There are some areas in my life where the pace of change can be maddening. Less than 20 years ago, we installed new digital controls for the heating and air handling systems in our church. At the time, having those systems directed by a computer was innovative and new. The equipment we installed was state of the art. We were replacing controls that were 40 years old. This week, a technician working on those controls informed us that we are well beyond the service life of those components and that it is time to replace them. The original controls lasted 40 years, the next generation lasted less than 20. It is likely that a replacement with the current state of the art will put us in a service life of only about 5 years. One more generation and controls will be like computer software - a subscription based on nearly continuous replacement.

I am often involved in conversations with people who are frustrated by the amount of their work time that must b invested in learning to use new tools. Each software update comes with a learning curve. Each year brings a larger percentage of work time that is invested in learning to use new tools to do the job with a subsequent decrease in the amount of time to actually do the job. Automation does decrease the number of hours required to do a job, but in some cases the gain in efficiency is offset by the demands of training.

On the other hand, I have a few tools whose purpose, function and use have a much longer service life. When I am woking on a kayak in my shop, the block planes that I use are the same ones my father and grandfather used. They are sharpened in the same fashion, adjusted and used in the same way. They work as well as was the case when they were brand new. And there is no way that my use will wear them out. I have one plane that is at least a full generation older - perhaps more. A hardwood block with a rectangular mortise cut across the center of the body holding an iron blade is a design that dates back to Roman times.

I have a skin-on-frame kayak that is built to a Greenland design that dates back many thousands of years. Although my kayak is relatively new - I built it in 2007, the shape is essentially the same shape that people have been paddling with a simple straight, double-bladed paddle for thousands of years.

In this fast-paced world, it is comforting to have a few tools that aren’t constantly being replaced with new ones. There are some areas in life where a very slow pace of change is a blessing.

Paddling is one of those places in my life. The tools I use to paddle are ancient. Well, that isn’t completely true. I do have a modern, state-of-the-art life vest and I don’t wear sealskin clothing when I paddle. The essential tools such as the shape of the boat and the paddle, however, haven’t changed in my lifetime.

It is more than comfort, however, to use tools that do not change. When the tools are constantly changing, their change is what is tracked and labeled as improvement. When the tools don’t change, one is freed to concentrate on human improvement. When I grab a well-balanced canoe paddle, I don’t have to think about how to hold it or what its function is. I already know what it will feel like in the water and I don’t have to concentrate on the tool at all. I can think about my posture and my breathing and other factors that result in my becoming a more efficient paddler. I can grow and change and improve because I’m not concentrating on the tools that I am using.

The opposite serves to illustrate. I do own one super high-tech, carbon fiber paddle that I bought for river paddling. Each time I use it, I am struck by how lightweight it feels in my hands. I have trouble with my grip because I can’t tell initially how much leverage is required to move the paddle. The light weight is partially offset by the increased blade size and an increased sensitivity of the blade to its angle in the water. I find myself thinking about the paddle more than I am thinking about my posture, balance and the power of my stroke.

When I paddle a traditional boat with a traditional paddle the only way to make it across the lake in less time or with more reserve energy is to increase my human performance. When the boat and paddle remain the same, the human can’t help but get better.

I recently listened to a TED talk by Amy Hazel about fishing. “When your tools don’t change, you have time to learn the soft stuff,” she said. “In fly fishing it’s the study of insects and the habitat of the fish. You son’t worry, ‘I can’t cast on this rod because it’s so different from the rod last year.’”

I am a better paddler each year in part because I don’t have to spend a good portion of my time and energy re-learning how to use the tools. The tools remain constant, freeing me to focus on other things. That’s a good thing, because I paddle in a constantly changing environment. The infinite varieties of water, current, swell and wind mean that I have plenty to keep my mind occupied and focused. I don’t need to think about boat shape and paddle. Instead I slip into my boat with the paddle fitting quite naturally in my hands and think about the beauty of the nature that surrounds me, the quality of solitude afforded by my setting and other important things. I don’t have to think about how to get my boat to go in the direction I want. That happens naturally.

I guess I am grateful for innovation in tools. But I am even more grateful for the tools in my life that don’t change. Yesterday, I held the hand of a woman as a ventilator was withdrawn. I placed my hand on her forehead and recited the 23rd Psalm as she drew her last breath. I anointed her head with oil from a bottle that I’ve been using for decades. I didn’t have to think about my tools. I was freed to concentrate on what was important - the quality of her care and the grief of her family. In the critical situations of life, tools that are familiar and well-tested are essential.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!