If I had a hammer

This is the post in which I traffic in stereotypes. Of women, mostly, but also of Jews. The issue at hand is tool use. I am female, Jewish, and bad with hand tools. Coincidence?

Hammering a nail is an athletic endeavor writ small. There are issues of technique, like cocking your wrist and holding the handle near its end, but the essence of hammering is allowing your hand and your eye to coordinate to bring the hammer down on the nail.

It’s just like golf, one of the two sports I’ve worked hard to master (the other is rowing; I have thus far mastered neither). No matter how well you understand the golf swing, no matter how much you’ve practiced, every shot is an act of faith. You have to trust that your body can swing a club head at eighty-plus miles an hour, over an arc of some fifteen feet, and bring it back to a ball that’s less than two inches in diameter.

My many hours on the golf course have convinced me that women have a hard time finding that faith. They are more likely than men to take cautious, tentative swings, trying to guide the club to the ball. I’m sorry to say it, but they golf like a girl. Men are more likely to take a fearless rip at it. Sure, it’ll end up in the parking lot, but it’ll go 280 yards. When it comes to the physical, women have trust issues.

Blatant sexism?

That hissing sound you hear is the steam coming out of the ears of my friend Ann, an excellent golfer who can’t believe that someone she’s had in her home believes this crap, and why don’t I get a real job instead of blah-blah-blogging away, promoting unsavory stereotypes.

But hear me out.

There are, as always, two issues: nature and nurture. Men evolved to throw things – rocks, spears, and especially their weight around in an effort to bully women, prey, and other tribes into submission. Strength, stamina, and the confidence to use them to achieve their ends are men’s evolutionary legacy. Women, though, evolved to raise children. While this certainly requires strength and stamina, it’s not the same breed of strength and stamina required to bring down a saber-toothed tiger. Spear-throwing is good prep for ball-striking – or hammering. Toddler-chasing, not so much.

Then there’s what we’re taught. I’ve played many rounds of golf with Ann, a natural athlete who routinely trounces me by ten strokes. I’ve always believed I have very little in the way of athletic ability, and I told her, on more than one occasion, how frustrating it was to try and improve at something at which you have no talent. “How do you know?” Ann asked. How did I know I’ve got no athletic ability? I couldn’t quite get my head around the question. “Yeah, how do you know? When was the last time you tried to get better at something?”

Well … never. I didn’t play any sports as a kid. I was an abrasive, unpopular smart-ass, and I think I would have been picked last in gym class even if I’d been Babe Didrikson. The order in which we were picked for teams was the only yardstick I had for measuring athletic ability. I was last (or second-to-last, if LeAnne Mitchell was in the class), so I must be worst.

While many men can recount similar experiences, boys generally have more opportunity both to develop and asses their athletic ability. In part, this is because they’re pushed in that direction, but it’s also because they’re born spear-throwers – and now we’ve come full-circle back to nature. Toss boys a ball and they play ball. Toss girls a ball, and next thing you know it’s wearing lipstick and Grandma’s wig.

This is why I’m ready to believe that gender is part of the reason Kevin can hammer a roofing nail with two strokes while it takes me seven and a blackened fingernail.

Whether religion is another part is a harder question. When Judaism began, some four thousand years ago, I suspect Jews were as good at tool use as anyone. Over the millennia, though, we evolved. If the culture emphasized learning and schmaltz over sports and vegetables, is it so surprising that we have more than our share of kugel-eating intellectuals, but not so many three-percent-body-fat NBA players?

It’s also worth noting that Jews were often barred from owning land, and I can attest that land ownership weeds out the physically inept pretty quickly. Likewise, many professions were off limits, leaving Jews stuck doing things like lending money. Sexual selection in the community would favor those who succeeded in those endeavors Jews were allowed to undertake, so it makes sense that our skills are more Dershowitzian than Koufaxian.

Back in the mid-‘90s, there was an arson epidemic directed at black churches in the South, and communities around the country organized groups to fly down and help rebuild. The Jewish community in San Francisco, where I lived at the time, sent a group to Alabama, and I couldn’t help wondering whether the church’s members thought they’d drawn the short straw. The next town over got the Teamsters.

These were the thoughts that were going through my head as I hammered shingles to the roof of our chicken house. (Which, come to think of it, might also explain why I’m no good with tools. When Kevin is hammering shingles, he’s thinking about the job at hand.) After I’d been hammering for a while, doing my best to trust my hand and eye, I noticed that it wasn’t taking me quite as many strokes to get each nail flush, and that more of them were going in straight. It wasn’t quite like the day I finally broke 90, but I’ll admit to thinking of it as an accomplishment.

This past year has had me doing all kinds of physical jobs I’d never done before. I’ve clammed and oystered. I’ve dug big holes and I’ve cut down trees. I’ve rototilled. I’ve used a table saw, a circular saw, and a chop saw. I’ve hauled a compressor around and used the nail gun that’s attached to it. I even laid the stone floor of our outdoor shower. These jobs are not in my wheelhouse; they go against the grain both of my experience and my genetic endowment.

Golf and rowing excepted, I’ve spent most of my forty-six years playing to my strengths, and it is only now that I’ve discovered the secret to successful self-improvement. Getting a little better at things you’re good at is harder than getting a lot better at things you’re terrible at. I’d really like to write like Jane Austen, but I’m settling for not hammering like a girl.

13 people are having a conversation about “If I had a hammer

  1. I don’t usually weigh in here but I can’t resist.
    In my experience there is not only satisfaction in becoming proficient at something but the hopeful optimism in trying something new.
    Never done masonry? Want to build a cobb oven? The willingness to step outside one’s comfort zone and do something you never did before is part of the allure for me. There are not too many people who knew me back when, who could forsee my having a very satisfying marriage to an “extremely intelligent, Ivy educated, Jewish girl.”
    Can you say dillettant?
    For nearly fifty years I have found myself trying, if not always succeeding, to do things despite any natural
    ability. It’s the willingness that counts most in my book. Winning all the time is for sissies!
    Working hard at something they know they will never be the best at is where you’ll find my kind of person.
    My wife Tamar at my side of course.
    Kevin F.

  2. Hold a couple-few roofing nails in the palm of your hand.
    Now, with the dorsum (back of the hand) down and your palm up (so you are looking at your palm and the nails in it) slide one nail between your index and middle finger (head up). Strike the head of the nail with a soft blow. Move your hand. Strike the nail with a hard blow. Repeat. This is the best way to hammer roofing nails and most other small nails. Hold a nail between your index and middle finger, as if you are lifting a tea cup, and you will damage your fingers and your roof.

    The Irish, long before they were converted to the Christianity, used hammers to kill, to build, and to play. In fact, they are still famous for their hammer throwing (Eileen O’Keeffe tossed a hammer 73 meters). Tools and weapons, as Lewis Mumford (the great authority on Technics and Civilization), notes, are both (unlike machines) extensions of the human hand and the human brain. One of the reasons England outlawed Irish Games and promoted drinking games in Ireland. The recent Genome Study says we humans all started off in Africa. The Irish, even the so called Black Irish, whom historians tried to link with Spanish sailors, are Celts, and Thor once figured large in their world. So it’s no wonder even Irish women can swing a hammer. But the hammer is not unknown to the Jewish world and worldview. In fact, Judas Maccabeus (or Judah Maccabee) or “The Hammer” figures as large in the Jewish world as Thor does in the Celtic world.

    I don’t imagine Stephen Dedalus (Irish & Catholic & Agnostic), despite the absurdity of his name, or perhaps because of it, was any more endowed or equipped to nail down a thatched roof (if they even use nails) than Leopold Bloom (Irish & Jewish & Protestant). Bloom, of course, is Ulysses or Odysseus, the craftiest of men; he comes up with the Trojan Horse, the sharp stick that blinds Polyphemus (the Cyclops), countless other brilliant strategies, and he shoots his arrow through the twelve ax handles or hammers before he uses these to slaughter the suitors. Stephen, of course, is Telemachus, Hamlet, Socrates. Difficult enough having a name like Dedalus when your all thumbs and your “father” is a Jewish Newspaper man; adding a sore index finger pointing to the heavens (think David’s painting of Socrates) to the insulting name and lineage is enough to get hammers, books, all manner of things flying across the room, toward the sun on wax wings.

    The Hammer (1914)
    by Carl Sandburg

    I have seen
    The old gods go
    And the new gods come.

    Day by day
    And year by year
    The idols fall
    And the idols rise.

    I worship the hammer.

  3. A row of shingles hammered tight is a row of shingles, hammered tight. The nails don’t care if they received two bonks or 20 bonks, they’re just doing their job, holding the singles tight. Tamar, you go, girl! With every stroke you make, women’s hearts beat stronger. Mimi

  4. Getting a lot better at what you are bad at is fun, but getting a little better at what you are already good at is how civilizations rise. Now get out there and lend some money!

  5. Geesh! That’s a long way to go to justify a little mediocre hammering. First, I’d like you to read a little feminist anthropology so you can find out that women have always done the majority of all work, while men’s primary occupation was sitting around the campfire drinking. Then I’d like you to remember that Jews had to evince some physical skills to build all those communities all over the west bank, or wherever the hell they are. And finally, remember that you play best when you relax with a beer at the turn.

  6. C’mon Rudy, must I spell it out for you? I’m absolutely positive you know who Sandy Koufax is — famous Jewish baseball player, wouldn’t play on Yom Kippur. And I’m pretty sure you know Alan Dershowitz, too — lawyer who teaches at Harvard, defended OJ Simplson. You get it now?

  7. I never would have agreed with you about gender differences until I had kids – one boy, one girl. I grew up with two brothers, so I didn’t have a first hand frame of reference for growing up female. In my liberal leanings, I always assumed most of the stereotypical differences were more nurture than nature – societal norms pushing boys in one direction and pulling girls in the other. So, we were determined not to do that to our kids – we didn’t force dresses and pink and dolls on Emma, but neither r did we keep these things away from her (or Jack). We had Emma swinging a baseball bat and bought her matchbox cars. And I will forever remember buying her that big plastic snake she wanted at the zoo because I wasn’t going to deny my girl a snake if she wanted it. Jack once asked for a baby doll and you can be sure he got it. My wife and I have never uttered the words “That [whatever] is for [insert gender]”.

    Yet still, Jack always wanted to throw things (anything and everything) and Em always wanted to dress things up. Jack is 5 yrs old and can catch a towering pop-up and hit the bejeezus out of a whiffle ball. Em is 8 yrs old and can maybe catch a gently tossed nerf and can connect with a whiffle ball if your pitch is timed just right to intersect the arc of her swing. Since having Emma and Jack, it is clear to me that there are real, intrinsic, gender differences in these sorts of things. Of course there’s a wide range of variation and I think we happen to have kids in either extreme, but there is no doubt that there are profound differences that arise via nature and NOT nurture.

  8. How about that fifty bucks and cold beer?
    The $$$ for a lawyer and beer to drink watching a ball game.

  9. Hi Tamar,

    @Goose’s comment about holding the nails is quite right. (as background, despite my name, I’m a man) Good tool use (hand or power) is mostly about body alignment between your body, the tool and the workpiece. I say this as a professional woodworker. I look at the picture of you using the hammer and say, “that can’t possibly be comfortable.” It’s hard to describe how to use a hammer, a saw, or a chef’s knife. But looking at your picture I would say your arm is too close to your body. Your elbow should be outboard from wrist in order to “wind up.” I’m convinced these are learned skills. I’ve taught a lot of woodworking students. I can teach anyone how to hammer. I learned woodworking from a woman. And she taught me how to sew.

    Best, Kim

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