Four millennia ago, great stone sewers veined the isle of Crete. Water traveled slim terra cotta pipe to reach silver tongued faucets and marble lipped fountains. And in the Palace of Knossos, the first toilet yielded its basin to a Minoan elite.
How did they celebrate its arrival? How often–how kindly–did they sand its wooden seat? Did the inventor receive honors and admiration? Or did s/he tend the marvel in obscurity?
The toilet of Knossos turned to rubble, soon indistinguishable from earth; no longer a window to privileged detritus. It did not return until the 16th century, when Sir John Harrington introduced the valve closet to British consciousness in his subversive text, A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax. Both popular anti-monarchist allegory and practical description of an early flush toilet, the Queen felt conflicted over her godson’s Discourse. Ultimately, the saucy courtier was banished from the court, and the Queen was pleased to install a self-emptying basin in Richmond Palace
It waited another two centuries to part its lid for the populace, gaping from a million closet floors. The people praised Alexander Cummings, a Scottish watchmaker who patented the flush in 1775. His revolutionary S-shaped pipe trap prevented ugly gases from escaping London’s subterranean lungs.
Like Harrington, the watchmaker also wrote–about air pressure and gravity and stop-time. Find him referenced in John Hill’s The Construction of Timber from its Early Growth, Explained by the Microscope for his work in advancing the microtome. His tool cut fine slices of wood, allowing Hill to examine the morphology of a beloved black poplar he scaled in youth and “revived the ardor for microscopic pursuits.”
Meanwhile, the American chamber pot sang its dribbling tune.
A Select Glossary of Plumbing Terms
Adjustable hot limit stop
Back flow preventer
Ball check valve
Half inch female union
Half inch male line union
Service Partner Plan (SPP)
Tit of a trap
Water Hammer Arrestor
The Pipe Parana
Chris Dever spent two years knocking doors on the islands of St. Martin, St. Lucia, Barbados, and Antigua. Though he made little headway with the contentedly unsaved, he left a more fitting legacy: building bathrooms for special needs kids where the sugarcane once bloomed. See him shaking hands with Antigua’s Minister of the Department of Welfare.
Chris is a devoted husband, father of six, and fourth generation plumber. His father, Wesley George Dever, watched the Watts Riots from inside his plumbing truck. After years of frustrating flange removals, Chris went into his friend’s weld shop and invented a tool.
The Pipe Parana was born inverse of its yin, the ram bit, which reams plastic pipe squarely and accurately below the surface or finished grade. The ram bit leaves fittings clean and ready for solvent welding, but the Pipe Parana is specially designed to remove fittings from the outside of the pipe to which it is attached so that a new fitting may be chemically bonded to the existing waste pipe.
The Pipe Parana is young enough to be synonymous with its branding. The first shoot of its family tree; too naive for variations. New tools occur every day. Chris the Devoted, Chris the Resourceful, Chris the Believer drives out to Provo Bay, the sweet scent of grand babies still in his lungs, and casts an expectant line out past the reeds.
Andy the Plumber
Sunday morning without
arriving he was there,
ringing his weight through the kitchen.
from death by his mortgage
calling, ring ring,
Hello! It’s your friendly
Resurrected to pay his bills
in joyful purgatory a flowering
cupid, a ground-soaked
to seed. Hello!
He works widely
in open armed attack.
Home to chainsaws cracking
in the backyard, narrowly
missing the twins window
with a branch, everything
But his first line of
inquiry, the branches,
led him off–it must
be the roots now unscabbed
from concrete, let
bleed. Unearthed the way
one pecked open
my blouse, in fever.
He brushes tools from his lap
like crumbs. Hello!
I hear his text,
a groping meditation
wet soft as everything
While listing debts,
he saws open the bathroom
floor to let it breathe and
leaves us gaping.
Something to his endless swinging,
bold incompetence: The only
power I obey.
His sentence in my home
a visitation–an angel
unaware. He is in color,
a bruise. He pains
to move yet moves
and wields tools like
He directs the ruin,
presents us well
His body in noticeable
bent, he might
walk circles in the dark.
He might live right
to the moment of stopping,
hideous with breath.
He visits me at the first flourishing of decay,
just when the buds are forming
on my memory palace, and
I’m writing sticky
notes that say,
Kill Your Dreams.
I am dreadful with life,
happy as she put it,
and I answer his ring,
let him root
about unsupervised a floor
below. Let offend,
I make myself damp-proof,
impermeable to perfection.
like an antenna whining
into to the wind, chest
an overripe peach.
I turn from work
that is just so.
I run from
in its place.
from the neat
But I double, dissolve,
for Andy–his work
“I Do Not Cover Everything”: An Inexhaustive Index of the Crosscut Saw
“I do not cover everything. Sharpening, a complex and exacting art, is left for the reader to discover in Warren Miller’s excellent publication, Crosscut Saw Manual(1977, rev. 2003)*. I also will not cover complex felling techniques.”
Each tool acquires an intimate vocabulary, decipherable only to its operator. Manuals will get you nowhere if you do not know the heft and give of your instrument, the sounds produced when variously applied. Nonetheless, stories are revealed in terminology.
Using the broadest designations, there are one-person crosscut saws, with asymmetrical blades and D-shaped handles, and symmetrical two-person crosscut saws with detachable pin-style handles. From these, categories and features proliferate like fungi on a felled branch.
The lexicon of the crosscut saw is not entirely opaque. The words are familiar, even comfortable. It’s the size of the index that alienates. The six-century-old tool is composed of more parts than meet the eye. It is the sum of its relationships to humans, wood, slope, tension, area, and gravity. Indices are also tools, useful for illuminating the epistemological distance between word and experience.
The second in a series, this post retells Greek mythologies of The Saw.
Part Two: The Extinction of Talos
Talos drew a toe across wet sand. A giant letter B. Then an O an R an E and, just as the shallow suds washed in, a D. The ocean slid back and left his word behind, dimly.
He wasn’t bored, really. Solitude to a 9 year-old is unarticulated–that’s what makes it solitude.
He was charged; a current seeking a line. Hot sand heightened his senses. He stood by the rhythmic tide, busily discerning joint from muscle, hair from skin. He popped and hissed like a bundle of wires corroding in the sun.
He wasn’t naked. Talos dropped his shirt and shorts a mile back but kept the boxers. He’d only just graduated from his snug, white cottons, and thought anyone who’d question a young boy wandering alone might, upon seeing his clean plaid, think twice. But there was no one in sight so he stopped thinking at all.
Stopped thinking even of his long-armed uncle working just beyond the bluffs, his hands a furious bouquet of drafting instruments.
Daedalus had worked through the night, trying to devise a tool that could cut through logs, metal, and bone. Two more of the King’s workers had dropped from exhaustion—their labor wasted on swinging and hacking. His tool must speed the King’s desires and spare the men. When Talos left him, Daedalus was wandering the fallen forest of a fever dream.
This is how Talos learned to treasure boredom: If he left a corner of his bed untucked, or slurped his cereal milk; stood too long at the window, or let his eyes fall unconsciously on Daedalus’ notes, he was punished. He had all his uncle’s scrutiny, and none of his attention. To complete the dysfunction, Daedalus’ punishments were as elegant and creative as his many inventions, and Talos almost looked forward to them. But the beach was safe.
Where does a child’s mind go when it’s free? Nowhere: the earth is wild. It senses itself as new growth in virgin forest: An unruly hedge of existence on all sides, soft piles of decay. It digs and climbs and swims and goes where it goes, though openings lead to shadow and paths are swallowed behind. It turns to the animals, placid and self-contained
Talos’ walking meditation was a steady descent into instinctive being. With each linear step he carved and traversed his own mandala: innocently reflected to him as tiny orbs of sunlight when he blinked. A grain of sand sat unminded on his eyeball.
He didn’t know how much time had passed when a sudden sting tore into his mind. He winced soundlessly, jerked his knee into the air, and watched a drop of blood discolor the sand. There, stuck to the ball of his foot, was the small, sun-bleached spine of a fish.
Gently, he pulled it out and held it to his face with one hand, shading his eyes with the other. It looked like tail of an ancient arrow; it’s fletchings grown sharp and brittle. He sat and examined his foot, the blood already dry as powder. Reflexively, he pulled the delicate spine across his skin, drawing fresh blood in fine lines. Finally, a thought: These bones once nestled kindly in something’s meat.
The rest came like a shock. All wires went stiff and he found himself running; running back the way he came; back to his uncle’s workshop. This time his movement was targeted, commanded by a single thought, as when a boy first holds a gun. The wild earth flattened and he found himself crossing dunes and mounting bluffs machine-like. He was happy.
He pounded on the door, panting, boxers damp with sweat. Daedalus was irritated. Talos lived there; why should he knock except to disturb him? Talos held out the fish’s spine and said, Look. Daedalus raised his fist, but Talos quickly stepped back and pulled the spine across his own arm, drawing that same clean line of blood. Daedalus was bewildered enough to hesitate, and he hesitated enough to see. He took the fish spine without a word and carried it to his desk. Talos smiled, but his uncle’s eyes were vacant.
That night, Talos was yanked from a sound sleep into darkness. His uncle lifted him and held him like a bundle of firewood against his chest. Talos didn’t struggle. He waited with the usual calm mixture of curiosity and fear for what would come next.
It was fast. He was under the night sky. He was climbing higher and higher, up a slope of crumbling shale. He was at an edge. Only when the face of the cliff was speeding by did it occur to him that his uncle would throw him over. He was disappointed at Daedalus’ laziness: Such an unimaginative way to kill. But, he reasoned, simple and certain.
It hurt when he died. But not as much as what came after. His body was ripped open from the inside, his own spine shedding all attachments. What was left of him, this totem of bone, lengthened and arched and expelled it’s core, hollowing like a straw extracted from water. And more hollow parts grew: ribs and clavicle, femur and humerus and scapula, skull and mandible and little twitching digits. A pocked skin wrapped him tight and he sprouted feathers. He stroked them with his red beak, still tender with pain, and saw that he was deep brown edged with white.
Talos then experienced his last moments of surprise. Though they startle, birds do not wonder. He nested low to the water, in rocks worn smooth by the wind.
Daedalus couldn’t have seen the transformation if he tried. He was already inside, turning the frail but wounding bit of fish spine over and over in his hands.
If all tools express a natural law, then the saw enunciates. It is preexistent, delicate biology translated upon the anvil. We set and sharpen and polish its teeth ‘til the metaphor gleams. The saw has a long and surprisingly fabled history. This is the first in a series of posts retelling various mythologies of The Saw.
Part One: The Treatise of Lu Ban
“Heaven and earth don’t need the compass or the angle board to make a circle or square.” — Lu Ban
Lu Ban was born on a Spring afternoon in the Warring States period in the era of the Hundred Schools of Thought. At the sound of his cries, cranes flocked together and a cloud of incense filled the house. But as he grew, people took these signs for a mistake; the misjudgment of some aging god. He was a lazy child, and slow to learn. He spent his days chasing birds, tumbling to sleep in a meadow and waking to start again.
Suddenly, when he was nearly a man, he ran off to study with Duanmu Qi, disciple of Zixia, disciple of Confucius. Together they lived in a hut near Confuscius’ grave. Lu Ban wanted to contemplate nature and learn the subtleties of virtue. Instead, his master made him practice carving and cutting, painting and engraving, and every technique of carpentry.
Eventually Duanmu Qi died, and Lu Ban returned to his village a skilled and useful man. He built stables and ladders, homes and carriages, and his reputation grew. When the dynasty became divided and warlords began seizing power, Lu Ban turned his energy to weaponry. It was Lu Ban who, by observing the sophisticated methods of a troupe of marionettes, built a wooden bird that flew into battle and rescued the King.
His name a murmur in the courts, Lu Ban was commissioned to build a palace for King Yuan, twenty seventh sovereign of the Zhou Dynasty. He had no choice but to accept, though to him a palace was as foreign as the pyramids. He laid his plans, gathered his crew, and determined to build a palace so great it would transfigure all who looked upon it.
Intent on using only trees of the finest hardwood, he sent his disciples to an ancient, undisturbed forest at the top of Tianmu Mountain. Day after day, they dulled their axes on the rocklike giants. After a week, Lu Ban climbed the mountainside of long grass to see their progress, but not one tree had fallen.
He became anxious; a palace requires a forest. Careless with worry, he tripped and slid down the mountain, but narrowly caught a blade of grass before plummeting to the rocks below. Opening his hand, he saw a fine cut; blood rose in beads, like ink from the scribe’s pointed brush.
Lu Ban studied the blade. He flattened himself on the earth and dug his nose in the grass. He lay there examining the small hairs that coated each narrow leaf, clearly visible in the midday sun. They angled this way and that, overlapping like peasant’s thatch.
Lu Ban lay there all afternoon, like a lizard on his rock. He was so deep in concentration that he merely blinked when a grasshopper landed on his nose. He watched with renewed attention as the grasshopper began to eat. It spread its jagged jaws then closed them on a blade of grass, leaving behind a sharp outline of teeth. It ate quickly, slicing a patch of tall grass down to the dirt. The grasshopper hopped on, leaving a neat clearing beneath Lu Ban’s jealous gaze.
He was a child again, mindless of himself. Nature surpasses all man’s methods, he thought. I may strain the power of my eye to the utmost, yet only glimpse the spirit of construction. If I made a tool with an edge like this grass, or a teeth like this grasshopper, he wondered, would it be sharp enough to cut through wood? And rolling the rest of the way down the mountain he rushed to his workshop to find out.
At the dedication of the palace, King Yuan paid honor to Lu Ban for his speed and craft. Prepared for the King’s praises, Lu Ban answered, “The universe and its works are already in the Tao, but human beings walk away from the Tao. Thus human beings need the compass and the angle board to make the circle and square.”
The palace had taken many years to complete and Lu Ban was now an old man. He returned to his master’s hut, happy to be at rest. But he could not stop the stream of craftsmen coming to seek his wisdom. He gave them each the same advice: “Learn to concentrate, learn to cultivate your mind, to harmonize your mind with the heart.”
When he died he left only his saw behind. It is there now, though the hut fell away, though the palace crumbled.
This is a very special two-part edition of Tools. I sent Rachel Jendrzejewski an essay, and she rearranged it to make a play. Amazingly, she used every word of what I sent without adding a single letter of her own. Below is the essay, and here is Rachel’s play.
• • •
What kind of tool is the funnel? You don’t work it. Don’t wield or heft or operate. You set and put and place. Feed its mechanism, then stand aside. Look: It behaves. Action implicit in its form.
I own a red, plastic Back to Basics 176 Wide Mouth Canning Funnel, purchased for five dollars at Wegman’s on my first trip to New Jersey. It is cheap, unattractive and new—wholly lacking romance—but it works. A well of oil drains into a bottle. A heap of beans rain into a jar. Watching, some store of memory spills out. My body recalls the sensations of loss.
Indeed the funnel was first conceived as an aid to meditation. Paleolithic Shamans convened round a curl of bark and watched rainwater cling and disappear endlessly. Their funnel was a medium—a votive to unknown gravity. Why, they pondered, does loss surprise us, every time? All things disappear as easily; even our disappointment cannot be contained.
The transformation from mandala to kitchen accessory was gradual. Perhaps the ever-resourceful Emperor Liu Hu fashioned a funnel from mulberry paper to measure out his tea. Davy Crockett relied on one made of tinware, and used it to fill his musket moments before his disputed death at the Alamo. The arrival of industrial manufacturing sealed the funnel’s fate in glass, plastic, and stainless steel. The funnel abounds. And it’s precisely this abundance that now makes it, categorically, a tool.
Still, the funnel’s mystical conceptions are not entirely lost. We see them echoed in Gothic paintings, and the Land of Oz: places where inverted funnels are symbols of madness. Robert Creeley—the old poet who died in Odessa—called into the funnel of the dark and found another, resounding inversion: a church bell. And Duchamp gave funnels a figurative association with sex—just see their muscular depiction in “The Passage from Virgin to Bride.”
Stare into the sinking pit of flour, of rice, of popcorn kernels, as you transfer them from bag to jar, and see if your heart isn’t sucked down as well. We’ve all felt the terror of vacant spaces; more terrifying still is the vacancy that moves. The vacancy that wants to be. Look: the funnel makes way.
Of course, most who look will see very little. A mere slip of dull material—it’s hardly there. At any given moment, the funnel performs its supporting role in kitchens and laboratories the world over. Men and women exploit physics and casually take a bow. Nestle its nose in a bottleneck and pour unruly liquid down.
What kind of tool is the funnel? The kind that emerged, fascinating, without invention; Critical in its simplicity, and essential in its abundance. One of the rare few for which passive observation is fundamental to its use. And what of the funnel unobserved? I find some comfort in the thought of them—millions—as they rest in drawers and on shelves. To think of all the space quietly protected, right now, in their open, breathless mouths.
There was a time when a wooden spoon might be a girl’s only worldly belonging. If afforded some clarity before death, she might will it to her daughter, or tuck it quietly in her waistcoat.
In 1608, shortly after disembarking the good vessel Mary and Margaret at the banks of the James River, Martha Forrest took inventory. The New World in her nostrils. King James a minor, weightless, somewhere planet. An ocean three-months long behind her. She caught her forehead in her palm and whistled. Then she vomited on the shore.
Martha called for her barrel of goods and saw, with satisfaction, its weight mark the sand. Inside the barrel, dug amongst blankets and candlesticks, a stew pot and iron wedge, was a small spoon; A chip of sentimental wood. Her husband, already ashore, carved it for her when his first wife caught the Scarlet fever.
A month later, knowing they would bury her naked, she gave her clothes and spoon to a young maid called Anne. Now the only woman in the colony, Anne married a carpenter who gave her spoons of her own, and Martha’s slipped behind a bureau, chewed to dust by anxious mice.
I can smell the future. Bread before its baked, as a reminder to make it, is strongest. A train from Brussels moans to a passing cyclist to remind her to call her mother. Mine made challah for Thanksgiving. Rope after rope, dough dyed yellow with yolks, waiting to be braided and brushed to glisten with egg and water. Another two breads-worth is rising in the kitchen-aide bowl. I tease her. Laughing, she smacks my ass with a wooden spoon.
The house hadn’t been renovated yet. The kitchen was a butter yellow showbox with one square lace-curtained window that faced the grass. His mother, thinner then, was no cook but loved to sit in a stool and make mayonaise by hand. An open soup bowl and a whisk moving in slow concentric circles, just slower than a resting heart beat. Adding oil one spoon at a time, chin leaning on a hand whose elbow rested on the counter.
In the spring I saw her in rubber clogs, calico skirts gathered in one hand, a wooden spoon raised high in the other. Racing toward the line of laundry, which was by now completely on fire.
Some 40,000 years ago, a volcano erupts in southern Italy, sending a blanket of ash as far as Moscow. Along the way it dusts the people of Kostenki village and all their effects, including bones, shells and teeth pierced by hand-spun drill. In Neolithic Pakistan, a hand drill made of green jasper bores into the astonishing hues of lapis lazuli. A little later, in pre-Roman Egypt, scholars abbreviate the bow drill to three lines, creating the determinative hieroglyph for all words related to carpentry and crafts.
Leap past the Iron Age, over the Middle Ages, to the early industrial United States. A farmer in Goshen, Pennsylvania pries open a crate containing the township’s first hand-crank drill press, ordered through a catalog and shipped to his barn door. He can now put holes in steel and cast iron within ear-shot of the supper bell. In another hemisphere, two Australians are first to slap an electric motor on a drill. Before long, a German takes it portable, and Black & Decker makes it look like a gun.
The 9.6-Volt Cordless Ryobi ZRHP496K is the Y2K dorm room incarnation of man’s indispensable friend. Spindle, Augur, Gimlet, Brace and Bit: the drill has been exploited for centuries under more memorable names, and found several classic forms. The plastic hard-case and rubber overmold may mask its elegant pedigree, but beneath the 24 position clutch, variable speed trigger and built-in level, the Ryobi is faithful to its essence.
My Ryobi traveled 3,000 miles in the trunk of a 1998 Honda Accord to find me. My little brother unloaded the surprise five months ago, just in time for me to install two curtain rods, four shelves and a wall-mounted desk in my new apartment, in a new city, at the start of a new school year. It was then–my belongings in piles on the laminate wood–that I discovered the drill’s unadvertised utility: catharsis.
The rechargeable battery and trigger switch of a cordless drill are refinements we now take for granted, obscuring its critical function: to grip and rotate a cutting tip, while applied force presses it into otherwise unyielding material. Likewise, a cathartic experience pierces our grief, and drains the excessive heartache. The sting yields ecstatic relief.
I took clean screws from their 8 and 12 count packages and pressed them into the wall with only momentary resistance. Kneeling on my unmopped floor, I felt that I was young and I would do the things I said I’d do. My lingering anxiety was a weightless, white dust escaping the walls.
A long time ago, sensing a great upheaval was at hand, we stepped outside and took a few measurements. These would help tidy our confusion. We used only degrees of height and dispersal: how high the stars, how scattered the children. And armed with these dimensions, we tried to defend our there and then-ness.
But dimensions, it so happened, are subject to limits. No god was threatened. Our babies were still toothless and exposed. We had to do something about our position relative to earth and sky. The foreman’s instructions were simple: Let us make brick and burn them thoroughly.Let us make brick upon brick upon brick. And from our tower, he shouted, we will look back over many small and aging replicas to that thin territory of origins, and catch our breath at the destruction. We’ll exceed measure and forget we ever needed brick in the first place. We were all appetite and no intestine, a craving without store, and that’s why the first tools were disposable.
But that was long ago, and early. Down in the skyless ruins we became craftsmen. Anticipating life with useful, outlasting things. Each tool was stamped with a year and a few significant letters; made to be a silent, surviving witness to its own event. Haven’t we watched a knife shrink? Tool by tool, the long history of human desire is serialized.
Was it a need or an ache that gave us the hammer? And how long before it’s satisfied? When undressing a plastic straw with your teeth, which is more interesting to consider: its purpose, or its duration on Earth? What about its abundance; its far-and-wideness? And which is more intimate: the comb or the plow?
But a tool can’t feel. It has no imagination. No focus, gaze or intent. It cannot guess what you are thinking; It cannot think. You will never roll over, open your eyes, and catch it watching you as you sleep.
A tool is nothing if not deaf. It has one answer and no questions. It translates the world into strikes and blows; shavings and dust; a language bent or bowed. It resonates only as far as the fingers–a simple fluency that softens, like any word, with every iteration. The blade stutters; the edge rounds; the hinge acquires a darker tone. Tool by tool, and so on.