The Right Tools

My dad had a saying: “Any problem can be solved if you have the right tools.” He was something of a tool geek. In the basement of our home, hanging on a pegboard over his workbench, he had every kind of tool imaginable: crescent wrenches, socket wrenches and pipe wrenches, neatly arranged from small to large; flathead and Phillips head screw drivers; a carpenter’s hammer, tack hammer, ball peen hammer, rubber mallet; an electric hand drill with a full set of wood and dry-wall bits; rulers for every task.

Then there were his electronics bench, with its oscilloscope, soldering iron and various pliers; the table saw, with a variety of sharp-toothed steel discs hanging nearby; the drill press; the radial saw. Wooden shelving he’d built was filled with nuts, bolts, screws and nails in baby food jars, each labeled and ordered by size and type. And that’s just the short list.

I found it fascinating. I was his little helper, handing him the right transistor to build his latest Heathkit or the proper socket wrench to adjust his tractor snow-blower.

I learned a lot about how to make things (and how to get out of his way when he inevitably made a mistake and started cussing) and a deep respect for the value and care of good tools. Although my hands don’t work well enough to be able to build my own bookcases or tables or chests of drawers, I understand what’s required and how to envision the project and its implementation.

I also learned an approach to problem solving that has carried me a long way in dealing with scleroderma. Just because my hands don’t work properly doesn’t mean I can’t do what I need to do. I just need to figure out a different approach. And, sometimes, get the right tools.

Dad died five years ago, this past week, on the fifth night of Hanukkah. And so it was exceptionally fitting that in the mail on Saturday, a large box arrived from my Virginia brother-in-law, with a Hanukkah gift—a tool I’d been needing for years.

Saul had visited us in October. While he was here, he noticed I was having trouble opening cans. It’s ridiculous, really. I know I’ve needed an electric can-opener for years, but just never got around to buying one.

Sure enough, when we opened the box, inside was a sleek, black-and-chrome electric can-opener with an easy-lift handle. I tried it out Sunday night. Voila! No more sore fingers from struggling with a manual can-opener, ergonomic design notwithstanding. The can of plum tomatoes turned quickly and quietly, the lid came off easily, and there was no messy blade to clean.

It’s amazing how this device has instantly made my life easier. Especially when I have intransigent ulcers, as I do right now, opening cans has become quite an ordeal. If my fingers slip, it’s extraordinarily painful. Sometimes I’ll turn the manual crank all the way around the can, only to have to repeat because the blade didn’t cut all the way through the metal lid. There have been many times I’ve had to use rubber gloves or a towel for extra padding on the handle, to be able to manipulate the can-opener. Sometimes I just can’t open the can at all, and I have to wait for Al to be available to help.

Why it took my brother-in-law’s thoughtful gesture to turn this around, I’m not sure. Sometimes you just get so immersed in the way you’ve always done something that it’s hard to muster the energy or awareness to fix it.

So, I repeat, in Dad’s memory: Any problem can be solved if you have the right tools. And I’ll add this caveat: It helps if you’re paying attention. Thank you, Saul.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at


  1. Jesse Evans says:

    Evie your comment about “paying attention” resonated with me even more than “having the right tool.” I’ve always been fond of buying and using tools for my work, for the kitchen, for the yard etc, and frequently made tools and jigs myself when the right thing wasn’t for sale.

    I have also hammered away at a routine task using inferior techniques or tooling just because I didn’t pause to rethink the problem. It’s really that deliberate reflection on the problem that solves most of my problems……if only I remember to do it!
    Cheers, Jesse

  2. Love this story, Evelyn. Something like it just happened to us because my parents were paying attention! Dave can no longer make his much-treasured coffee when he wakes up about 5:30 a.m. He was just resigning himself to instant, when my mom and dad showed up with an automatic-drip coffee maker… the kind that has your coffee brewed and waiting for you whenever you want it! They had taken notice of my small side comment one day about an example of Dave’s little annoyances as time goes on. You should have seen his eyes brighten upon receiving their gift. “Your parents,” he remarked, with love.

    • Thanks for sharing this, Lisa. Your parents are wonderful people. I’m very grateful to live in a time and place where we can easily obtain the tools and appliances that enable us to do more. Best wishes to you and Dave and your folks.

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