Jan 172017

When I was a child my mother and brother were both very fond of French cuisine. As a child I was too young to understand why they chose this particular fascination. I suspect but do not know that one factor was the publicity given to Julia Child, both by her books and her popular TV show.

My mother kept the kitchen knives on a magnetic knife bar mounted on the window sill. Why this was done I don’t know for sure. After my mother and brother were both deceased I learned that Julia Child had promoted magnetic knife bars. I strongly suspect that this was a major factor in its installation.

The problem with the knife bar we had was that it wasn’t very strong. My understanding is that stainless steels largely eclipsed carbon steels for use in kitchen knives as the 20th century progressed. By the 1970’s, most of the kitchen knives my mother owned were stainless steels. In general, stainless steels are much less magnetic than carbon steels, and so have more trouble adhering to magnetic knife bars. It’s also possible that my mother simply bought a cheap unit.

The result was that our kitchen knives would periodically fall down. Sometimes this would result in a cascading, domino effect. My father had worked in the mines in Butte, Montana before he taught law at the University of Montana in Missoula. Though he never worked underground, I suspect he formed a life-long fear of the damage that various tools and mechanical devices could do.

My father did not cook. When my mother would put a knife back on the knife bar it would sometimes cause the others to come crashing down. Inevitably this would provoke a strong startle response in my father. I believe he would dramatically exaggerate this response in a passive – aggressive but wordless protest. The knife bar really did represent a genuine danger, and obviously harshed the mellow of the Crowley household.

By the time I got to high school I became fascinated with knives in general. I took great pride in sharpening knives on sharpening stones, including my mother’s kitchen knives. At one point I got a great idea: I would create a wooden knife block and give it to my mother as a Christmas present. This would do two things, namely demonstrate that I was a clever and crafty person and solve the PROBLEM OF THE CHRONICALLY FALLING KNIVES. I found some scrap boards in the attic. I recall having to enlist the help of a friend’s father to cut the boards with a table saw. I used wood chisels to hog out the slots in which the knives would rest. I remember gluing the boards together with epoxy adhesive. Needless to say, this block was customized to hold my mother’s knives. Being that my carpentry skills were at a beginner’s level, this block was an old school vertical type. Most knife blocks today are angled, which is a superior design ergonomically.

The big day came, and I bestowed this gift to my mother. Sad to say, she never used it! Deeply entrenched in her irrational fixation with the flawed magnetic knife par, the wooden knife block was sentenced to storage in a basement storage room. When my father died in 2014 I found it again, languishing in dust.

Part of the reason I’m attracted to skepticism as an intellectual enterprise was witnessing first hand the irrational behaviors of my mother, and the real world harms that resulted. Even given rational solutions, my mother failed to adopt them. There is a wider point to this story, namely that we should be open to change based on reason and evidence at all points in our lives.

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