Why the Right Tool Is Whatever's at Hand

As I sliced potatoes, my husband frowned, and I knew why: I was using a cookie sheet as a cutting board. Not for the first time, he said, "Liz, you're just not tool-wise."

He's right. I'm not skilled with tools. Unlike him, I'm neither awed by their design nor diligent about their maintenance. But my tool-savvy spouse's real hobby horse is my refusal to use the right tool for the job.

I tell him it's because I'm tool-inspired, a master of creative makeshift. I explain that while necessity may be the mother of invention, expediency has spawned most of my innovations.

My device of choice in our ongoing debate is the old saw (the figurative one) about proximity being 9/10ths of the law. Thus the wrong tool usually gets my vote. Why wander out to the garage for a screwdriver when a butter knife is but a step away? So often, close is good enough - even better. The stubborn pleasure I take in using precisely the wrong device (or better yet, a non-tool) usually compensates for any frustration resulting from my surrogate tool's less-than-perfect performance.

In fact, as someone who's used duct tape on everything except ducts, I've delighted in pressing the following ersatz solutions into service (yes, do try these at home):

Many items work as hammers: Bricks. Books. The steam iron, which seems ill-designed for its intended purpose anyway. (My hair dryer smooths wrinkles in a fraction of the time it takes to set up the board and heat up the iron.)

A humble wire

coat hanger saved the day last winter when we locked ourselves out of our car. (Incidentally, the car key, though useless in that lockout, makes a passable screwdriver - assuming a butter knife isn't handy.)

When compression is called for on a gluing project, why mess with clumsy metal clamps? My 11-pound unabridged dictionary works fine.

To measure a baby coverlet I'm knitting, I leave the yardstick behind the refrigerator where it belongs and instead lay three magazines end-to-end to see if the blanket's close to completed.

When I'm nursing a dewy lemonade glass, that notepad by the phone is much handier than those coasters out on the living-room coffee table. (In a pinch, a floppy disk works, too.)

I tell my husband that my brand of tool genius just might be a family trait, given that my sister is also a maven of making do. If she lacks a bookmark for her bedtime reading, she simply plucks from her night-stand drawer a pencil, an emery board, or a comb.

In her laundry room, she's devised a solution on a literal shoestring: Said strand, threaded through her dryer-door latch, then looped over a wall hook during loading, keeps the dryer door from swinging shut. This is much easier than attempting to balance the recalcitrant appliance with a level and wrench. (Speaking of laundry, why plod to the laundry room for detergent when those hand-washables I've plunged into the bathtub come just as clean with shampoo?)

DESPITE his disapproval, my husband admits that at least he doesn't worry about my raiding his cherished socket-wrench set or burning out the motor on his new drill. He can sleep at night, knowing that come morning he'll find the needle-nosed pliers exactly where he left them.

Just last week, as he washed our car in the driveway, I decided to clean the kitchen floor. Working near the window, I watched him scrub the windshield so intently that his right hand knew not what his left was doing. Unwittingly, he swung the spray nozzle around until it pointed directly toward the open window where I mopped (using an old T-shirt tied to the end of a broom). In seconds, he'd hosed down half the kitchen - and me, too.

He proffered a humble apology. As I wiped water from my eyes and surveyed my soaked floor, I not only forgave him; I congratulated him.

After all, he'd used the perfect wrong tool for my job.

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