Archive for April, 2012

My hands have a past, thanks to my Dad

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

During the day my father was a news editor at The Montreal Star. One of my older brothers inherited the journalistic gene, but I picked up on what my father did when he came home. He loved photography. He had a darkroom downstairs and I got to learn how to make prints and develop under the red glow of the safe light. He also had a reel-to-reel tape recorder and would capture all the laughter and piano playing at family gatherings. His dabbling in media production had an influence on my future career, but he had another interest as well. He had a work area with a table saw and would make things. More importantly, he would allow me in there as well. Because of his influence, I built a whole collection of modular boxes that served as tables and chairs in my first apartment.

I remember one summer when having confidence using my hands helped me. After carelessly lowering myself into a kayak that immediately decided to flip over, I subsequently learned that cell phones don’t like to be immersed in water. Luckily, we had a hair dryer but I was worried that a few hours of warm air passing over an unopened phone would not be enough. So I decided to take the phone apart and happily the hair dryer treatment did the trick. I had done a program in electronic technology but in my day there was never anything as small as a cell phone. In this situation I just looked at how the parts were put together and went for it.

Last June in Québec City I attended the Skills Canada National Competition, which featured more than 40 trades and technology contest areas. I was there as part of my research for the Working Hands Project, but it was an event I would have enjoyed attending anyway. I appreciated seeing how things are done, and also how focused and skilled the young people seemed in their various disciplines. I spoke to one young woman who did have shop class in her school and found it her saving grace. She eventually discovered, unfortunately with no help from her guidance counsellor, a career path that combined her love of airplanes and the pleasure she had working with her hands. Her contest area was aircraft maintenance.

There is satisfaction in media production. At the end of the day, I have camera footage to look at or an edit sequence I have completed. But when you build or repair objects, there is a different type of satisfaction. I remember when I built a bicycle shed in our backyard. I didn’t have plans, I just knew what I needed and what area I had to work in. For a few days after finishing it, I would go out to look at it or open its door or give it a push to make sure it wasn’t going to fall down.

A less-successful undertaking was when I decided to build an awning over our back deck. The method I chose to keep the awning material taut was not very efficient. During a heavy rain, someone had to go outside with a broom handle to push up on the water that had collected in the awning so it would spill over the front edge. Once we came out a little too late. The front beam couldn’t take the strain anymore and had broken in half. What is tremendously satisfying, though, is that eventually I came up with an awning design that is solid enough to be up all year long. It uses clear polycarbonate panels that let in the winter sun and the original tarp is placed on top to block the sun in July and August. The process of contemplation, creation, head scratching, experimenting, manipulating, measuring and measuring again has benefits that, I have since learned, affect the pleasure centres in our brains. Then again I already knew that, because I’ve lived it.

Dreaming into the future I would love to build or renovate a cottage. I would like it to be very energy efficient or built completely out of recycled materials or be powered totally off the grid. That is another great aspect of working with your hands; you get to dream a lot. And like life; no project ever works out exactly the way you plan. Isn’t that right, Dad?

If and when I stop doing media, I look forward to spending more time in my workshop. And if there are grandchildren in the picture, they can be fairly certain of a wooden rocking-horse, or even better a set of kid-sized tools under the tree at Christmas.