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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Off The Grid: The genus and species of common power tools

By Ammi Midstokke The Spokesman-Review

It is rare that my husband has a communication advantage over me and it is fair to say he is relishing in his current upper hand.

He does this by blankly staring at me when I request a skill saw. I’ve seen this glossy-eyed look before, like when I suggest my teenager clean their room and they look at me as though I’m speaking Martian gobbledygook.

At this point, he forces me into a pantomime demonstration of what I am actually trying to achieve, minus the stripes. Arms outstretched, I awkwardly wobble around the kitchen, nearly toppling over and knocking a few glasses off the counter in a demonstration of how I relocate a piece of plywood. I crawl over my pretend piece of plywood, take some air measurements and draw a raven’s claw.

(I have boycotted the crow’s foot marking method after a martial spat in which I may or may have not threatened to lodge my carpenter’s pencil into the heart of my husband and his cursed industry standards.)

It isn’t until I’ve unrolled an invisible extension cord and begun crawling around on my hands and knees, making noises somewhere between the sound of a wounded raccoon and a Ryobi, that Charlie finally gives in.

“Oh! Do you mean a circular saw?” he’ll ask, growing about an inch at the same time.

As if anyone ever called it that in real life. Using the Latin names of power tools has to be the fastest way to get beat up on a job site. That doesn’t stop him from teaching me the genus and species of each tool I am requesting.

A chop saw, for example, aptly named for its use in chopping things, makes a decidedly more robust noise than a skill saw and is much easier to guess in a game of charades. Regardless of the fact that I need a saw to chop a billion cuts of two-by-four blocking at a 90-degree angle, my request delivers only a confused if not irresistibly patronizing raising of the eyebrows.

“If you want to be specific …”

“–I don’t.”

“Or technically correct …”

“–Not that either.”

“It’s called a compound sliding miter saw.”

I distract myself from making death threats by imagining him at a university lectern with a pointer, a pair of corduroys, leather patches on his sweater elbows as he explains the anatomy of power tools. I assume this is what his formal education in construction management consisted of because his manners are far too good for him to survive on any real job site. If you don’t believe me, let me submit the evidence that he says, “Jiminy Christmas,” instead of cursing.

I decide to try my new vocabulary out on the framing crew the next day. Even more than impressing my husband by not losing a finger, I want the subcontractors to have a modicum of respect for me. I buy my way onto the job site with homemade cookies and profanities. Perhaps the right lexicon will earn me some construction site credibility.

I show up feeling confident and place bouquet of dahlias on my workbench, then return to my car to unload my saw. The men silently observe me schlepping back and forth with my pink hard hat and pink tool belt in my blue yoga pants (I am patiently waiting for Carhartt to design some of these).

I hoist the heavy thing and feign a stable walk past them.

“Oh, I just brought my compound sliding miter saw so I can build a drying rack,” I say in my most confident crew tone.

“Oh, do you mean a chop saw?” they ask.

When Charlie arrives later to talk about beams and headers, they all band together like brothers of a common land and language.

I don’t hear any Latin names of tools, but then I wouldn’t know the difference anyway.

Probably, I am going to have to take up chewing tobacco to fit in.

Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at