Moving with Handtools pt. 2: Design

I’ve spent a little time drawing a floor plan for my new shop yesterday. Here is it. My drafting supplies are all back in Lincoln, or I would have at least used a scale rule. But this rough freehand sketch is enough to show me that things are going to be a little tight down in my basement shop.

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I also stopped by the library yesterday and picked up a Pop Wood book called The Complete Woodshop Guide “from the editors of Popular Woodworking” (the library was the first stop in a lovely books, burgers, and pet shop walkthrough weeknight date. Pet stores are full of fascinating creatures. Our culture is so bizarre.). This sort of book is both fun and obnoxious to me. On the one hand, it helps to be reminded that I should get a legitimate first aid kit for my shop, and think about the power requirements of my lathe. On the other hand–I’m a renter, and I’m going to be unemployed when I arrive. So–I can’t build a cellar entry (one suggested improvement in the book), let along paint the floor. It’s going to be a temporary shop. So all the articles on installation of flooring, dust collection, where to locate the router table…I can dispense with all that. Maybe someday I’ll be able to afford, or find for sale, a drill press, bandsaw, and portable planer, and by then, I’ll be somewhere with an outbuilding and a woodstove (Jim Tolpin’s little shop seems just about right to me). Such are the boundaries of my desire. The book, on the other hand, is a complete guide to building a shop for someone with twice my annual income to drop on a shop. So my story won’t be about buying my way to workshop bliss. It’s more of a make-do-or-do-without kind of story.

Come June, I’ll store all the tools in the basement, in my tool chest and hanging shelf. I’ll build some shelves to hold paint and other finishing supplies. Lumber will be purchased as needed and then stored in the garage or leaned against walls in out of the way places. Besides storage, I need a place for:

  1. the bench (built to fit)
  2. the lathe
  3. the grinder
  4. sawbenches (potentially to be new built, depending on space when I pack up)*
  5. A shopvac + bucket “dust collector”.
  6. A chopping stump*

My plan is to locate the * items in the garage. That way I can do the roughest work out there, and only bring in the lumber once it’s cut to size.

The bench will go along the south wall, aka starboard, wall. The lathe will be to port, under the ductwork since it needs a bit less headspace than I do. Dust collection will probably go fore of the lathe, against the wall and next to the toolchest. I’ll need to keep the basement quite clean because it’s also the laundry station. I think the best bet for the grinder is just aft of the workbench, on the other side of the knobless door.

Lighting is going to be a compromise as well. I have my plug and go shop lights, so I’ll bring those along, but there isn’t any outlet on the best bench wall. And I’m not too keen on guerilla diy wiring in an apartment basement shop. So–I’ll probably be using an adapter in the current light socket, which I’ll need to raise up between the joists if I want to not bash my head constantly (did I mention the beams are only 6’6″ off the deck? For my scrawny six feet, that’s not a lot of clearance).

Next up–planning a new bench. Nicholson or something more Roubust? (sorry).

 

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Moving with Handtools pt. 1: Planning

Today I’m writing during a minor blizzard on the second day of Spring. I’m in Lexington, KY this week with my lovely fiancee. While the issues of the Kentucky Press don’t seem to be over (or sunnier), we signed a lease and a venue contract for our wedding. So even if she loses her job, we’ll both be here for at least a year.

 

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My current place, back when it was festive.

 

Honestly, I’m excited to move here. Kentucky has been absolutely lovely, politics aside. But it’s going to require some big changes, woodworking-wise. I’ve been in a lovely little 1900 Craftsman-style bungalow in Lincoln for the last two years. And I’ve done basically all my woodworking from a shop space that was originally some sort of back porch (the construction history is a little obscure to me, but that space isn’t insulated). When I moved in my bench was new and I was just finishing my tool chest–a sort of hybrid between the “full Anarchist” (dimension-wise) and the “baby anarchist” (everything else) versions from Christopher Schwarz. (I was actually a bit surprised at how large it was, and I could probably get by with something not quite as deep…which maybe I’ll make with dovetails someday and find another purpose for what feels like the giant original…or maybe I’ll get used to it) Since then, I’ve completed (or mostly completed) several bookcases, a six-board chest, an nail cabinet, a couple medieval looking staked benches, a hanging tool shelf, and restorations on a number of old tools. In the basement, I’ve gotten an old Craftsman lathe working, set up a grinder station, and made a rough chopping block at which to hew and knock (thanks, Roy).

 

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My last real project, in the “Kat Cave” my wonderful little bench room for the last two years.

 

At the edges of woodworking, a lot has happened in the past two years. I’ve been to two Handworks and a couple tool sales, published a couple woodworking essays, and took the Baby Anarchist class with Mike Seimsen. I started this blog. I’ve gotten to know some absolutely amazing woodworking folks through the local scene (aka softball), Instagram, Handworks, and that class. I also got to take a mind-blowing trip to Namibia, lost my dad, ended a relationship, fell in love and got engaged, and am within striking distance of finishing my PhD. So you know, about run of the mill for a couple years.

But now I’m faced with moving my tools and setting up a new shop space.

And that’s where things get interesting. I think there are going to be at least three overlapping phases: 1. I need to decide what to keep and sell everything else so that I don’t lose that investment, or at least give it away so it isn’t junked 2. I need to figure out how to transport what I do keep 3. I need to set up a new shop in our new duplex apartment.

When it comes to keeping things, I’ve already got a crate of definitely unwanted items. I’ll make another post about those, in case anyone is interested in purchasing a few–there are some subfunctional Yankee Drills, an odd duck rabbet plane, a giant corner brace, and some other odds and ends. Even a goofy little hobby size bandsaw someone gave me.

The tools waiting on restoration are tougher. I think I have about 8-10 handsaws and probably need half that many at most. Perhaps I can sell half of those to put toward a Bad Axe sharpening of the other half. (I do very much enjoy the saw restoration process, and they are surprisingly easy to find at antique shops–much better priced than the planes). I have some extra chisels and random gauges. I also have the crate of my friend Ellen Matthew’s great grandfather’s nineteenth-century carpenter’s tools, many beyond saving, but entrusted to me by their inheritor. I don’t feel right just consigning them to being chopped up for their old beech, but I doubt the feasibility of a rehab for most of the planes and many of the other tools.

 

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The Matthews tools, how many beyond saving?

 

So when I’ve offloaded some tools, I’ll (I hope) be down to one chest, one crate, a nail cabinet, a lathe, and the tool shelf. I’ve already got a friend lined up to buy my workbench, and I plan to build another when I arrive in Lexington (land of cheap lumber). Since I’m moving in with my fiancee, I’ll also be able to get rid of most of my own furniture. My current plan is to load a utility trailer with books and tools and pull it with my 20-year-old Honda CRV. That plan may change after talking to a mechanic buddy.

But this week, what’s really occupying my mind is figuring out what the new shop space could look like. Options are limited.

There are three spaces that at least theoretically could be utilized: basement, attic, and garage. Each has pros and cons. The basement is the logical choice for most things: it’s convenient, temperature controlled, and has power and some decent space–about 10′ x 15′ or so on the unused end. The drawbacks are potential moisture, a low (6′ 6″) overhead clearance, and some ugly and unhelpful ducts and pipes taking up real estate. The lighting is also subpar and the stairs are also pretty rickety. It will be somewhat difficult to move wood in and furniture out. There’s little ventilation. And I’ll definitely have to up my dust game. I’ll also probably be bugging the neighbors with my noise whenever I do loud things like use a hammer. Still, I think this is where the bench, chest, lathe, shelves, and cabinet will go.

 

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Future shop space

 

The garage is unattached, unheated, and unwired. I don’t want to make that my primary workspace, but I think it will be useful for finishing or assembly when I need ventilation or a larger space (cf. no boats in the basement).

Finally, there is the attic. It’s the space that looks like the best spot to work. There is plenty of headroom, it’s all rough open carpentry, there’s a north-facing window with lots of natural light. But, attics being attics, the temperature swings will be extreme. And it’s a hatch/ladder access attic, so forget moving furniture or tools in and out. And of course, everything would resound through the building from up there. So it’s out, and any storage features it does have can probably be fulfilled by the garage rafters. Mostly, it will be useful to keep other things from invading my woodshop end of the basement.

 

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The appealing but useless attic

 

Tomorrow: layout plans.

A War on Reading

In elementary school, I loved to read. I would stay up at night, quickly switching my bedside lamp out when my mother came to check that I was sleeping. I didn’t get away with it because she would check to see if the bulb is warm. I’d bring books to the dinner table and read while brushing my teeth. I checked out books from the local libraries by the armload. My parents weren’t rich, just a state employee engineer and a stay at home mom before she went back to work in the unglamorous profession of tax accounting. We listened to Focus on the Family radio programs. We went to a Lutheran Church every Sunday. I was a good little conservative but I was also taught the value of argument, logic, and language. “Liberal arts” was the exception to suspicion of all things “liberal.”

By the time I got to high school, it was clear all those books had left me with more than your average facility with words. All that reading had paid off. I aced the language sections of the standardized tests. I sailed through English classes. I was moody and precocious and generally insufferable.

In college, I was a shoe-in English major. But I added German too, because my professor was wonderful, and I fell in love with the language through him. It was quirky, followed a different logic, and felt somehow like a door to a different way of embodying the world. When I graduated, I taught English in Austria. I tried to perfect my German, learned to make cheese, visited my students’ family farms, learned about new history and customs, traveled Europe by rail with friends, saw the monuments and museums of Rome, Florence, Vienna, and London.

And I kept reading of course. In German and in English. All sorts of things (my curiosities have always been very ecumenical, omnivorous even). I read about World Wars, the history of duels, the memoirs of scientists, Greek and Roman classics, midcentury baby-boom era paperback commentaries on the classics, postmodernist novels, modernist poetry, pre-modern sagas. There wasn’t a need to justify such things. They were intrinsically good. They were the point of all this—this human civilization I so enjoyed poking about in. They gave me new places to go, new thoughts to think, new people to be for the length of a novel.

Next, I got a MA in English, and then decided to continue for a PhD. I loved Moby-Dick and Walden enough to carry me through a lifetime, after all. From the beginning of graduate school, I taught. Probably not very well, at first, but I slowly got better as I went. It’s really the only way. And I started discovering more about the variety of intellectual traditions that hold sway in modern America. From my students and my reading. My coursework gave me one tradition, full of Germans and French elaborations of Germans. My work in a used bookstore gave me another, of American pragmatism and popular paperback scholarship. My sister joined an MA program at the University of Dallas and I became acquainted with Leo Strauss and his conservative, self-proclaimed heirs. Almost by coincidence, I fell in love with Hannah Arendt’s turns of phrase in response to a podcast on Martin Heidegger.

My politics had shifted a bit—I loved the forests and deserts of Idaho and wanted to protect them, and I couldn’t see justice or freedom in a runaway “free market”—but I still enjoyed reading all the positions, teaching my students not to dismiss arguments simply because they didn’t like them, insisted on rigor and intellectual fairness. I loved Wendell Berry, who seemed to take the best of both sides from our simplistic political scale and transform it into moving, beautiful, soul-searching truth.

I knew, all the while, that the job market for English PhDs was dismal. But people did get jobs, and I was sure I would regret not devoting these prime years of my life to this passion. The passion itself was good. Sure, there was a “crisis” of the humanities, but hadn’t there always been?

I know I am not alone. Everywhere I go, I meet people who love books and thought as much as I do. They aren’t all at academic conferences. They are in woodshops, cafes, my own classrooms, my family gatherings. But one place they aren’t, it seems, is in power.

I now face graduation. I don’t mind that I couldn’t find a job this year (there weren’t many, after all—30 odd positions internationally for nineteenth-century Americanists). But it’s different than that. I left Idaho, my beloved home state because the only English PhD program there is ranked far too low to make the risk worthwhile. I came to Nebraska, which has a long tradition of top-notch English scholarship, but no mountains and hardly any trout streams (the latter is why my grandparents left 60 years ago).

This past fall, Republican state senators in Nebraska wrote an op-ed accusing the English department of failing to teach our own subject after a kerfuffle between an English grad student and an undergrad in front of the Student Union that was fed to the conservative outrage machine. And at the same time, huge University-wide budget cuts were announced. What suddenly seemed like a well-funded and strategic campaign to denigrate the ancient Trivium of the liberal arts—Logic, grammar, and rhetoric—hit the English department hard. This wasn’t a crisis as a byproduct of a system. This was an out and out attack. It’s hard to write a dissertation in the best of times. I feel like I’m about to be hauled in front of a tribunal to justify my meager economic output. What does a study of the agricultural journals of the 1850s have to offer anyone! We know better!

Meanwhile, my fiancée (whom I met in an English graduate class) took a job at the University Press of Kentucky. We were both thrilled at this new opportunity, a new place (Wendell Berry!), and starting our lives together doing something we believed in wholeheartedly: bringing more truly thoughtful books into the world. I thought we might have escaped what felt like doom in Nebraska.

The weekend we moved her into our new apartment, Kentucky’s Republican governor, Matt Bevin, unveiled a budget that would totally defund the University Press. It’s still unresolved, but she may well have just moved across the country only to be laid-off from a well-respected Press, merely because attacks on academia play well for the base. Tonight, we spent our nightly phone call in tearful silences and hollow encouragements.

Perhaps I was naïve, or idealistic. Maybe this has always been going on. Perhaps in this profession, committed idealism is what it takes. My personal hero, after all, is Henry David Thoreau. But like Thoreau in the days of slavery, I have to do something. I have to speak up. This anti-intellectualism is going to make us all into quietly desperate data points, tools of our tools at last. We need to see that this for what it is: a variety of slavery. Literacy—and the love of books and thought that flourishes with it—has always been a terrible danger to tyrants. Ask Frederick Douglass, Absalom Jones, Harriet Jacobs, or Sequoyah. Learning to read has always been a path to freedom.

We can’t cede education as merely job training. It’s not just an instrument for some other goal. It is worthwhile simply because the world is more worthwhile when we care about thought, about stories, about the meanings in the world around us. Education doesn’t have to turn a profit—it is what we spend our society’s profits on. It’s the point of all that wealth and leisure. That was part of the wisdom of Pericles, of Charlemagne, of the Renaissance. It was part of the wisdom of the long tradition of American public education, and the Morrill Act, and the Fulbright program, and the GI Bill. But it is wisdom one whole political party seems to have turned its back on, deciding that the academy is simply a haven for “liberal elites” if it is anything at all beyond the school mascots and stadium skyboxes. That it should be paid for by the students, and that it is merely a consumer product.

If we are headed into a new Dark Age, as it certainly feels it is while I’m so besieged, there may be nothing I can individually do. But those Greek and Roman classics I still read and love survived down to today by only the most fragile thread. So I hope we can find a way to save something.

Please–write to or call Kentucky legislators and the Governor. Call the offices of Nebraska lawmakers. Do something. We have to stand up to this. Yes, for me and my fiancee. But for you too.

A few thoughts on World Made By Hand

 In the last couple weeks, I tore through James Howard Kunstler’s World Made By Hand and its sequel The Witch of Hebron. And I keep mulling them over. I am trying to decide if I like them or not.

The premise is that these novels (the two I read are the first half of a tetralogy) take place in a world after “peak oil.” They happen to locate the collapse in the 2010s, but the dates don’t matter as much as the vision Kunstler presents of the world after cheap energy. In that world, the increasing expense of oil caused a “war in the Holy Land” as well as two nuclear attacks by terrorists on US Soil, one in L.A. the other in Washington, D.C., and the eventual failure of the electric grid. But those events are distant rumors to the main characters, who are now stuck living a hyper-local life in a fictional small town located in the real place where the Battenkill River flows into the Hudson in upstate New York.

One fun aspect is that the main character of the novel is a carpenter. A former software executive who now makes his living using the handtools that once made up his hobby to update and repurpose his neighbors’ homes and barns (in fact most of the good upstanding farmers are former CEOs and various white-collar workers with the common laborers being drawn from the retail wage class; there are no farmers who were farmers in the book). He’s also a flyfisherman, jealously protecting his graphite carbon rod and presumably all the petroleum-derived fly lines and leaders and saving every last hook. But the trout have grown fat and stupid since the population plummeted after a flu epidemic worse than 1918-19 (winkingly, this time the Mexican instead of the Spanish flu) and they form a large part of the villager’s diet, whether caught on a fly or by any other method.

There are other bits of nostalgic projection that are delightful: a sort of bioregionalist’s wish fulfillment. The meals are lovingly described ala Hemingway or Brian Jacque’s Redwall books. Reading about all the cornbread can get old, and I pity the characters lack of coffee, but their other meals often sound delicious and rich. Food has become one of their main concerns, after all, and status is signaled by hams, smoked trout, sumac tea, or the less appealing “puddings” that sound like the catch-all casseroles (or hotdish) of the Midwest. Such meals often take place at large social gatherings Kunstler and his villagers call “levees,” full of dancing, socializing, and bonding. Characters often think back to the “old times” of automobiles and antibiotics, but many seem to believe that the world is better without oil. And of course, what environmentalist, especially of my own Wendell Berry stripe, hasn’t thought the same thing. Kunstler’s village, when things go smoothly, is a Berrian/Berean utopia of local food, yeoman farmers, and home industry craftspeople. Aligning with an agrarian view of American society that goes back to at least the 18th-century writings of Crevecoeur and Jefferson, the farmers who work hard and understand clean living are rewarded with the joys of the hearth. Which includes cannabis and lots of high-quality homemade hooch, by the way.

But of course, there are darker sides to this bioregional localized world. One is the predictable post-apocalyptic gangs of bandits, drawn from Medieval history or Madmax. These are the sort of prepper/frontier dream of the survival of the strong. And in many ways, the portrayal is convincing, if disturbing. Certainly, it would seem that with no functioning government, a certain number of semi-warlords would take over and run things by graft and extortion as they do in many parts of the world today. But there are also class and race overtones in the portrayal of these bandits that are troubling. The novel addresses this head-on at times, with characters shocked that problems they “thought belonged to the last century” resurface along racial and ethnic lines. But the novels are also startlingly white. There are no speaking characters who aren’t white–not even any Latina/os–and no real explanation is given for this, since currently upstate New York isn’t a racially homogenous place. And the bandits are also the “gearheads” and bikers and live in their own sort of tumbledown village in a former trailer park. Their evening entertainment includes renditions of Nirvana (instead of the old-time string music the fiddler/carpenter hero prefers) and live pornography shows. And this way of life is compared (rather favorably) to the Iroquois 250 years earlier. To me, this reads as Kunstler’s latent cultural conservatism seeking to justify itself by speculative causality that links prosperity to morality–and race.

Another problem is Kunstler’s view of gender. His protagonists are all male, and the women in the novels have fallen into gender norms from the 19th century “almost without comment” to the point that when a woman is widowed, she moves in with a new man within a week rather than trying to make it on her own. The women cook and clean and seduce men or get raped and are often have their bodies described in the specialized and obsolete vocabulary of strongly patriarchal society (we don’t call people “slatternly” or “blowsy”). Again, this smacks of naturalizing what are social institutions–even if it very well may be the most plausible reaction to this sort of crisis.

However, it seems to me that these gender and racial stereotypes are more insidious than insightful. They aren’t speculation about the possible, but fantasies of regression. This is driven home by the cultural moments that are valued, and I say that even when I obviously share Kunstler’s cultural tastes (I’m trying to learn many of the old-time string band songs his fiddling flyfishing woodworker plays). And even further is Kunstler’s fantasy of a regression in the American vernacular language to something from 1900. As if when the electricity shuts off we will all start speaking like Teddy Roosevelt and Edith Wharton (one of his favorite words is “foolscap” which I think we’d probably still call printer paper long after the laserjets stopped).

And finally, in what I presume is a nod to the tenuous nature of a rational science-based worldview as dominant, an element of magic drives the plot of the books and would likely turn some people off. At the very this least stretches the credibility of calling the books “convincing” in a nonfictional sense.

Kunstler’s books, on first glance, are critical of many things the environmental left dislikes–runaway capitalism, petroculture, habitat destruction, industrial agriculture. But in the imagined pathway to greatness after a collapse, they are practically Trumpian. With its vision of class, gender, and race, the books even have tinges of the “Heimatroman” long beloved by blood-and-soil fascists. So even as I romp along through the world of these novels, eager to hear how they get out of scrapes, create hand-hewn beauty, and distill brandy, it’s with more misgivings and a guiltier conscience than when I read Walden or Moby-Dick. Thoreau and Melville lived in a world existed, with all of its faults. Kunstler’s World Made By Hand doesn’t exist and probably won’t, but any reader shouldn’t let that cloud the fact that the novels’ faults are more our own than the future’s.

 

Mental Labor

I can count on one hand the weekends I’ve spent at home over the past two months. I went to weddings in Texas and Oklahoma, a literature conference in Minneapolis, a writing retreat at a ranch on the border with Kansas. I presented a conference paper, submitted an academic article (they promised I’d hear back in seven to eight months) and applied to three assistant professor jobs. I might hear back about those before Christmas, and with some miracle, maybe I’ll get asked to interview. In that case, I’ll need to make some major progress on the dissertation, which currently takes the form of three different notebooks, a long list of sources, and a few avoided conversations with my advisor.

I have stolen time on a few afternoons to finally (finally!) try fly fishing here in Nebraska. I’ve caught a few stocked trout and some crappie, but it has done wonders for making me homesick. It’s even getting into my dreams now. And tying flies is a much quicker project than making furniture. It’s also got me paying attention to the weather again, and noticing the details of the local ponds, and planning future trips to rivers.

But the woodworking has mostly been in my head. But I have been thinking about the ways in which the physical tasks of furniture making help or hinder my mental work. For example, I haven’t been working in the shop for months, but the projects that are there are still waiting for me. The boards I had rough cut for another boarded bookshelf are still sitting against the wall. It will take some time to get back into the mindset of the project, and I’m sure my ideas for how it should look as finished furniture will be a bit different. And when I do find a few evenings to string together to work on it, the tasks sort of contain their own focus. It’s not hard to stay on track while working a face flat, or an edge square. I do find myself distracted at times by a tool that needs sharpening, or stuck trying to decide which step comes next, but usually, once I’m working I can follow a checklist.

My intellectual labor–teaching and writing–isn’t the same. Writing, especially scholarly writing, with its constant back and forth to sources, seems to actively push me away from the task at hand. It takes a constant exercise of willpower just to keep at it, and that means it gets exhausted quickly. Surroundings can help, and I have found it’s best if I work disconnected from the internet, in my notebooks and with books and articles that are physical and not on a screen. Otherwise, I’m just too distractable and will track down woodworking articles, or indulge escapist consumer fantasies about teardrop trailers and #vanlife, or scope out secret trout streams in the wilderness of Idaho. I am always aware that the work I’m doing isn’t “hard” in the everyday sense, but I also feel like it’s the hardest thing–mentally–that I’ve ever done.

Teaching is a little different–the prep is usually easy enough to stay on task for, but it’s impossible to ever prep the right amount. I go in to class each day either wildly under- or overprepared. And the problem of teaching almost always feels hopelessly intractable. How am I supposed to convince a room full of 19-year-old Nebraskans that Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead or Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad or Lynn Nottage’s Sweat (all Pulitzer Prize winners) aren’t “boring”? How can I convince them that I’m not interested in them telling me “the answer” but that I want to hear their thoughts? And that those thoughts, while they aren’t “right or wrong” can be better or worse–they all want to fall back into a lazy relativism and not be disturbed by something so urgent as justice, history, or the problems of life in a community. Somedays it goes well, other days I leave a little bit of my optimism behind as I leave the classroom.

All this to say that I’ve been trying to think about how I can take lessons or practices from manual work and apply it to intellectual work. What’s my dissertation’s cut list? What sort of joinery does it require–nothing fancy, mind you, just something sturdy enough for the task at hand. What is the form or style of my teaching–Arts and Crafts or Shaker? Maybe if I can systemize and categorize these abstract processes well enough to apprehend them a bit better, I can get back on track.

 

Hobbies, Projects, Distractions

I’m really not a very good woodworker. That’s what I have to face these days, as I scroll through Instagram. The people that I follow are all churning out beautiful work, some at an absolutely astonishing rate.

I’ve got not much to show for the summer. A couple of ugly, incomplete spoons. A big slab of hackberry that’s cracked as it’s dried in my shop, though I’ll still fit it with legs for another firepit bench. I have a bunch of wood propped up against the shop walls, a lathe waiting for some key parts and alignments in the basement, and unkept promises of projects.

The main problem is: I do too many things. First off, I’m a graduate student, which means I’m a teacher and a research writer and a volunteer organizer/advocate/liaison and an freelance editor and…I could go on, but you get the picture. Because I live two huge states away from my family or my girlfriend’s, in the summer, I try to cram in all the visits and relaxation possible. Which makes those few months pretty hectic. Lots of road trips. Lots of hello how are you, goodbye, I’ll miss you. And then back to school at the end.

I’m also looking for work as an English professor this year. And if you don’t know about how that works, it’s brutal. This post outlines it. Like, send out 20-30 applications and hear back from one school brutal. And, by the way, I have 7 years of education to show for that non-response.

So that’s all just to say that I haven’t gotten much done at the bench in a while. But I’m still collecting ideas, sketching projects, paying attention. Maybe in the cold dark winter, between rounds of editing and trips to the library, I’ll have a chance to put some wood together. Until then, I’ll have to get by on keeping my head above water and dreaming.

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.