Monday, December 29, 2008


Because I'm a woman -- or because I'm this woman -- I grew up thinking tools were for boys, and that boy things were superior to girl things. It doesn't matter that, in my young twenties, I went to a women's consciousness raising group where we learned (didn't we?) to welcome our periods as celebrations of our womanhood; that we were women, not girls. I lived in a culture -- oh dear, and I still do -- that continues to prefer the male.

I am not unaffected by that. Just as black people are racist, too, I'm sexist. Now ain't that a bitch!

But look at this: Dad's hammer was a tool but Mom's cookie press was a gadget.

Ah, well, I want to talk about the tools of my trades. Look at these brushes KT got me for Christmas! Aren't they something? I don't know the story of the tri-handled brush, but isn't it gorgeous? That seed-brush is from Africa. Although I'm a sponge painter, I'm looking forward to seeing what happens with these brushes. You'll be the first to know.

Right now, my favorite tool is probably that rubber-headed mallet that I use to smash down the lids on the paint cans. It's very satisfying to do that. And the mallet has all kinds of paint splatters on it, making it pretty. I also use a flat-head screwdriver to pry open the cans, but I just got an official can-lid-pry-upper from Home Depot last night, so maybe I'll use it. It's lacking in character, but maybe when it's been splashed a bit, it'll be good.

Whoops. I just saw that it's Made In China. I'm trying to avoid such things, although it's extremely difficult.

My Olfa knife was the first tool I ever had, I believe. It's like a box-cutter, but delicate, for graphic arts purposes. It used to have a nice crisp ratcheting sound when I'd roll out the blade. In fact, it used to make the hair stand up on co-worker Clark's neck, which I rather liked (the effect and the neck, come to think of it). Time, however, has exacted its price, and now the blade ins and outs with nary a peep.

A different co-worker and I spent half an hour searching out the best pica stick in the store. I wanted points on it. Since, as you know, there are seventy-two points in an inch (and six picas in an inch), the points were expressed two at a time, but that's fine with me. God I loved that thing! I actually took it to a jeweler and had it engraved: NICOLAZZO. I couldn't believe it when I started working for America's Favorite Junkmail in 1993 and they wouldn't let me use my own pica stick.

What the heck. Now it's got paint on it, and whoever would have predicted that?

In 1974, when I was twenty-four, I went to Mohawk Valley Community College for their Advertising, Design and Production program. I'd already been a proofreader for a daily paper in St. Cloud, MN, and a jack-of-all-trades at a weekly in rural New York. Now I wanted to learn how to do it all properly. I bought all the things on the list. I had lettering pens and French curves -- even a flexible French curve, which was pretty exciting, as most things French and/or flexible are. I had a compass that would take a blade or a pen nib or a pencil tip. I had sheets of color that had adhesive on the back, and sheets of PresType (upon which I now spit). Still, all was new and exciting.

At the beginning of one class, an afroed black kid sat near me with a stack of books halfway to his chin. On top of the books was a tool I hadn't seen yet. There was a black handle with several silver prongs coming out of it. It was right there on top, ready for use, but I didn't have one. I asked him what it was for. He glanced at me with contempt and merely snorted a response.

Well, I'm a wide-eyed bumpkin from the country, looking up at the tall buildings. I certainly couldn't believe a snort was how he meant to answer, so I smiled even bigger and asked in an even friendlier tone, "No, really. What's it for?"

"You know," he snapped.

I was puzzled and a bit hurt. "No I don't."

I think my true naivety finally shone through like the great beam it was because he said, "It's a hair pick."

Oh. I didn't even exactly know what that meant, but I did know that his tone meant we wouldn't be hanging out at the student union any time soon, drinking Constant Comment tea and comparing spoon rings.

Years later, I had my hair permed and needed a pick. The only one available had a black fist for a handle. I wish that kid could have seen me then.

I don't think I should have to ask you to write and tell us about your tools. Clearly, the blog ended with that last paragraph. But I know some of you are shy and wouldn't dream of speaking up without an invitation, so here's the invitation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh, Barbara, sweet Barbara. What the heck happened? You were envious that boy things were superior to girl things? How did THAT happen? I didn't get that outta growing up at all! Are you sure, Barbara?

What I got was that girl stuff was way better than boy's stuff. They got to help Mom out and, like, practice to be all grown up (and they learned all about food way sooner than we did) and grubby boys were just sorta shoved out the door and told to go play…until we were just about considered young men. I guess we were allowed to return from exile after a certain amount of time just prior to our gonads maturing. It wasn’t fair at all.

Then when girls got older they had all that secret stuff with older girls and women. What's THAT all was like some sort of secret society and nobody would talk about it. Dang! What did they separate the girls out for…to talk in that "special" class in fourth grade? We didn't get anything like that...and never did, for that matter. Things were so screwed up by the time I entered the military, they didn't even give the clap lecture anymore. (Thanks for that lapse of common sense, Uncle Sam!)

Maybe our different outlooks exist because I was raised exclusively by my Mom after the age of nine or so. Yeah, we were way cool before we even knew how to spell D-I-V-O-R-C-E. (Tammy Wynette wouldn’t teach us how to spell it with her song of that name for seven more years!) Ma had her own hammer, pliers, Crescent wrench, and other tools. When we attained sufficient age, we acquired our own tools, but never would one dare to use, then lose, Ma’s tools…never! There would be hell to pay!

Who’d a thought? That drawer of cookie cutters, whet stones, chopper, dicer, and whatever else all those other contraptions were, were somehow inferior to the tools in the drawer in the enamel table? Shoot, they were all just tools, of sorts, to be used for purposes intended (usually, sometimes we found unintended uses, but Ma always caught wind and someone’s butt was in a sling. I, being the eldest, usually occupied that sling diverting wrath from the younger, weaker siblings).

Hmm. I never would have imagined.

Speaking of tools and femininity, I am reminded of the WWII poster of an attractive woman with some power tool in hand, crouching on an aircraft wing, hair up in a bandana of some sort. Three forms of attractiveness in one poster! The artist owning that piece of work was a genius! Power tool in the hands of a powerful woman on the wing of a powerful American aircraft! Loads of symbolism there…I’ll have to stop now. To proceed beyond here might be indecent!

Yeah, I remember that Afro/hair pick era. I was intimidated by it all. I couldn’t get my head around all that stuff, so I ignored all but the most obvious of it. I, like you, came into all this out of complete innocence and ignorance, as if waking from a peaceful sleep into a warring world of us vs. them, black vs. white, old vs. young, good vs. bad. I didn’t like any of it. I hadn’t had time to even look everything over and already everyone expected choices out of me. I’m barely ready now to decide what I think…there’s no way I could do it then. I resented being expected to make all those choices so soon.

My tools? In my present occupation, I have none other than my hands, really. I use the equipment supplied by the company. With that equipment and my BARE HANDS I coax and coerce literally thousands of tons of freight and freight cars across the landscape through the backyards of America to and from the makers and users of all the different things we need. Physically, this is the easiest job I have ever done. Just look at my waist, that’ll tell you.

Tools of past jobs: Marking gun (labeler), box cutters, magic markers, two-wheeled cart, delivery truck. Calipers, verniers, micrometers, wrenches, dressing stone, Allen wrenches, carbide tool tips, hammers of copper, brass, lead, or steel (each for a different purpose).