Category Archives: technique

Are you squirrely tonight?

squirrel and nut
Central Park squirrel, cum nutkin, has nothing on the Arkansas variety! (Photo from

Every other week I’ve been tutoring kids up in Bentonville, a smart group of Indian-American kids whose immigrant parents want them to assimilate and succeed. They are ahead of their grade levels already and like reading if not, necessarily, writing, which comes less naturally than reading, or speaking, and which requires more learning and more patience.

One of the kids — let’s call her A — is just seven years old now, eight this fall, like my granddaughter Ruby. She’s the youngest kid I tutor and the silliest, which I appreciate.

When I came to the door the other night, A hid behind it, on the inside, and opened the door so I couldn’t see her. “Oh, my goodness!” I proclaimed. “An automatic door opener!” A’s mother and I smiled.

Sometimes A is quite attentive and focused; other times, she’s full of exhaustible and combustible energies. She curls in a ball on her chair, beside mine, and tries out various feline positions. She hums and jabbers and is intent on telling me stories of the day or jokes.  Sometimes she runs around the room.

It’s at junctures like these that I think the two of us should step outside, into the backyard, and find a tree to climb. Go way up to the crown and have a look-see at the neighborhood. Scramble out on the branches and grab some nuts. Sit there together, crack the nuts in our steel jaws, and pick out the meats with our claws.

Then and only then return to the educational business at hand.

Wouldn’t such a climb be what is called “active learning”? In truth, I might try to accommodate my tutees with some such squirrely exercises. (I remember teaching college way back when, when the simple expedient of throwing a rubber ball around the room to all who wanted to ask or answer a question produced astonishingly results!)

Punctuation lets not let it stop us

Read an Ian Parker profile in The New Yorker, on the “public intellectual” Christopher Hitchens, a Brit who lived in the US for many years and died in 2011 of cancer. (He was addicted to both booze and cigarettes, at one time a three-pack-a-day man.)

Hitchens is known for a couple of things primarily: 1) his shift from socialist to right-wing hawk (he became an advocate for Bush II’s Iraq war) and 2) the blazing speed with which he wrote his columns.

As for his celerity, Parker puts it this way:

He writes a single draft, at a speed that caused his New Statesman colleagues to place bets on how long it would take him to finish an editorial. What emerges is ready for publication, except for one weakness: he’s not an expert punctuator, which reinforces the notion that he is in the business of transcribing a lecture he can hear himself giving.

We can all envy the man’s speed, and sureness — even his obliviousness to punctuation.

It occurs to me — I taught English writing and grammar for many years and became a pretty expert “punctuator” — that there might be bliss in this kind of forgetting. Rather than worrying the bone of punctuation, and punctilio, Hitchens blazed through his essays and reviews with the sureness of conviction and the rightness of genius. Why let the niceties of punctuation, for gods’ sake, slow us down? Why interrupt the phosphorescent flash of thinking and so risk missing a deadline?

Roman copy of a Greek sculpture of Hermes. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
Roman copy of a Greek sculpture of Hermes, in the Vatican museum. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Hermes must have been Hitchens’ patron, the god of speed, desire, and, yes, trickiness. Like lightning, Hermes flew between the gods and men, carrying messages. Like a fox, he tricked whoever would be tricked. And isn’t it some kind of trick to spurn the civilized niceties of punctuation — and all that it implies about structure and behavior — to let our thoughts fly, like arrows from a bow, or notes from a lyre (Hermes invented the instrument)?

To let our thoughts, like a brand, press, hissing, on the cattle of mere pecuniary considerations, as Hermes branded the cattle he stole from his brother Apollo, the rationalist, the calculator.

Hermes was here! the singed brand says, hissing still. He beat you to it, slave of reason, beast of proper form!

For any of us suffering from writer’s block, or insufferable slowness, I can recommend, on the example of Christopher Hitchens, R.I.P., a certain ignorance or disdain of punctuation. Damn, it slows the quick thinker! (Isn’t there always time later, sober and repentant, to crawl back and proofread our blazing sheets?)


Tool and technique

Wouldn’t it be cool to command a monster tablesaw like this?

Yesterday I finally tackled a little home improvement job involving cutting up and screwing in waferboard panels in my attic.

The attic, accessible by stairway from my garage, has a small area already paneled for storage. But I sought to enlarge this area, under the eaves, for you know how junk builds up and no storage ever seems adequate. (Yes, I know, it’s spring cleaning time already, but that’s a topic for another day.)

I have most of the tools the average homeowner needs, including, in the cutting line, a small table saw, a miter saw, a reciprocating saw, a jigsaw, and a circular saw. Problem is, when it comes to cutting a 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood or wafer board, how to accomplish the task by yourself.

If my table saw were big enough (it’s not) and stable enough (ditto: it’s not anchored down), I could feed a sheet through by myself. I wanted a straight cut, cutting each sheet in two length-wise, so I’d end up with two 2′ x 8′ pieces that could be hoisted easily through the small attic hatch door and manipulated into place.

So I got out two sawhorses and a roller-bar lifter, which adjusts vertically to receive and support heavy objects. Marked the waferboard down the middle, clamped on a 2″ x 4″ to guide the saw shoe, and what the hell? The only 2″ x 4″s I had on hand measured, from the store, about 92″ — not quite 8′. And they were noticeably warped. But I did what I could,  C-clamping the 2″ x 4″ on one end and screwing it through the wafer board on the other. Trouble was, as you might expect, the cut went off course when the saw shoe slid under the warped 2″ x 4″. Damn it. Damn it to hell.

But, what the hell, this was not fine woodworking, but purely utility storage for the attic. And the two sides of the sheet, though not straight in the middle, would fit together like two pieces of a puzzle.

I was doing my cuts outside, on the driveway, and though the afternoon had started out mild it was growing colder and darker as I proceeded. By the time I finished up, about 5:00 pm, it was chilly and drear out, and whatever technique I had to make up for my lack of quite the right tool — a big table saw, or a long straight board or rule — evaporated with my impatience and hurry to be done.

When the Black & Decker folding table I was also using to support my work would not fold down easily, I kicked it, it fell over, and the two plastic crank handles both shattered on the cement. Damn it. Damn it to hell.

Where tools are lacking, and technique is not necessarily up to par, perhaps it’s patience that is required most of all. Perhaps patience is the technique we all could use to set life straight and make our little projects turn out fine.

Technique, from the Greek techne: it’s how we do with what we have on hand, even when the hand shakes, the mouth curses, the blood begins to boil. Technique, as in patience, as in slow down, boy, it’s getting dark, the project can resume tomorrow, there’s always another day and a clearer way.