Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Metal (100x24)

My brother-in-law was good with metal. His would hoist the engine out of a ’69 Plymouth, dismantle it, clean and lubricate every part, replace the gaskets and points and plugs, and then patiently reassemble it, fully confident that when he turned the ignition the car would spring to life, engine humming. If I tried that, there’d be a loud noise, an acrid smell, and lots of smoke. I’m more of a wood kind of guy. Wood is more forgiving: the tolerances are greater. You can carve and sand and smooth your way in soft, forgiving increments toward your heart’s desire.

Process Reflection: I had no idea when I sat down to write that I would wind up writing about my brother-in-law, but as I sat staring at the word "metal" on the screen I thought first about what metal is good for and then about how it is worked. From then on, the piece came easily; the problem was trying to keep it to 100 words. The first time I stopped to check I was at 116 with a ways to go, so I had to go back and start paring down.

For what it’s worth, every word is true. My father worked in wood, and as I learned from him how to use hand tools and power tools, how to cut and join and finish wood. I learned to know and appreciate the differences between pine and maple and oak and mahogany and and teak and ash, the way they resisted or responded to my ministrations, the various way the grain would come alive under stain or wax or varnish or shellac. I never quite felt comfortable with metal: cold, independently-minded metal. The only success I ever had working with metal was in art class making copper panels by rubbing the sheets over molds carved from wood. I’ve seen work done by silversmiths and goldsmiths which is beautiful to behold, but if I had the choice I’d rather own a koa bowl or a sandalwood frieze. One of the things I most admired about my brother-in-law was his ability to work with any materials. He was a gifted painter, a thoroughly competent mechanic, and a woodworker as well. He loved making things. During the time I was growing up I watched him as he built a stagecoach from scrap lumber, a sailboat, a pool table, a guitar. But what he really liked working on was cars and motorcycles, things made of metal. I've always been somewhat awed by his versatility.

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