be a lot of work fixing it. I had to replace a couple of the posts, as well as several sections of the rail. The job involved using a power saw, a post hole digger, bags of concrete mix and a cordless screwdriver, and making multiple trips to the hardware store. I also had to repaint it (not to be a whiner).
Although I am not very handy, the fence was passable when I finished. To my dismay, however, a couple of weeks ago, I saw that the center rail was lying on the ground. I have no explanation how this happened, but I have had a number of paranoid theories. My wife Diane took one look at it and said, “You’re going to have to get a new board.” I said, “I’ll just screw the old one back on.” She replied, “It’s not going to be long enough.” I argued, “It’s the same board that was there before!” Diane just patronizingly shook her head.
After returning from the hardware store with the new board, I cut it about three inches longer than the old one, so it would fit. The other day I was checking the fence to make sure it was intact when I noticed that a screwdriver was stuck in the ground by the fence. I vaguely remembered using it to open the paint can. It reminded me of the time my father came home from work and found several of his tools, including his favorite screwdriver, sticking in the ground — all dirty and rusty.
He was furious, since he was so protective of his tools. Toronto Star reporter Francine Kopun has suggested that men love tools the same way women love shoes. It’s sort of like an addiction, although it often isn’t recognized since it can be easily rationalized.
Canadian addictions counselor Sean Swaby and others have developed a number of reasons why men find tools so attractive. First of all, tools have the power to create. Since men can’t give birth, using tools to make things may serve as a psychological substitute. Tools have the power to erase the past and craft a brand new environment.
Power tools can extend the individual’s strength and capabilities, giving them low-level super powers of a sort. A fixation with power tools was the central theme of the television sitcom “Home Improvement,” in the 1990s. The show starred comedian Tim Allen as Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor, the host of a home-improvement television show. Taylor was a stereotypical American male, who loved power tools, cars and sports. He was also accident-prone. Many of his mishaps were the result of using overpowered tools. “More power!” was the show’s catch phrase. Swaby points out that tools are also generally “cheaper and easier to get than guns.” Tools generally symbolize power, masculinity, creativity, competence and dominion over the environment. They are also a convenient excuse to make a mess.
I believe my father viewed tools as security, since they could be used to earn a living or make things last longer. Both of these functions were especially important to people who lived through the Great Depression.
Additionally, tools may be considered esthetically pleasing. Swaby describes how he found himself with two other men in a Walmart admiring a display of generators. He says, “We looked at the big shiny boxes, promising more amps and voltage than anyone can safely handle. Some of them seemed to have enough power that they could eat natural disasters for breakfast.”
I remember when my father bought a set of enormous wrenches from the Army Surplus Depot. They were intended to be used on the treads of tanks. It was not that my father would ever need or use them, he bought them just to look at — like other people would buy a work of art.
Finally, Swaby wondered if power tools were the way that men express their vulnerability. When holding a power tool he says, “We are in control, but the machine can never be tamed. In the face of untamable power, we have to surrender.” Whenever I use a chain saw, it seems untamable and despite a satisfying result, it is always more than a little frightening.
The global market for tools is over $51 billion, and Black & Decker is the sales leader. Duncan Black and his friend, Alonzo Decker, opened a small Baltimore machine shop back in 1910. They decided that they could improve an inefficient German drill by adopting features from the Colt .45 pistol. By 1916, they were selling a pistol-grip, electric drill, which is the predecessor of all modern drills. In the 1960s, Black & Decker also made the first cordless tools, as well as tools for the space program. One of these was a wrench for the Gemini Program that was able to turn bolts in zero gravity without spinning the astronaut around.
My father owned some Black & Decker tools, but his Skilsaw circular saw was his favorite, along with his arc welder and drill press. Since I was surrounded by such tools as a child, you’d think that I would be much handier. I must be lacking in that specific region of the brain that Parma University neuroscientist Guy Orban says controls “the execution and observation of tool actions.” Orban believes that tool use evolved shortly after humans started walking upright, but before they acquired language.
According to Orban, humans have two pathways involved in the use of tools. The first is “a biological circuit for grasping objects.” The second allows humans to comprehend how tools work. Other primates lack an understanding of this cause-and-effect relationship, which Orban says is “the basis of all technological developments.”
I have to admit that if I were in a Walmart, I would be more likely to gravitate to the area where they were selling pretzel-dogs rather than the display generators. It’s best to store up your strength for the next unexpected home repair.
— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. lives in Jeffersonville and is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.