My Grandfather's Tree Saw

Hanging in the garage of my parent's house were two very large-toothed tree saws. Not your normal wood-cutting blades, measured in teeth per inch, as these monsters had inches per tooth, required at least two if not four hands to operate, and were intimidating to a 6th grader scraping by (no pun) in wood shop. They would have terrified the little saplings planted in my parents' front yard into their very best Ent-personation: uproot and get away. What I didn't understand was why those saws were in the garage in the first place, as there were no old-growth trees to cut and section anywhere in our neighborhood.

Sometimes you have to see the whole family tree in perspective to understand the details.

My father's family were tree-cutters in what is now the Ukraine, then part of the Austria-Hungary empire, coming to the United States in the very early part of the 20th century. The family brought the tools when they emigrated, not having to pack much else. They left the towns of Yarmolinits and Kamanayenech-Podolsky because they were, in the wise words of my aunt, "complete mud holes." I have visions of my family in Elbonian-era scenarios, minus the technology, but with impressive hand tools. Starting with little, they arrived in a country that was about to enter a Depression, and yet they managed pretty well. I often joke about "old world" values and attitudes, but they lived them. And survived really tough economic times, raised kids, built a local small business, and kept a house that kept all of the grandchildren entertained on Sundays.

Sadly, I don't remember talking to my grandfather that much. He worked hard. He lived across the street from his general store, and there was a buzzer strung from the store to the front foyer, a remote door bell that announced a potential customer was looking for gas, even if something resembling "closing time" had arrived. It never did. He had a warm, great smile, and he and Grandma would frequently switch to Yiddish to talk about the grandchildren, their own friends, or anything else that we weren't supposed to repeat to our parents.

So here's what I remember of his style, which seems appropriate for the current economic conditions:

1. Do what you do. Former Princeton basketball coach Pete Carrill used to say "if you do something well, do that a lot; if you don't shoot well, pass the ball to someone who does." You could make my grandfather's day by asking for some obscure dimension of machine screw, which would have been stored in a cardboard box, neatly arranged on a shelf with no apparent order, but he'd find it. Every time. It's what he did. Very back to basics - have spent most of this week getting out and talking to customers, sketching out ideas for clouds and analytics while also discussing how open source software is changing the landscape of developer availability. Large-bore tree saws for large-scale data problems.

2. Laugh. There's a reason I start out each day with a 5-minute dose of web comics. Not only do I injure myself less frequently than starting out on the elliptical machine, but a good chuckle sets a good tone for the day.

3. Family (and friends) first. "It's on the way" was something of a watchword on family trips. Before MapQuest, we had navigation that would have made Charlie Daniels' "Uneasy Rider" proud -- triangulating towns in central and eastern New Jersey because they were only a few miles off of a straight-line shot, in an attempt to do the travelling salesman's tour of relatives, friends and bakeries in a single trip. My grandparents always put the family first. As I told someone the other day, a really bad day in the market or at work is offset by watching an hour of youth sports or a school function.

4. Indulge in the little things. Late one Sunday night, Grandpa arrived at our house looking for a piece of fried chicken. He liked my mothers's fried chicken (the backstory is that my grandmother's fried anything involved baking, boiling, frying, more baking, and perhaps some roasting for good measure). He had a comfortable chair -- the only big, stuffed piece of furniture that the grandchildren would fight over -- from which to watch TV. Maybe that's the way to bootstrap the US economy -- get everyone to indulge in something small and consumable, whether it's books or movies or a good piece of fried chicken. Personally -- I just bought "Slap Shot Original", the somewhat goofy autobiography of Slap Shot character Dave Hanson. My lone purchase won't rescue the big box stores from the edge of a bad holiday season, but if everyone indulges maybe the news won't be as bleak. Or we won't care because we're laughing.

5. Somebody else has it worse. Owning a general store, Grandpa saw more "local color" than most people. He was quick to extend credit or payment terms in an age before credit cards and a well-distributed banking system. It's important, as nasty as the economic climate is, to ensure that we don't lose sight of those who need help in either emotional or financial flavors. It's that time of year in New York when the homeless need a hot cup of coffee for survival in the literal sense. It's worth skipping the high-end brew and getting two doses of Dunkies - one for you and one for someone who has it worse.

Sometimes all it takes is a simple acknowledgement that, as Cheech Marin once said, "things are tough all over." A full generation before my grandparents arrived from a not-quite-but-later Soviet republic, Abraham Lincoln sought to offer the nation a bit of solace from strife, conflict, political unrest and tension that had literally put the United States on the edge of dissolution. In 1863 he declared Thanksgiving a fixed, national holiday in recognition of the blessings of "fruitful fields and healthful skies". Small details to consider as we sit down with family and friends to view the larger perspective next week on the last Thursday of November.

Comments:

In the midst of all the depressing news I read this morning, your blog entry was the perfect antidote. Thank you for sharing this sage perspective.

Posted by guest on November 20, 2008 at 11:33 PM EST #

Touching post, Hal, just in time for Thanksgiving. I just tweeted a link to it, to pass it along. Thanks!

Posted by Claire Giordano on November 21, 2008 at 07:48 AM EST #

Hal, this is great advice. On the "Laugh" point, I start every day with five pages from The Far Side. They never get old!

And yes, "I'm wondering if anybody think I'd flipped if I went to LA through Omaha". Ha!

Posted by Peter Schow on November 26, 2008 at 03:38 AM EST #

Thank you for sharing your remembrances of your grandfather. Laughter, a healthful medicine, is a hallmark of my family credo.

Thank you for the pointer to Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day proclamation. My family will be sharing it with each other today.

From my family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving, and may your years be filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.

Posted by Carolyn on November 26, 2008 at 11:00 PM EST #

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Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management

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