The Family Tools (Christmas in a Log Cabin)

(A holiday tale first published in the late 1990s. Some of it is true.)

The Unabomber and I had at least one trait in common. He hated Industrial Society so thoroughly that he never learned how to use tools well enough to build himself a decent home. His roof leaked, his floor lacked insulation against the Montana winters, his plywood walls leaned without the necessary supports to hold them straight. But his root cellar was the real embarrassment. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” wrote his neighbor, Chris Waits in his book, Unabomber: The Secret Life of Ted Kaczynski. The entrance had been hammered together with mismatched scrap lumber. The wall gaps had been patched with tin foil, plastic, corrugated roofing, and other junk collected by this reclusive pack rat. In a photograph the structure resembled a homeless man’s shack. It looked like something I might have built.

Whatever gene men have that leads us to kick tires, lift open engine hoods, unscrew computer casings, and generally regard ourselves as amateur mechanics by birthright has been missing from my family for generations. To this day, my father hasn’t learned how to use the drip coffee maker sitting on his kitchen counter. He waits for my brother, his housemate, to wake up and brew a pot. If he leaves early to teach his economics class at a local college, he stops at McDonald’s for his morning coffee. In the evening, he heats TV dinners, even if he isn’t watching television.

My father also doesn’t use a telephone answering machine, computer, VCR, snow blower, leaf blower, hair drier, microwave, cell phone, palm pilot, beeper, digital bathroom scale, massage shower head, or any other invention that has come on the scene since he settled into his adult habits in the early 1960s. That he knows how to run the dishwasher was simply a concession to marriage. My late mother ran the machinery in their lives, but she wasn’t much better. As a boy, I knew electricians, plumbers, and garage mechanics like extended members of the family. My mother even baked them holiday cookies.

Despite his mechanical befuddlement, my father bears no animosity towards technology. To the contrary, he supports progress wholehearted. As an economist he revered the Chicago School led by Milton Friedman, a true believer in unfettered capitalism with all its gizmos, useful or not. My father’s enthusiasm was so strong that in my final year of prep school, I applied to the University of Chicago myself, and was accepted. But feeling my oats, I went to Stanford University instead and majored in philosophy, with additional courses in English and creative writing. My one and only economics class was taught by a Marxist who enlivened the dismal science with occasional outbursts at the inequities of campus life. One morning he described the concept of the surplus of labor in terms of the grounds crew waving leaf blowers over the campus tennis courts. He considered this extravagance to be outrageous. I suppose he taught me well. To this day, I’ve never handled a leaf blower.

As a traditional economist, my father considered technological progress to be inevitable, essential, and beneficial. Even if he couldn’t understand machinery, he knew his GNP, GDP, CPI, and other economic indicators. By his reckoning I should have been delighted to live and work in the modern age. An ancient sheep herder would have earned in a year what he paid me every two weeks to mow the lawn in a blue cloud of gasoline smoke. Perhaps he wanted me to value economic progress. I simply developed a lifelong aversion to lawns.

As an adult, I read a radical history book that celebrated the Luddites of early Nineteenth Century England as heroes for sabotaging the industrial machinery that threatened their pastoral way of life. Always eager for fresh ammunition in my epic political argument with my father, I invoked the Luddites at the next available opportunity. His ears reddened. His forefinger that usually tapped the table each time he made a good debating point curled back into a fist. Liberal Democrats could be tolerated, at least for the sake of argument, but Luddites violated the bounds of intelligent discussion. Nearly spitting, my father accused me of promoting mass starvation. I knew it was time to turn on the television until our tempers cooled down.

In truth, I made a poor Luddite myself. Living in Manhattan, I took too much pleasure in techno-nightclubs, nude talk shows on cable TV, and movie theaters with Dolby sound systems. I liked to feel my seat vibrate with every explosion. But I wasn’t a technophile, either. I didn’t subscribe to the cybertopian view of Wired magazine that the silicon chip would succeed where LSD had failed in leading us to the next stage of evolutionary consciousness. No, growing older, I fell in love with nature instead. Quitting Manhattan, I moved into a log cabin in the Catskills, furnished with a wood stove, a phone line, and Have A Hart mousetraps. I left the television behind. I was psyched to watch butterflies.

My first night, I encountered some technical difficulties. After cooking dinner, the heating coil on the electric stove wouldn’t stop glowing sunset orange no matter which way I spun the dial. It was infuriating to find something broken so soon, but what could I do? Crouching like a football lineman for leverage, I shoved the stove away from the wall and pulled out its fat wire plug with three prongs curved like a sad face with worried eyebrows.

In the morning, I noticed that another dial was still turned Hi. Somehow I’d mixed up my burners. Others might have been embarrassed by such a mistake, but I considered myself a beginner. After all, in Manhattan I’d always called the super for anything more complicated than hanging up a picture frame or changing a fuse. Now that I lived in the country I’d finally learn how to use tools. But I’d give myself the right to break everything once. I didn’t want to be too hard on myself. After all, I was new at mechanics.

In time, I went through the ceiling fan, most of my computer equipment, a toilet seat, and the water pump 360 feet down at the bottom of the well, though that may have been due to a lightning bolt spreading through an underground aquifer, or so the well driller tried to reassure me. As the weather chilled, I got a good lesson in draining my pipes. I turned the shutoff valves the wrong way before I took a weekend trip to the city, so my plumber spent the better part of day sawing out and replacing pipe lengths that had frozen and split from the pressure of the ice. The splits in the copper tubes looked like reptilian eyes filled with blind gray slush. I kept these pipe lengths for a while with the notion of crafting them into a wind chime, but that proved to be a project beyond my technical skills.

I got lucky with the wood stove, where I might really have done some damage. Too lazy one day to drive to the recycling center, I loaded yellowed newspapers into the stove, lit several paper edges with a match, and latched the door closed. Minutes later, I heard a whoosh followed by a roar over my roof. Stepping outside, I saw the top of the stove pipe flaming like a miniature rocket. Panicked, I rushed inside, filled my biggest pot with water, opened the stove, and doused the raging white flames until the blackened paper smoldered like a dying campfire. Later, my neighbor shook his head and told me to never ever never throw water into a hot stove. I was lucky I hadn’t cracked the casing. All I needed to do, as he showed me, was to turn down the stove damper to choke out the oxygen.

Then my father visited for Christmas. For our celebration, I placed a plump spruce tree in front of the stone fireplace and entangled the branches with blinking lights. At the supermarket, I stocked up on butter cookies, tangerines, eggnog, and hot chocolate with mini-marshmallows. Back home, I polished the bathroom sink handles, dusted old cobwebs from the window corners, swept the floor of bark chips, leaves, and other detritus associated with the wood stove. I placed Christmas cards along the window sill. Outside, the temperature was dropping. The weather had forecast zero by midnight.

On his arrival, my father was delighted by the festive atmosphere. The cabin smelled of spruce and mulled cider warming on the stove. The blinking tree lights brought out the whiskey glow of the varnished cabin logs. Through the windows the forest trees became black silhouettes in the purple dusk. I showed my father my collection of turkey feathers standing in a jar. He gave me a plastic Christmas wreath we hung on the wall. Then, as I returned to the kitchen alcove to prepare dinner, he settled on the futon couch with his latest issue of the Economist from London. He always traveled prepared.

“Should the stove be smoking like that?”

Absorbed in deciphering the instruction tag on my pre-sliced Holiday Ham, I hadn’t noticed the wood stove now billowing smoke from all sides, as if trying to hide inside its own cloud. I cursed. The last time the wood stove rebelled this way I’d been forced to open all the windows until the fire burned down. Later, I’d taken most of my clothes to the laundromat to wash out the smoky odor that penetrated the whole cabin. This time I unlatched the stove door, releasing a fat cloud of smoke, and discovered that paper trash had plugged the bottom of the chimney pipe. With a fireplace prong, I poked through the jammed paper, relieved that the problem was easily solved. If we’d had to open the windows, we would have eaten Christmas dinner in our winter parkas.

My father hadn’t moved from the futon. Perhaps his knees were bothering him again. But he rubbed his hands, an anxious habit.

“Should we call a hotel?”

I reassured him the stove was under control. The smoke floated no thicker than a light fog. I still had a can of Natural Fresh air deodorizer from the last mishap. In theory, I opposed chemicals, but this stuff worked wonders. Slowly, I sprayed around the cabin, watching the heavy mist eat the fog. The smell reminded me of a pink urinal disk, but you can’t have everything in life.

My father relaxed again with his Economist. He didn’t notice the gray mouse that sprinted under the table. I served a bowl of olives and threw fresh logs on the fire. Tonight would be the coldest yet this winter. Back in the kitchen, I squeezed the glaze packet of honey and spices over the ham, then loaded the shiny pink hump into the oven. To my surprise, it needed to heat for two hours. This would be a late dinner.

“What was that?”

The thunderous crack had made me jump, too. I carried out a plate of Wheat Thins. My father had already finished the olives.

“Just one of the log beams splitting,” I said.

“In the cabin?”

“It happens sometimes.”

“Are we stable?”

“It’s an old place,” I said. For the first time in hours, I sat down and relaxed in my rocking chair. I felt proud of my new life in a log cabin. Independent and self-sufficient, I no longer needed the bureaucratic grid of the city. I supplied my own heat with the wood stove, cooked for myself, worked as my own boss as a freelance writer. With no neighbors in sight, I hadn’t even bothered to hang curtains on my windows. I lived deep in the woods beyond any lawns.

Then the lights went out.

“Must be the Luddites,” I said.

My father didn’t laugh. “Do you have candles?”


In the end, we ate Christmas dinner by an emergency road flare I retrieved from my car trunk. The smell of sulfur was strong, but the sizzling sparks created a festive atmosphere. Without electricity, the oven went cold, but I figured that a pre-sliced ham must also be pre-cooked. I served us both heaping portions along with mixed vegetables that were still a little frozen. In summer, people ate this way and called it a picnic. To cheer up my father, I raised one of his favorite subjects: the federal deficit. He talked long into the night, while I kept feeding logs into the stove until the cabin got so hot we stripped down to our undershirts. In the morning we’d exchange presents. I’d bought him a biography of John Maynard Keynes. In return, I hoped for a screwdriver set. In the New Year I planned to get down to work.

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