This weekend I celebrated my birthday.  Well, many people, my grand children included, would not understand why “celebrated” is the right word.  I mowed the lawn, trimmed some bushes, weeded, cut down a bunch of plants growing in the back garden – then mowed that area with the lawn mower.  I then swept out the sitting area near the back of the house and shifted the potted herbs there.  They will be easier to get to in the winter.

In short, I spent a good deal of time working on putting the garden to bed, ready for the winter.  There is still more to do, but this was a good amount of work done and the weather was glorious. 

So yes, I celebrated by doing work in the garden.

Also, my lady-wife took me to lunch at one of our favorite restaurants (free meal on your birthday, up to a $20 value) then we went for a bit of a drive looking at the leaves in the last of their autumn gold and red glory.  Then we went out for drinks with a daughter and her fiance and listened to a band where a friend of ours was playing.

All in all – it was a wonderful weekend.

One thing about the garden work.  I used many tools to help me get the job done.  Or rather, I used several tools that were very specialized to do some extremely fundamental things that make it easier to do basic tasks.

There were loping shears for cutting branches and roots.  An 8-lb hammer to remove some posts that I could not work loose without “tool assistance.”  There was the lawn mower – very handy since I don’t have sheep to keep the lawn at a reasonable length.  A hand-saw I used for cutting large branches that needed to be removed that were too large for the loping shears.  And then there was the grass whip.

Of all of them – this was probably my favorite tool.  You swing this thing one handed with a straight arm swing – it cuts through brush and brambles and long, thick grass like nobody’s business.  The neighbors wonder what I’m doing with this – since the area I was working with it was roughly 10′ x 25′ it took a bit of doing to clear.  Why did I not simply use a brush cutter? One of the big monsters that would run through this stuff like a lawn mower?

Two reasons – One, I really like using the grass whip.  Two, I can’t imagine spending the money to rent a brush cutter, let alone take the time to drive there (to the rental shop) and back, operate it, then drive there and back to return it.  I could – and did – have the area cleared in much less time – 25 minutes to be exact.

The third reason is more personal.  My dad taught me how to use a grass whip when I was around 11 or 12 years old.  It was cool.  Swing this thing just so and you’ve cut through weeds and thick stuff faster than you could wrestle a lawn mower through it.  Hold it right and swing with enough room to swing it right and watch the cut stuff fly.  Something about simple tools designed to do one thing and one thing only – and they do it really when.

My dad had lots of wisdom in him.  As I approach the age when he died, I think back on the things he shared with me.  It amazes me how some of the simple things he taught me have stuck with me. 

He’d shake his head sometimes and say “Peter, you’re making too much work out of this.  Do it this way…”  And then there were other times when it would be “Watch it, that’s a lazy man’s load. They want to avoid work so they take too big a load to make fewer trips. Except they spend more effort keeping everything in place than they would to make one more trip with a smaller load in each.” 

One thing I remember he said – “Make sure you are using the right tool for the job.  If you don’t have a single tool to do what needs to be done, see if you have two that you can use together to get it done.”  Like, loosening a nut that does not want to relax.  You might spray it with a bit of lubricant to start.  Then using a good crescent wrench see if you can loosen it.  Sometimes a bit more leverage is needed – so a wrench with a longer handle might help.  Sometimes a good solid “whap!” with a hammer will get things going.  Sometimes a long-handled wrench with an “extension” – a piece of pipe over the handle to help with leverage will answer.  Sometimes all of these together.  There’s a lesson in there for testing.

Anyway, sometimes he’d explain things in a way that made sense at the time – then a few days later I’d wonder what was meant – really – by what he said.  I’d lost the context of the comment.  Then I’d forget that bit and it would be shoved away to be replaced by something else.  Sometimes they come back.  Sometimes they float back years later – like today when swinging the grass whip.

He’d say something like “Using a tool right – in a way that shows you know how to use it, that is something that is worth doing and knowing how to do.”

How many times have I seen people struggling with a job because they did not have the right tools – of if they had the tools, had no idea how to use them.  I bet most of us would not be impressed by someone who clearly had no clue what the plethora of tools around them were for.  Why do we accept so many people with shallow or no understanding of what their tools are capable of? 

Are we concerned about hurting their feelings or some such?  We can always gently point out that they are doing something in a sub-optimal way without being total jerks.  We can offer the potential there might be other ways of using the tools they have available.  If they are open to suggestions – usually I have seen this when people have been flailing and it is becoming clear they will not achieve what they are trying to do the way they are trying to do it. (This is absolutely true for me – when I am most desperate for a solution, I find myself most open to suggestions.  Other people may have varied experience.)

One other thing – If they are such fragile narcissists as a well-timed piece of gently offered advice will harm their psyche – or at least hurt their feelings – should they be doing the thing they are trying to do in the first place?

I was thinking of my dad this weekend when I was swinging that very simple tool – that grass whip.  Knowing the right tool for the job and using it is half the mark of a craftsman.  Using it well is the other half.