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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Politics (From 2008)

My venerable hard drive has breathed its last. It was eight years old. I rely on the Internet for all my wages, and all I have is a low-end Dell from 2002 with the hard drive 99% percent full and XP patched to hell and gone, and now I don’t even have that. So you get cut and paste from 2008, sent from my son’s computer. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.)

Let me tell you about safety.

If you live in the educated, white collar world, you know nothing of safety. That is to say: you know nothing of danger; you’re insulated almost totally from real peril.

As you move up the intellectual food chain, and your experience with the world inhabited by those faced with real, daunting challenges is practically non-existent, your attenuated worldview becomes almost worthless to people who are faced with real danger.

If you are entirely insulated from the consequences of your actions, it would be decent to recuse yourself from offering advice to others, no less so than a man who stands to profit from the outcome. When a man is facing a spinning blade, the cardinal sin is to distract him. Yelling: “Look out!” is akin to shoving him into the blade. The time to identify danger is before, not after. It is predictability and stability and a certain kind of respect that is helpful. Nothing else.

Let me tell you about the blade. You think you can handle it because you fancy yourself intelligent. You’re wrong. Because the danger it presents, the real danger, is hidden from you.

I watch people who have no business offering advice to anyone telling amateurs and professionals alike how to do what they’re trying to do. I see the safety fetishist’s clown shoes — safety glasses worn to hang a picture — and the matching squeak-nose of warnings over the toxicity of stuff you could eat, never mind touch, juxtaposed with behavior that reminds me of sheep sniffing around the shambles.

You think that you’re smart. You think that you can put your hand near the blade, as long as you don’t push your hand right in it. It doesn’t work that way.

You have to avoid putting yourself in the position where your hand will be drawn into the blade and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. There was no danger, really; you were maimed without danger announcing itself first. It was there all along in a way you’ll never “get” until it’s too late.

The wood lays there on the table. Perhaps it’s some mundane species. Straight, plain grain. Maybe it’s exotic or unusual. You like the look and feel of it. The smell of it. It gives you a little thrill to think what could be made from it. It’s full of a kind of promise of a fantastic future.

But it grew from a little sapling. Buffeted by winds, warped and enfeebled by its greedy reaching to get up to the sun before the others that would wither in the shadow of its canopy, there are stresses built up in the wood. Maybe the tree grew straight up, but the ground where it was born and raised was tilted, and the constant stress was locked in the grain. Maybe the sawyer saw that it was growing at a crazy angle, and put it on the logging truck anyway, out in the landscape where no one would know that no straight timber could ever come out of it. He’d have his money and someone else closer to the blade would find out what was in there the hard way.

Besides the stresses in the wood, there is a phenomenon associated with how it is seasoned. Most wood must be seasoned out in the air — or in an oven to do it quicker — to allow it to become useful by acclimating it to its future use. Leaving the lumber out to dry is time consuming and has its risk: bugs and weather and fires and so forth. But there is a real danger in drying out the lumber too quickly in a kiln, too. It’s referred to as case hardening. Sounds like metallurgy, but it’s not. It means when you try to pass the blade through the baulk of wood, the tensions locked into the wood are released –or better put: are revealed– by its travel through the blade. The outside of the wood seems OK. But the inside is different.

You are holding on to that piece of wood, if you trust yourself not to put your hand too near, and trust others never to fool you, or be fools themselves. You’ve been told that others have made you safe, and so you trust it a bit more than you should, maybe. On the table saw, the case hardened wood might pinch the saw kerf closed, and it will grab the back of the spinning blade and be hurled at you. Or conversely, perhaps you will hang on to it tightly enough, and it will buck and rocket away in some unexpected direction, and draw your hand into the abyss.

14 Responses

  1. Power tools – they mean business.

    But wood can be subtle, too. I turned a lot of freshly cut black walnut and got contact dermatitis. I read up on it, what do you know – the toxins in the wood that allow the trees to succeed in the environment can sensitize those who work with walnut wood. I have learned to deal with that, as walnut is much favored by customers.

    I got surprised by Atlantic White Cypress recently – sanded a bowl that I had rough turned a year or two ago and ended up covered with a poison ivy-like rash – how about that – yet another aromatic wood taking its revenge upon those who would work it.

    I have read stories of people so allergic that they had to give up wood working altogether – hope I am not trending in that direction.

    And speaking of metallurgy, I recently completed a box made out of Eastern Red Cedar – while planing it I noticed some metal in the wood. I expected the usual tramp nails or bolts – but no – these were two .22 slugs – someone shot the tree years ago. Nice hunting, Elmer – you didn't miss a stationary object.

  2. It’s not just tricky wood that is dangerous, aluminum has grain and stresses also. I spent several years cutting aluminum extrusions for Boeing, on a table saw with a 100 tooth, 20 inch blade, mounted directly on the spindle of a 5 hp motor. It could sever a limb without even changing pitch.

  3. Blades make me light headed.. goes back to the childhood foolishness of putting the right hand ring finger in the fan — so when you spoke of blades, I saw white dots… so, I don't do blades.

  4. I run power tools every day. Recently my 30 year old band saw decided to start acting up. The worst incident was when a blade broke and a chunk of it flew out of the machine. I have broken many blades over the years, but the flying chunk has really made me phobic. I have replaced the guides, put on new tires, tuned up every single part I can, but I am still concerned whenever I turn it on. Now it rumbles. I think the tires are out of round. That low rumble just adds to the stress of running the thing, but without a band saw work in my shop ceases. Tools – what can you do – you need them, you use them, they break, you repair them. Eventually you die and leave them to others. Ahh…

  5. Wood can get you without any power tools to help it. I was trying to peg a short, thick rafter into a post, repairing an old barn, when I hit the peg crosswise a bit causing the rafter to twist itself in a seemingly impossible direction. The main joint of my left big toe will never again be 100% functional, and I have only myself, my less than steel-toed boots and that persnickety section of rafter to blame.

    My father and both my grandfathers, good carpenters all, had of course warned and tried to teach me. Apparently only pain can properly focus our minds on the unpredictable ways of wood.

  6. I've seen enough career builders blinded by splinters, amputated by circular saws, and the classic chainsaw down the middle of the face in an arborist. Use safety googles, steel-toed shoes, and dust masks and hearing protectors where needed. AND I never, ever use circular or chain saws. Sure I might lose a finger in a jigsaw or hedge trimmer but that is a far as it might go. Slow steady and sweaty but a hand tool is just fine for me.

  7. I run all kinds of tools, including a powerful chainsaw with a 36" bar. Have been running power tools, including chainsaws for over 40 years, am fine so far. But my band saw is making me phobic, that's for sure. I need to deal with my fear, because as I say, without it, production stops.

    The key to running a chainsaw is proper training (he says, with the knowledge that the next time I start the thing I could die) – the guys who trained me 40 years ago were professionals who had, in turn, been trained by professionals with decades of experience.

    But all the experience in the world will not overcome a bad split-second decision or an unforeseen defect in the wood. Stuff happens, and sometimes it happens very rapidly. The best advice I ever got was "Never make a cut before you know what's going to happen". Over the years my knowledge of what's on the list of what might happen has grown, but the advice is still good.

  8. I remember this post from before the election between Obama and McCain. Most who read it praised it for its opacity. Depending on whom you supported, you could easily read this as an indictment of the other guy. This time around, no one seems to have caught the original intent. I wonder if there's any meaning to this, given that only one of the guys from the last election is still around. Is this a reminder that trying the untried is dangerous, and posted as an "I told you so"? Or is it a warning about the new "wood" on the block, the TPers? No way to know then which side you supported, and no way to tell today. We can only project our own inclinations into this, and wonder if you agree.

    Very impressive then, equally so today.

  9. Sheesh, wish I had a spare computer layin' around, I'd barter it for one or two of those beautiful tables, or a bookcase or something.

    The mister and I have had some great luck buying used computers on craigslist. We haven't even gotten killed or anything, and we've gotten some great computers for very cheap.
    Check out Uncle Henrys, they're online.

  10. teresa- You're a kind soul. It leaks right through the Intertunnel.

    I've already purchased a new hardrive and installed it. Sixty bucks, including overnight and rush shipping, and it's twice as big as the last one. It's the software that's killing me. Ponderous to get humpty-dumpty back together again. Searching for ten year old disks in boxes still umpacked from moving six months ago.

    What a little midden of online links and pixels and so forth I made for myself, and mostly lost. I guess I am a writer, after all.

    I'm busy making thirty or so of those tables you mentioned right now.

  11. Glad you're making progress on your computer stuff. You are a thrifty New Englander, I can tell.
    I guess I'd better get busy earning some money to buy some of those beautiful tables!!
    Not sure how connected up you are there, but we get pretty cheap firewood from a mill around here – we buy "ends" which are essentially the ends of the tree before they are milled. Good hardwood, cheap as can be – 75-85 bucks a cord. A pain to split, a pain to stack, but definitely keep you warm . Seems like usually somebody's BIL gets the contract to sell it to the public, so it's usually word of mouth.

  12. You are both deep and thick, my friend, and hard-nosed to boot. Part of your charm.

    My laptop companion of eight years swooned fatally on October 16, so the stars align.

    I'm still working on what I began so fitfully last fall, and I'm making some progress, I think. I'll be back to you on it as soon as the pixy dust settles.

    If it does.

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