By Bob Dorn
I still have my father’s hammer; it’s tough hickory handle, all blackened by decades of use, has never separated from its carbon steel head, which is similarly stained by use. (The grease and dirt buried in that wood, some of it left there by my father, probably is what keeps the hickory from taking on water and rotting.) Let it be a symbol of endurance, persistence, toughness, good design and good material.
Here are some others:
1. Toilet Paper. Has no rivals.
2. Analog Odometers. These, like cheap watches with sweep hands, are mechanical, not digital, so they keep on rolling as long as your wheels do. They’re disappearing because more and more of us like green or red lights on the dashboard, and glowing numbers. When you buy that used Lexus can you be sure the odometer’s sensors (or whatever they’re called) haven’t broken and kept its mileage number apparently nice and low so that its present owner can have the odometer repaired before putting the car on Craig’s List at a price that make its seem like a good deal?
3. Musical instruments. Standing outside El Zarape’s Thursday night latin jazz jam, with one of its regulars, I remarked that it’s crazy when people walking by look into the room and start juking to the sound but keep on walking by. “They don’t come in because there’s no d.j.,” he explained. Digital sound is fine at home and in the car, but live music comes with human hiccups and gasps for air, as well as temporarily insane flights of mind and body that musicians will indulge in, even in public. The risk that’s being taken often entertains and even can inspire. It’s palpable and felt. It’s not digital, like DeeJay Digital’s music, which is engineered. Try listening to the trumpet mode on your cheap Casio electric piano. It’s an imitation, it’s an imitation, it’s an imitation… it’s an etc. etc. etc.
3. Wooden matches. Long enough to burn off the stink you made in the bathroom. Some people like incense but the flame of the match is superior because it flares intensely and thus burns off more of the gas in the air. These matches burn long enough for two people to use the same match to light up other stuff we like.
4. Hand Tools. I’ve already mentioned my daddy’s hammer. Now, think of the Phillips head screwdriver, its sharp point at the tip so able to quickly center on the screw’s center hole while its crossed wings lock into the crossed grooves on the screwhead. You don’t even have to wear reading glasses to find the grooves, and once you’re driving the screw in or backing it out the driver doesn’t want to jump out of the screw’s grooves. Even so, a conventional, single bladed screwdriver is worth the money because in a pinch it does double duty as a narrow chisel (it won’t last real long if thusly misused) or to unscrew conventional single-head screws, which for some unaccountable reason are still being produced. Maybe because people like to use single head screwdrivers for chisels.
5. A good, soft t-shirt. If you can find one it’s likely to be from Peru, or Haiti, or the Dominican Republic, and fully cotton. Stretchy and conforming (fortunately or unfortunately), the t-shirt provides comfort at affordable prices, like a cup of drip coffee (do they call the technique “pour-over” now?), and it brings people together. Even billionaires and movie stars wear them. I have a friend who wears v-neck black t-shirts because he doesn’t have to think what to grab when he needs to dress up.
6. The Bicycle. I read a nice book about bicycles, “The Noiseless Tenor,” By James E. Starrs, in which the author samples work from Maugham, Twain, Huxley, H.G. Wells, Iris Murdock and many others on the magical mystery called a bike. I still think the title is the most brilliant metaphor for this device; the bicycle makes a sound so clean and reassuring that it becomes noiseless (until a wheel bends or a chain binds). The bike moves along at speeds that make for scene changes just quick enough to discourage monotony, but not so swift that you fall victim to the illusion of invulnerability and separation that gasoline engines inspire.
My wife and I went on bike trips through France lasting as long as three weeks with panniers loaded with clothes and tools and racks with tent and sleeping bags. Even when the bike broke down in France the next village was never more than 5 kms. away, a bike shop there just seeming to have waited for you to show up. The only reason we had maps was to identify where the nearest canal bank was (they have paths and they depend on a basically flat, easily rideable terrain); also to see how far away a river, a croissant, a coffee or a beer might be. Bonne Route!
7. Printed Books and Magazines. Sorry for the continual return to the bathroom, I know it may suggest I’m full of the product it depends upon for its living, but ink on paper allows you to read there. Not only there but in bed during silent nights without interruption. Books and magazines tend to honor good language simply by preserving it in a material form dedicated solely to that art. You can put a book on a shelf, a magazine in a rack, but your next email disappears into a cloud, omg, lol.
8. Spaghetti, Egg- or Rice-based Chinese Noodles, Eggs, Bacon, Asparagus just cut from the earth, a sun-baked tomato, Brussels Sprouts just off the stalk, Chocolate and, I admit it, Sugar.
I’m sure I’ve overlooked many dozens of simple things but all I can think of right now are some that definitely belong to the second rank, like razor blades and good ball point pens, wooden fences, paint, flip-flops…