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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

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The wonders of wood

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I returned from a medical conference in Israel, and as I entered the living room, I could see the small oak side table my wife had emailed me about while I was away.

It was placed in front of the gas fireplace, next to my favourite “relax” chair, and was the perfect colour and size to fit there, waiting for a cup of coffee, a portable phone and the controller for the small stereo next to it.

I marvelled at the shape and fine workmanship, reflecting on the skill, even after less than one term in a college course in industrial woodworking, of my son Eytan, whose primary love is playing the electric guitar with his heavy metal music band. His taking a college course in woodworking was part of his desire to have some other skills beyond music for the future, and working with wood has always been attractive to him.

One of the many reasons I was so delighted with his handiwork was the association I had with woodworking. I attended New York’s unique Brooklyn Technical High School because, during my early teenage years, I wanted to be an engineer like my late father. Since I loved building and fixing things and had ability in math and physics, it seemed a natural career path.

“Tech,” as the school was called by the students, was a fantastic educational experience. Beyond a vigorous general curriculum, we averaged an extra two hours a day learning technical skills and processes, including working with various metals and with wood. I recall vividly my woodworking teacher who demonstrated how to use a chisel properly. It was from him I learned that a sharp tool is much safer than a dull one, as you do not have to apply as much pressure, and too much pressure can lead to poor tool control.

I recall how, after he chiselled a piece of wood and before it was actually sanded, he let us all feel the surface and said something that then would have been considered a bit risqué: “See, smooth as a baby’s aaaarm,” at which we all sniggered, knowing what “a” word he really meant.

I changed career plans at the end of high school and decided on medicine, which was the perfect choice for me. I have, however, always maintained my love and respect for working with wood. When I did my military service in Israel, I had access to a large “hobby shop” that had all the woodworking machines and tools I learned to use at Tech.

With ample supplies of rough wood from the crates in which new General Electric airplane engines were shipped to replace the original French engines in reconfigured old French fighter planes, I was able to build kitchen shelving and cabinets and furniture for our future Jerusalem apartment.

I once saw a house for sale that the husband, as part of his retirement project, renovated, using hand-turned and carved and stained wood wherever possible. The project according to his wife, had kept him sane, healthy and active for the 15 years since his retirement.

His experience with woodworking is echoed by many patients who have pursued “hobbies” or “pastimes” from their younger years and use them as a focus for their creativity to give meaning and passion to their post-retirement years. Whether you do painting, ceramics, knitting, quilting, photography or woodworking, the satisfaction of working with your hands and brain is wonderful for the mind and the soul. Wood resonates with me for its historical meaning in my life as well as for its marvellous textures and smells.

 Dr. Michael Gordon is medical program director of palliative care at Baycrest. His latest book is Late-Stage Dementia, Promoting Comfort, Compassion and Care. His previous book, Moments that Matter: Cases in Ethical Eldercare, follows his memoir, Brooklyn Beginnings: A Geriatrician’s Odyssey. All can be researched at his website: http://www.drmichaelgordon.com.

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