There doesn't seem to be a way to temporarily switch to the zoom tool
while a button is pressed.  For example if I hold down ctrl + space, it
would switch to the zoom tool, I could click-drag a rectangle to zoom,
and let up on the ctrl + space, and it would switch back to the tool
that was selected previously.  

I used this in photoshop all the time, so I can attest to its benefit.

I realize there are shortcuts in the GIMP for zooming.  The scroll wheel
comes to mind, but zooming by dragging a rectangle is often much more
useful for zooming in, and switching to the zoom tool by going over to
the toolbox, clicking the zoom tool, then going back to draw the
rectangle, then going back to the toolbox to re-select the previous
tool, then back to the image to do the thing you were going to do...

And I also realize there's a shortcut key for the zoom tool, but even
then you have to switch back to the previous tool, which often requires
a more difficult shortcut key than Z and probably a good memory too
(there are over 30 different tools after all.)

Another conceivable solution is simply to have a way to select the
previous tool with an easy, left-handed shortcut.  Doing that wouldn't
be quite as simple for zooming as the momentary zoom idea, but on other
occasions might be useful in its own right.

What do you all think?

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