Sunday, August 26, 2012


By Arthur H. Gunther III

   I am an ordinary fellow living an ordinary retirement  after an ordinary upbringing and an ordinary career. And that is my issue: the great gift of ordinariness that America has long offered but which now seems out of reach. Most Americans want to be ordinary, to live safe, productive lives in health and happiness, to leave the moving and shaking to others. Ordinariness is the hum of the middle class, which itself is the well-tuned, durable engine that protects democracy, that grows the economy, that offers stability. And today it is sputtering.
     When was the last time America smiled? There are tears in the households where the unemployed sit, where new college graduates cannot begin careers, where those who were taught by successful parents to buy into the American Dream see it dashed in an economy built by the 20th century middle class but now controlled by special interests in the 21st.      
     The many in America today know that Congress and the presidency are broken systems hampered by pettiness and no grand vision. Great change must come if the nation is to survive. Lobbies for greed, for power, for the extreme  left and extreme right of political ideology rule the roost, and the people’s voice must rise in volume against them. 
     So that is the issue: how to again nurture the middle class in all its ordinariness, which is also its brilliance, America’s leitmotif. It is the stability of the masses being ordinary that allows others to invent, to be pioneers, to chase the frontier.
    Could change come by requiring public financing of campaigns with no special-interest money allowed?   Maybe then the nation, free of lobby, would decide what sort of financial and educational investment, health care, pension system and social service network a progressive world leader must have and how to pay for all that without massive debt and with individual responsibility added to the wallet. 
     We must guarantee that America can be ordinary and so hum in progress once again. 

Monday, August 20, 2012


By Arthur H. Gunther III

Each trade has its special tools, but you would think they could at least share an ordinary hammer. Observation reveals otherwise, and it’s more than about equipment.

Carpenters take a whack with various types of hammers -- used for framing, finishing, basic work (though pneumatic nail guns do most of the work today). Yet it is rare to see a joiner (fine English word for a carpenter, isn't it?) bang away at the rare piece of concrete in the way of a 2x4 with a mason’s hammer. The mason, though, will not use the carpenter’s hammer to set a brick tie to a wall but will instead grab the same masonry tool he uses for everything.

An electrician doesn’t even have a hammer. He takes out his most prized of journeyman’s possessions -- the lineman’s pliers -- and makes that his hammer, setting outlet boxes and wire staples with deft use. 

The plumber? He’ll use a hammer, but back in the day before easy plastic when plumbers were real men and they had to set heavy cast-iron pipe with hot lead-filled joinery, you’d see one coaxing a nail with a two-inch galvanized or even a one-inch black pipe meant for gas.

The finish carpenter is by nature finicky and neat, or he (she?) won’t last long. So, the tools are fairly exact. You would not see a surgeon  cutting flesh with a reciprocating saw, and the finish joiner will not employ a whacking hammer or coarse saw to do his work. Setting aside the pneumatic tools that have come to him as well, he uses well-balanced hammers and nail sets plus a guillotine-like device that removes uber-thin slices of wood off trim. All about exactness.

The roofer has his speciality hammer as does the tinsmith. The cable installer carries his coaxial cable crimpers  and the landscaper his pruners, though string trimmers seem to rule. (If all were turned on at once worldwide, the din might just throw the earth off its axis.)

Watch any of these tradespeople do their jobs, and you will see hands holding and fingers working and bodies twisting and turning to the tune of the particular craft and the special tools used. For example, it's easier for an electrician to grab his ever-used lineman’s pliers and bang in a staple than find a hammer that does not swing from his belt anyway.  He has adapted use of the tool with deft handing, unknown to any other trade that might pick up that particular plier type. Just as an electrician is not a carpenter and vice versa, their tools are distinct and fit more than the work at hand.

Personality, it seems, extends to tools.

Monday, August 13, 2012


By Arthur H. Gunther III

Bethesda, Md. -- In 1980, Ronald Reagan came to a sister city quite near here and proclaimed that government was too big, and so in his view too costly,  and he meant to downsize. When he left two presidential terms later, Washington and its reach had grown even more. So have the D.C. surrounding communities.

In a visit last week to see a newly relocated son and his family, it was easy to declare traffic the eighth wonder of the modern world. I have not been in the D.C. region in three years, and while the roads were very busy then, it seems volume has doubled. One reason why Bethesda itself is choked is that the famous, old Walter Reed Army medical facility in D.C. has been combined into the Bethesda naval complex, and that has brought more traffic. Just from a medical center? Yes, government does nothing small. 

Before World War II, the land on which my son’s house sits was famed or used by nature for floodplains. After the blood of the Civil War battles was shed and farmers returned to crops, the slow southern lifestyle continued for generations -- until Dec. 7, 1941. Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II, and the war gave us a new Washington, tremendously expanded in just a few years, with huge area adjuncts like the Pentagon and thousands of homes for thousands of new government workers. The growth has never slowed, even as newly minted, naive presidents have promised downsizing.

Reagan knew not Washington, but once he arrived, officialdom quickly learned his ways. Despite whatever observations and proclamations for “change” made on the stump, the president was co-opted by the Washington system, just as every person in that office since has been swallowed in a sea of handlers, lobbyists and red tape that, like a traffic jam, clogs movement for the individual, for the public good. Good intentions have no chance, it seems, no more than a fellow can go one mile on clogged four-lane Old Georgetown Road to get a cup of joe without apoplexy.

Stuck in traffic in the good, old USA, in more ways than one. 

The writer, a retired newspaper editorialist, writes at

Sunday, August 5, 2012


By Arthur H. Gunther III

It’s a very hot day and the AC isn’t working well. Time for a very cold German ale and a home improvement show, of which there are many on cable TV in the Year of our Lord 2012. As a journeyman handyman, I enjoy “This Old House” or “Renovation Realities” or “Disaster DIY” or whatever new combination of power tool, tool belt and tool person is repackaged to capture the craze of home remodeling, its foibles, its success, oh, its very humanity.
Ever since the do-it-yourself movement took hold with returning servicemen post-World War II, and then with women joining in as the decades have evolved, there has been money to be made, and advertisers to court and books to write and magazines to publish and TV shows to create.
So, here I am, barely in clothes on a hot day with the AC not working well, very cold ale in hand, perhaps in pose for the stereotype of the weekend male, ready to tune in to a “Crashers” show in which the host corrals homeowners in a home improvement store, promises them a cucina or some other redo in three days and then descends en masse at the suburban tract abode with a horde of carpenters, electricians, plumbers, designers, all shouting “hoo-rah” as off-camera directors cheer them on. If this were the Roman Coliseum, they would be calling for gladiator blood. On the Crashers show, whether it’s about a kitchen, a yard or a bathroom, the cheering section, including the homeowner, yell “Demolish” as sledge hammers and reciprocating saws are rough-handled to make waste of the old in non-OSHA-approved ways. 
Then, as reconstruction begins, din is replaced by banter between host and homeowner, including the usual flirtatious scenes between female in house and male as carpenter, etc.
The banter is OK, despite the silliness of flirtation, because you actually see reconstruction, and that’s fun if you are a relaxing handyman like me with a very cold ale at hand. Good enough, almost good enough to forget that the premise of a crash show is seemingly to demolish without forethought and to rebuild so quickly that one’s mother-in-law or the family cat might be left behind the new wall. But, it’s free, right?
So, I can take the banter and some mild voiceover. The debris hits the fan, however, when the producers fill in every quiet second between banter, voiceover and commercial with a new gimmick, which I call “noiseover.” That is “music,” usually loud instrumental,  which drives you nuts. Who can think with that din? I want to digest the banter, maybe even reflect on the work being done, because, as I write, I am a journeyman handyman. And the very cold ale in my hand makes me mellow.
But not mellow enough to want to pull at my non-existent hair when the noiseover intrudes. What happened to the benefits of solitude? Isn’t humankind’s best work done in contemplation, focus to task?  Maybe I am out of tune, literally. I hear that some young people study these days with music blaring. I favor anyone studying in any way possible -- I had enough trouble myself -- but self-awareness, and general awareness actually, come only from the quiet.
Why, I wonder, do handyman show producers add the din?
Ah, well, I haven’t had the very cold ale yet. Prost!