How to be a tool at Christmas

My shed smells like wood and paint and grass clippings and rubber and WD40. The concrete floor is usually cold and nowhere entirely flat. There’s cupboards with old paint tins inside, a couple of wobbly work benches, dusty louvre windows, and some spades and clippers and garden rope. And tools. The favourite part of my home is the shed, and my favourite part of the shed is the tools.

I love the way an old wooden handle has been worn smooth so it fits comfortably in my palm. I love the solid and sure motion of a well-oiled vice thread. Though I don’t smell it much these days, I love the smell of hot metal and cutting compound. Good tools just Make Me Happy. More than the smug surprise at making a #8-wire-Heath-Robinson-MacGyver jobbie actually work (and I’m no small fan of those), I’m talking about deep satisfaction from using just the right tool in just the right way to accomplish just what it was intended to do.

Every tool has two ends. There’s the business end, the pointy bit, the end that does the doing; the blade of the knife or the curve of the ice-cream scoop, but this post is primarily about the other end. Why? Because the other end affects me. You. Each of us. The user. Someone who likes ice-cream but prefers it in their mouth, not running down their arms. Someone who prefers to remain un-skewered by hard, pointy things. A chisel that’s lovely and sharp but missing a handle cannot be used well, so can’t be a good chisel. An ice-cream scoop that is beautifully balanced but without a scoopy bit is just as useless. A tool has two ends, and each is important.

You and I – we’re tools too. Not in the urban dictionary sense (well, not most of the time, anyway), but in the sense of being something potentially useful and having two sides, and yes, I’ll explain.

Think about what you’ve done today. Maybe you’ve been at work. Maybe you’ve done your family’s laundry. Maybe you’ve been on a bus. Maybe you’ve helped your child finish their homework. In each of those functions, the pointy bit is the thing got the job done. Did you get through your tasks at work? Did the laundry get washed and dried? Did you pay the money to the driver and ride the bus to your destination? Did the homework get finished? If so, great. The pointy bit is ok. Now let’s think about the other end. The handle. The end with which others interact. The experiences of people around us while (and after) the pointy bit was in use. Were your colleagues pleased to be around you today? Did you complain about those piles of washing and hanging and folding to make your family feel guilty or grumpy or beholden? Did you recognise and thank whomever did your laundry for you and do what you could to make it easier for them? Did you greet the bus driver as a fellow human being rather than a piece of feelingless automata? Does your child understand more for themselves now than before you helped them finish? It’s not just the what of getting the job done that’s key; the handle, the how, the experiences caused by getting that job done are just as important.

And now it’s nearly Christmas or Hanukkah or the Summer Solstice or the Winter Solstice or New Year or Kwanzaa. Or whatever you happen to celebrate at the moment. The Holidays. And people will gather (perhaps) with their families (or whomever) to celebrate. There may be food. There may be gifts. There will be celebration. So what?

My this-time-of-year wish this year is that we’d consider both sides of our toolish selves. That in giving, we’d truly think about not only who will receive it, and what the gift is, but how it will be received. That we’d try and remember that it should be better to receive. That we’d check our motivations before posting on social media: are we wrapping up a big “Nyah-nyah-nyah” in the shiny, plastic tinsel of #gratitude? (It’s ok to be genuinely grateful and not tell the world about it. It’s fine to say thank-you to the people and situations which have made you feel #blessed, and not actually require a hashtag to do so.) That we’d think twice before giving anything that might manipulate or create obligation. That we’d check and check again for those gifts that are (secretly, not-really-acknowledging-it-even-to-ourselves) sidling up to a desire to be boastful or shaming or controlling. We’d use the gift-giving season to do our best to be just the right thing at just the right time in just the right way: recognising that “right” in this instance is wholly defined by someone else. No small challenge, no mean feat, but something to aim for, perhaps.

After all, if there can be such utter satisfaction in using a sharpened saw or balanced ice-cream scoop, surely there’s something in being that tool? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know that our contributions are so much more than our ability to Get The Job Done with our pointy bits? To realise that we can have handles worn smooth by frequent interactions, and that about us too, there can be that undefinable scent of something that Just Makes People Happy. Ah, yes. This Christmas, I wish you all a world full of good tools.

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