The Exact Tool - and Word

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MY DEAR, Looking back, I can see I should have allowed more time. A one-minute break at a high school basketball game in a small Maine town, after all, doesn't lend itself to much depth. But somehow it needed saying.

You may remember, as we leaned back against the varnished wood bleacher-seats, that I said casually, ``I finally bought myself something I've always wanted.''

``Mm,'' you said, gazing across the gym floor at the huddle of undifferentiated players, ``What was it?''

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``A plug wrench,'' I replied.

You turned, giving me that wonderfully quizzical look. ``You've always wanted a plug wrench?'' it seemed to say. ``How come you never told me? And why did you buy it now, just before Christmas, when our children are racking their brains trying to think of gifts for you? Can I really have married a man whose idea of a good time is buying a plug wrench? I thought I was married to a writer: Are you being serious?''

In fact, all you said was, ``What on earth's a plug wrench?''

``A socket wrench for changing spark plugs in the car,'' I explained. ``Long and deep, so it fits over the plug - otherwise there's no way to get 'em out. Funny kind of tool: You can't really use it for anything else, but when you need it, nothing else will do.''

``Oh,'' you said as the buzzer sounded and the teams sauntered out, stirring up faint odors of rubber and popcorn and perspiration. Then you patted my hand in mock overconcern. ``That's nice,'' you said with a gentle laugh.

Our boys won, and we got talking about other things, and the matter dropped. And I never really explained what being a writer and owning a plug wrench have in common. So let me try.

That morning, the National Weather Service had nailed it perfectly. ``Bitter cold,'' said the voice on the radio, and it was right. I layered up and went to check the cars, thinking about the language of forecasts. Bitter, I'd been told, was actually a technical term for the Weather Service, the third leg down in a range that went from cold and very cold through bitter cold to extreme cold. Up in these parts, wicked would also fit pretty well. So would awful, mis'rable, or pretty dahn. But bitter was the precisely accurate tool, designed to do one job alone. The others were more doubtful.

So was my car, which turned over grudgingly and refused to start. ``It's the wind,'' said Glen when, 20 minutes after I'd called, he showed up in the John's Gulf truck and backed into the driveway. ``I got 'bout 20 calls like this this morning,'' he added cheerfully. He clipped on the jumper cables and cranked over the engine. Still no response. He'd put me on the list for the tow truck, he said as he left.

And that's when I noticed the loose spark plug. There was fuel leaking out around its base. Pulling off the wire, I found I could unscrew it with my fingers. Something, obviously, wasn't right. It was covered with black gunk.

``What the heck's that]'' said the fellow at the auto-parts place in genuine amazement when, a few minutes later, I laid it on the counter.

``It was loose,'' I replied. ``I need a new set of plugs.''

``Well I guess!'' he said, thumbing through a catalog.

``Better have a plug wrench, too,'' I added when he returned from the back room with four new plugs.

The whole thing pretty much chewed up a twenty. ``Don't tighten 'em down too much, now,'' he said as I left. ``Be the devil to pay next time you gotta change 'em.''

I remember thinking that was good advice. I also recall wondering how he knew I didn't know that already. When I thought about it, of course, the answer was obvious. It wasn't that I didn't have grease under my nails or that I talked like someone from away. It was that, until that very moment, I didn't own a plug wrench.

Now, you can go a long way in life with just a screwdriver and a pair of pliers. But you can't be serious about cars without a more refined set of tools. In fact, you can measure that seriousness, that maturity, by the kind of tools you own. The more tools you buy, the more you find they resemble one another - almost identical on the outside, hiding their peculiar strains of usefulness within. If you care about tools, you come to relish those shades of gray.

Which is true with words, too. It's in the subtle distinctions, not the broad swaths, that works of great precision get done. In the end, that's also where individuality resides. I guess that's what I would have said to you that night at the game - that, in some small way, maturity and individuality arise from differentiation. You go through the years building up a vocabulary - just as you build up a tool collection. It gets stocked with fancy words and thunderous phrases - and with plain, accurate, kitchen-variety terms. And for what? Sometimes for great occasions. And sometimes just to deal with the weather. But always so that, when the time comes, the tool fits the job.

With great affection,

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