Trade School

IMG_0424Two weeks ago, I visited the North Bennet Street School in Boston. It is one of the oldest trade and vocational schools in the country, founded in the 1880s. I stepped  into the school from a hot bustling day in Boston, with tourists herding down the street to behold the Paul Revere house and the Old North Church. It’s quiet inside, with a beautifully restored antique bandsaw and a wall of furniture leg patterns. The gift shop has a mix of coffee mugs and fine furniture that costs close to what I make in a year.

I had emailed ahead, and so I got to take a walking tour through the workshops with Rob O’Dwyer, the director of admissions for the school. It was mostly empty, but there was a three month intensive furniture making class going on, and some students and instructors were in their shops working. Their tool chests were works of art, inventive and proportional. The space was full of natural light, though each individual work bench had little more room than I have in my own little shop. Most of the work is done with handtools, though there is a machine room in the center to speed up production.

There was an instructor there who had made an incredible federal style table. It was inlaid, had a folding top, beautiful banding. He was working on it “just to try it out.” I felt the awe and envy come over me that always does in the presence of people who’ve devoted themselves fully to a task. He asked if I was thinking about attending the school–and I groped for an answer. Of course I was holding that dream in my mind. But I also told him that I was one year away from finishing my PhD in American Literature. And as he said, “Well, sure. If you’ve given your prime years to that, you’ll want a career in that.”

If only it were so easy. A PhD in American Literature, sadly, is not a degree that garauntees much in the way of job prospects. Certainly there are English professors, but there are far more PhD holders than there are tenure track professor positions (largely a result of running universities as businesses, but I digress).

So I always have a certain degree of dreaminess about my work. I followed this path not because it would lead to a good job, but despite the fact that it may not. An undergrad professor, when I was just starting my program, asked me: “In five years, would you rather have done the PhD and not continue, or look back after five years of working and wish you’d done the PhD?” Then it seemed obvious. I suppose it still does. But I also wonder about all the paths taken or not.

The idea behind Sloyd education (as practiced at the NBSS) is that craftsmanship is a moral and spiritual training as well as a manual one. That in connecting a student to the values of good workmanship, honesty, perseverance, justice, and a suitably humble estimation of the self will take root in the soul.

I wonder, dabbler that I am, how to practice those virtues without giving up my acquisitive curiousity. Is it possible to be devoted to these many things? To scholarship and teaching, to craft and honesty, to nature and the best that has been thought and written?

I’d like to take that three month class someday, but I probably never will. I’ll instead devote time to reading and teaching. To finding ways to open up students to the world around them that isn’t clamoring for their attention and doesn’t need their money. I will enjoy that beautiful high end furniture, and maybe make a peice or two someday. I’ll practice violin until I can play without embarrassment, but I’ll never solo with a symphony. I’ll keep flyfishing and rock climbing and sailing; without record fish, first ascents, or round the world voyages.

I don’t know that I’ll ever really make my peace with that, but I’m always inspired to be in the presence of that devotion, and glad that places exist to foster it.

A Pilgrimage

So, this post will be about Walden. Not Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s magnificent gift to us all. Instead, it’s about the pond.

A little background: I first read Walden during my junior year of high school. Looking back, I think I was pretty insufferable at that point in my life.  I was a moody know-it-all (problems that still haunt me today) who thought I was too good for Idaho.  I had dreams of going to a fancy school back East–I was into the idea of The Great Books in a very big way.

But, I loved the outdoors of the West (how much wasn’t yet clear to me) My family went on a trip to Yellowstone, and being a pretentious teenager, I packed a cheap recently purchased blue Barnes and Noble Classics edition of Walden (I also had Adventures of Huck Finn to read for English class). But, even if I had questionable motives for bringing it along, reading that book at that moment changed my life. Not all at once, but slowly. Here was someone who was a judgemental as I was. But he included himself. And he was funny, witty. But he was also compassionate and impassioned. Wise. It was like I had found a soul that spoke to mine.

Now, getting close to 20 years later, I visited Concord for the first time. I’ve read Thoreau consistently since then, and written a Master’s thesis and several seminar papers trying to gain more insight into a man I have come to feel is a friend. Yes, I know he’s dead. But he also lives on. I read his words and hear him speaking as if from the next town over. We’re on a first name basis, Henry and me. And I’d learned that we share a birthday, July 12th, 168 years apart. We both graduated from college into profound economic downturns: his in 1837, mine in 2008. But through all this, he’s taught me to be me. To observe closely, not just the phenomena, but my own experience of them. To love both neighbors and solitude. To value making things for the making and for the new ways making shows me to grasping the world. He loved sailing, sought justice, was awed by the beauty of the natural world. He is the man whose life I most would like to emulate in its details as best I can.

So I had been planning to visit Concord and Walden pond for several years, ever since I realized it would be his 200th birthday. And how glad I am that I did. At dawn, my AirBnB roommate and fellow Idahoan, Jake, and I went to Walden. We walked with Richard Smith, a talented Thoreau impersonator who welcomed us especially–the only two first time pilgrims in a group of at least 20. When I stepped inside the foundations of his cabin, I removed my hat–almost without thinking. I stood ankle deep in the water, a sort of communion and baptism at the same time. It was a most auroral hour.

Later in the day, Laura Dassow Walls, one of the most generous and brilliant scholars in my field, released her new biography in Concord on July 12th. We’ve had several conversations and she is as warm and inviting as I imagine Henry was to his friends, or to the fugitive slaves he housed in his cabin. She inscribed it, “Happy Birthday to you, and Henry too!”

The day was full of speakers, Henry’s friends from several continents, speaking in the First Parish church which he attended until his conscience made him resign. Over the week, we presented in spaces that he had lectured in. I visited his grave, which modestly reads merely, “Henry”. I left my pencil, a tool he did much to modernize, back engineering–somehow–the process the French were using to make a uniform graphite-clay amalgam. I walked from Concord to his family farm, something over two miles outside of town. That evening, rain poured down on Concord in a deluge unlike any on record. It momentarily flooded the streets to impassability, requiring us all–the whole town–to pause. The TVs and cell phones went out. Thunder rumbled and water streamed like rivers down the windows. We all stopped. We listened to the earth, the water, the wind. We were being invited to wake up.

Thank you, Henry. Happy Birthday, dear friend.

New Traditionalism

IMG_0090
My thoughts on Jim Tolpin’s nondogmatic starter book

So, a short apology. It was a little ambitious of me to think I’d get the review up in a day. If you follow my instagram you know I’ve got a lot of travel this summer. I’m currently in Kansas City, grading AP Literature exams. I read something around 100 today. There’s no excuse except that a man’s gotta eat. But let’s get to the point.

If I were to start my education in this craft over again, I feel like I’d only need two books: the Anarchist’s Design Book and New Traditional Woodworking. The ADB teaches you how to build sturdy set of furniture. NTW teaches you how to do everything before and after that.

I stumbled into woodworking through InterLibrary Loan. While working on my Masters I learned that no one at the library questioned if the books I wanted were “legitimate” research or “just for fun.” Wisely, they don’t recogize that distinction. And I don’t remember exactly how, but one day, I walked out of the library with Jim Tolpin’s book.

It was gorgeous. The rich red tinged colors of the design and the wood tones of the photography sucked me right in. The hand drawn sketches had personality. And the “story” of the book was the yin to Schwarz’s yang (or have I got that backwards?). I’d already found the Anarchist’s Tool Chest at this point, and enjoyed the thumb-in-your-eye contrarian fun. But, much as I admire that style, it’s not me.

Jim Tolpin gave me the story of woodworking that resonated with me. His Port Townsend sensibility was familiar. I’ve spent some time sailing on the Puget Sound, and the laid back hippie craftsman–though it might get scoffs–seemed like an  echo of the Thoreau of the Journal that I think of as a good friend. Someone I could not only relate to and wanted to have a beer with, but a persona I could imagine myself inhabiting, a role model of sorts.

Tolpin’s story of a craftsman is more internal than some. Forgive a well worn cliche: it isn’t so much about the products as the processes. More about the satisfaction he guides readers to is in knowing how to do a job, and do it well. The book is basically a set of instructions for shop appliances, and yet each one is carefully designed to be both functional and beautiful. If you’re going to make your own stuff, why not enjoy the whole process? Why not make your shop warm and beautiful, too? As my sailor friend used to tell me: “You know you’re doing it right when it looks beautiful.” Tolpin told me, and modeled for me, a plausible story of that sort of livable grace.

IMG_0091

The books had a few flaws for me, mostly in that it doesn’t seem to have been written for those of us on a budget. There are lots of glamour shots of expensive tools: endgrain shooting planes, toothing planes, a slick plow plane, that I will probably never own. But there are generally work arounds provided, and the explanation and step by step photographs of the procedures more than make up for it. The few places that I’ve encountered that leave me stumped are inevitably my thickness of head and not the fault of the text or photos.

I haven’t met Tolpin, though I’ve watched some of his videos at byhandandeye.com. He seems as quiet and peaceful as his writing. I hope to achieve that composure someday, and maybe I can learn it if I get a chance to attend a class at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking.

This book continues to be influential to me. I checked it out three times from the library before I finally caved and bought it. I have no regrets.

Next up (though probably not tomorrow): Walden.

A New Project

IMG_0084
Two of my bookshelves

First off, what an amazing and humbling thing to have such a great (okay, sometimes great and sometimes inflammatory to the point of seeming allergic) response to my essay in Full Stop. Reading the comments, both on the Full Stop website and on the Lost Art Press blog was by turns cheering, frustrating, and confounding. I won’t bother arguing point by point with various commenters, but I will say that I am encouraged by how much diversity of opinion exists among those who identify as woodworkers (esp. handtool woodworkers). One key thing I learned is that mentioning the name of Karl Marx (briefly in a several thousand word essay) is still enough to derail the whole argument for some. There’s a valuable lesson there–some ideas might suffer from attribution. But really, go read some Marx. As one commentor pointed out, attributing Communism and the acts of Lenin and Stalin to Marx is like attributing the Inquisition to Jesus. Marx was a deeply ethical, careful thinker.

But, back to my new project. The response to my essay, along with Nancy Hiller and Megan Fitzpatrick’s Instagram posts about their bookshelves and several wonderful emails, has gotten me thinking about my books. Admittedly, it wasn’t hard to get me thinking about my books, since I’ve devoted my life to being a scholar of literature (a.k.a. “overeducated buffoon” to one axe-grinding commentor). I chose to go to grad school not because I thought it would be a plum way to get a living–in fact it means seven years of no savings, sub 20k salary, and constant stress. And chances are I won’t ever land a faculty job; less than half of literature Ph.D.s do (though it’s good work if you can get it). Instead, I decided to get a Ph.D. because I have a deep belief that our lives are driven by the stories that surround us. And I wanted–needed–to understand those stories, especially the ones from what still seems to be the pivotal moment in American history and identity: the mid 19th century.

At root, this goal of understanding stories stems from the premise that stories are fundamental. We want certain things because we have stories about them. We do what we do because of stories. That’s why we make things from wood. Because we have a story (or many stories) about what it means to make things from wood. That’s why we want to take vacations to Hawai’i. We tell ourselves that it’s pleasant there (and it is!). But we also know that going to Hawai’i has some social value–we have a story about “making it” that includes beach vacations, Mai Tais, and tan lines. We know the value, to ourselves and others, of having those personal and shared stories of joy and pleasure (after all, memories are just stories we tell ourselves, and psychological experiments has shown its not very hard to make memories of things that never occurred). So we have all these stories, most of which are given to us and all of which share a certain architecture, and then we tweak them and live them and try to realize them.

So my new blog project, for the next several weeks (while I’m not home with access to my little workshop) is going to be book reviews. I want to write a bit about the stories that my books have told me about what good work is. That might mean work with wood. It might be more abstract and philophical takes on work. You’ll get my little reviews of Jim Tolpin and Hannah Arendt, Henry David Thoreau and Christopher Schwarz. I don’t know where it will lead, but I hope you’ll check back.

Tomorrow: thoughts on Jim Toplin’s The New Traditional Woodworker.

(French) Anarchism, Reviewed

IMG_0025

An essay I wrote (probably not terribly insightful, but I hope at least entertaining and informative) was published today by Full Stop Quarterly. Here’s a teaser:

But this past-focused woodworking community seems mostly unaware of a paradox at its center. The social network-based democratization of Instagram and blogs created a virtual space for community to form around this nostalgia. The very infrastructure upon which the supposedly independent community is built relies on surveillance and monetization of users by massive capitalized corporations. The ethos is vaguely Jeffersonian, yet most of the posts feel wholesomely apolitical, only trying to bring what was appealing about the past into the current moment and updating it to modern (and modernist) sensibilities. Perhaps for that reason, apoliticism seems to be what Lost Art Press is most insistent that hand tool woodworking is not.

Read more at http://www.full-stop.net/quarterly/

Thanks!

Publishing

My studies and the rest of life generally have kept me away from the bench, and even more, away from this blog, for a while. But, since my little Popular Woodworking article was just published, I guess I ought get back to this on a more regular basis.

I’m in the midst of reading a biography of Henry David Thoreau right now, and learning how much woodworking/handymanning he actually did. We think of him as the patron saint of American environmentalism, and he was in many ways. Observation and appreciation of nature are at the root of his writing and life. But he also invented processes and machinery for the family pencil manufacture business (which was housed in a very modest building for the quantity the Thoreau’s were turning out in the 1840s). He was also a major fixer of things that broke in the Emerson household (Emerson was famously clumsy, his son Waldo once worrying that he would “dig his leg”).

This has given me the idea of further research on Thoreau’s knowledge of woodworking. While much has been written about the cabin, I’d like to do some more research on Concord’s carpenters and joiners of the period–and maybe try to figure out what other tools besides an axe Henry have borrowed.

Thoreau’s woodworking (and his writing about it) could also be compared to Walt Whitman’s (they met and enjoyed each other’s company and writing). Whitman worked as a house carpenter (like his father) for a time and of course wrote “The Song of the Broad Ax” in 1856. Both of these literary figures have had a lasting impact on the way that American culture talks and thinks about the relationship of work to the world around us. I suspect the role of working wood probably hasn’t been much explored–the ways that woodworking metaphors and metonyms pervade our common language and understanding of self, for example. That might be because scholars aren’t usually woodworkers, and woodworking scholars don’t usually turn to literary figures.

 

 

 

A Toolbox and Disaster

A Toolbox and Disaster

All through the fall of 2015, I puttered. I was supposed to be reading for my comprehensive exams, but the more urgent work of teaching kept draining my mental energy away. I started teaching projects and events as procrastination. I was afraid of engaging with my own work because it might turn out that I would not live up to my own expectations. I didn’t get much reading done.

I puttered through a relationship that was slowly unraveling into a dead-end, despite our best intentions. I puttered through my evenings on small, low stakes projects. I made a Roy Underhill tool tote from a library book (it took me the first half of a football came to resaw the pine board). I watched Paul Sellers on youtube and tried to build my own little rabbet plane (with mediocre results). I fashioned a new walnut spacebar to replace a cracked plastic one on of my typewriters (yes, I have two). I started making a tool chest with the dimensions of the full Anarchist’s Tool Chest and the simple joinery of the baby version from the Anarchist’s Design Book. Everywhere I felt vaguely alone: no seminar conversations in the evenings, lukewarm and guarded receptions on online forums, Grubby “networking” conversations at academic conferences. I struggled to understand my own academic work or its value. It seemed like there were unspoken expectations everywhere I turned, and I wasn’t meeting them.

I did get that project functional in time for an event that I was hoping would kick me into gear a little bit. I tend to look for outside circumstances to change as a way to help me change internally. In this case, I was moving into a new space. Instead of my north facing third-floor apartment, I’d be sharing a bright little 110-year-old house with a new roommate. It was in a different neighborhood. It was cute where my apartment has been functional. I’d have stairs, nice furniture thanks to the owners, and incredibly cheap rent. It offered me space for a study/library in which to write, and small workbench sized space for a shop (in addition to a basement). It seemed like maybe this would be just what I needed.

Moving is never fun, but my wonderful friends helped me haul my shabby grad student possessions over to the new place. That included the knockdown workbench and the unfinished tool chest. It was the last day of February. At about the same time, I remember watching The Revenant and feeling that movie’s crystalline cold merged seamlessly with raw violence. The world felt icy and malevolent, and I was at a loss. I looked out at that world and tried to understand. I tried to plan for how I could contribute–how I could resist the greed and violence that seemed to be lurking just under the surface. I read Thoreau, I taught my students about Wikipedia and the power of a sentence. I looked everywhere for hope and kindness–finding it in brief moments, but still struggling to get up in the morning.

A couple weeks later, I had settled in enough that I decided to paint my tool chest. I unloaded it, photographed all my tools spread out on my workbench, and followed a recipe to make my own milk paint from scratch, with vinegar to curdle the milk, and lime leftover from a friend’s backyard oven plaster. It was St. Patrick’s day. That night, my dad sent the family a picture. Construction crews had just placed the first girder of Broadway Bridge–a project we were jokingly calling his magnum opus. He was set to retire in just over a year.

That night I was woken up in the middle of the night by a phone call from my mom. She said it was a butt dial. I went back to sleep. The next day I woke to see three more missed calls from her. I called right back. She explained that my father was missing. He had never come home the night before. She’d been out looking for him all night with my aunt and uncle. There wasn’t any sign.

After she hung up to continue her search, I called my dad. No answer. I sent a desperate text, telling him that we were all worried about him. My mom called back. My dad was dead.

He was 57 years old. He had died on his way home from work, from what would turn out to be a heart aneurysm. He had time to pull over, turn off the truck, and reach for his phone. He never made a call.

My tool box sat on the kitchen floor, where it had dried overnight. I put it in the workshop, and thought–I will never get to show my dad.

I last talked to him two days before he died. It had been unseasonably warm in Nebraska, and I rode my bicycle to a professors’ house for a meet and greet with an important guest. But I’d gotten the time wrong and arrived an hour early. So I sat on a park bench and called my dad, and we laughed and chatted for that hour, comparing notes on the weather, sharing stories of our work, making plans for the coming summer. His work ethic, his care for what he did, had inspired me again. I’d hung up feeling good, feeling energized.

That day, I collapsed on the floor of my that handbuilt house and sobbed. Nothing for the next month felt real. Writing this now, nine months later, it still feels impossible. The bridge he photographed that day is finished, and snow blanket it along with the rest of my hometown of Boise, Idaho. The world to me feels cold and worse off now than it was then.

His headstone is piled high with snow, and frozen sagebrush fill the vase. A surreptitious bronze plaque marks that bridge. His other bridges around the state don’t bear his name, and very few of those who cross them will ever have the slightest inkling of my father’s story.

It may be easy for some to sneer at all those elegies to 2016 as an annus horribilis. But for me, personally, it was. And for anyone with a sense of propriety and justice, things have taken a turn for the worse. The cold violence that always threatens to break through is that much nearer.

Hannah Arendt, one of the thinkers who offers me guidance in dark times, wrote about the value of work. By that, she meant the way that humans alter nature to provide a stable shelter for their lives. We create an enduring world, and when we care enough to make that world beautiful, our lives can be great and beautiful as well. My father believed in that idea, though he might not have phrased it that way. He spoke of engineers all too often suffering from “a poverty of the imagination.” He designed special platforms for nesting osprey on one bridge. He made sure not to block the view of a river. He wanted his bridges, all over Idaho, to be beautiful in addition to being safe. He didn’t want to add gingerbread. He wanted the bones of the bridge to be honest, clean, and pretty. He tried to find truth that was graceful, beautiful. He, unlike so many, worked rather than simply “making a living.”

I’m trying to work again, too. To seek and find truth and beauty in wood, in words, on the edges of America’s violent past. I’m looking for the light and life that holds the cold violence in check. My toolbox is full and slowly getting fuller. I was recently entrusted with some hundred-and-fifty-year-old tools. But I feel more like I stand at a beginning than an end. I now know the loneliness won’t fade. It will never be solved; it will never be healed. But that is why I must work: to keep that bright little flame that I’ve been given from sputtering out.

 

Anyone interested can read my dad’s obituary here. The Idaho Statesman also ran a nice story when the bridge opened.