Monday, April 27, 2009

in memory

i met Sasha Clapper in 1977 when I was four. I don’t remember a lot about it, but I have a distinct memory of my mom and his mom sitting in the living room of the rented ranch house on Polo Road in Winston-Salem, talking about who-knows-what, and Sasha and I playing with matchbox cars or something around the foot of the chair that his mom was sitting in. From that moment, we spent more time together than apart. His family lived on Crepe Myrtle Circle at the time, which was close to my parent’s house, and we walked over there many and many a time. Eventually I was old enough that I could walk there by myself, crossing Polo Road being a rite of passage that I did not appreciate at the time. I sure do now.

There were four of us: Sasha Clapper, Daniel Berry, Christy Johnson, and me. We all lived near each other, our parents were friends, and we all played together and went to the pool together and went to each other’s birthday parties. We all had other friends, of course, but the four of us were a unit, a group of friends that hung out all the time at least until we were twelve or so.

My dad had built a sandbox behind our house and a treehouse and a fondly remembered silver-spray painted rocket ship. Many and many were the adventures we had, running around the woods that seemed limitless to a five- or six- or seven-year-old but which in hindsight were likely not more than a half acre deep. Sasha had a treehouse too, and we spent a fair amount of time there as well. As I shake my head around and see what falls out, I have found a memory of being in his treehouse and him quoting Olivia Newton John singing to me “Do you know what I mean?” explaining “ I like to use song lyrics to say what I want to say when I can.”

Thirty years later, I do the same thing. To this day, I quote and quote and quote. Twain and Lincoln and Star Wars. Not so much Olivia Newton John, but that must be where it comes from. I thought him so sophisticated and wise to know the words of pop songs. He listened to Casey Casem, and knew who the hot pop singers were, a talent I still do not have. He used to be able to identify songs from the radio and the people who sang them, which always mystified me. For years I would try to remember to listen to the radio so that I could hear the same magical things, promising myself that I would tune into the oracle so I, too, could deliver the message. Every week I would forget, always lagging behind Sasha.

He was born on January 22 1973, four months before me (I was born May 22 of the same year). Somehow, those four months made so much difference to me, and made me feel inferior in age and knowledge. Again, I still fight this, wishing to be older and more experienced than I am. I am slowly learning to embrace the things I don’t know, but as a child and young adult I strove to be more knowledgeable, older, more experienced, even lying in order to appear that way.

Memories filter in, wheeling around like dance partners in a fevered dream: After Empire Strikes Back came out, there was a mail order offer from Mattel. Two proofs of purchase and a couple of dollars would get you a Boba Fett figurine. This at a time when no one knew anything about Boba Fett, and when he had all of the sexiness that mystique brings. Sasha sent away and got the figure when his backpack still shot a missile out of it. By the time I got mine from the Rose’s department store, the missile (which had been judged a swallowing hazard to young children) was firmly glued in place. Sasha’s had long been lost, of course, out in the yard, and the figurine’s empty backpack was a testament to the coolness of his version of the figure.

We had Cub Scout meetings in his backyard. His mom was the troop leader, I think. I remember filling soup cans with water and freezing them, and then using big nails and hammers to punch patterns of holes in them, so that when the ice melted away, we could put candles in them and they would be like the colonial punched tin lanterns we saw at the local museum. I think Sasha made it to Boy scouts, though he might have dropped out at Webelos. I never even made it that far, my interest waning early.

At some point, I think about when I was six or so, his family moved to Washington D. C., an unimaginably exotic locale. I have no idea to this day why they moved, though I reckon his father got a job there doing something. We went to visit them once, from which I have two memories: One is complicated, but it has to do with him having his fingers in a door frame by the hinges and me trying to shut the door and squeezing his fingers and him screaming like a fire engine and me just trying to shut the door and not understanding that I was causing the pain. The other has to do with assembling a model airplane and painting it and feeling so sophisticated because he did not want to paint it like the photo on the box, so we didn’t. Eventually, they moved back, into a house on Tangle Ln. This was where he lived until we lost touch, where his father told us about landing planes on an aircraft carrier in the Viet Nam war and we ran mission after mission in the woods behind his house.

When we were a little older, I would go spend the night at his house on a weekend and we would do mind-blowingly rebellious things, like watching Saturday Night Live. I never did this at home, not being allowed to stay up that late, but he knew all of the players: Eddie Murphy and Billy Crystal. Gilbert Gotfried. Martin Short. This is the last time I watched this show, not really understanding a lot of the jokes but laughing when he did, excited about staying up so late with no repercussions. After Saturday Night Live, the kung fu movies came on, which we struggled to stay awake for, understanding that they were excellent without knowing why. Vivid Technicolor memories of “monkey form” and “drunken soldier form” still wander through my thoughts now and then.

When he and I entered eighth grade in 1986, North Carolina was rated 50th in the nation as far as public schools went. He and I were both in what then were called “gifted and talented” classes, thought the official nomer for us changed many times in our academic careers.

Eventually, we went off to high school. He went to the North Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Math. He had that easy savvy that allowed the “smart” kids to get ahead quickly in North Carolina in the early eighties, as did I. I remember when I realized I had to study in college and how foreign a concept that was for me. Sasha got thrown out of Governor’s School for manufacturing LSD in his dorm room and selling it. After that we fell out of each other’s lives. I heard stories now and then, but did not really follow his life that much. I was getting into theater, and that took too much of my time. I was too selfish to notice that I was turning away from a lot of the things that maybe should have been important.

We occasionally found each other here and there for the next couple of decades. He came to my wedding. He wandered through New York when I lived there. I heard news from my folks here and there, a couple of kids, a move to Alaska. When he came through New York that time, we had a couple of beers. He was a member of chapter 320 of the Laborer’s Union of North America, digging ditches in the summer, and saving money so that he could travel in the winter. We went to my brother-in-law’s birthday party where there was a belly dancer. Someone took a photo of him sitting on a bench smiling. That was the last I heard of him, maybe in 2003 or 04.

Last night my dad called me and told me that a friend of the family had called and left a message that Sasha had been killed in a motorcycle accident in Portland, Oregon. Since then a facebook friend sent me a link to an article in the paper saying that Sasha Clapper, age 36, died in a motorcycle crash at 1.15 am. The person who called 911 said that it appeared the motorcycle was speeding.

The thing is that I have not known him well for twenty years, really. He may have been a saint. He may have been the opposite. I would not know. Here is what I know: He had two kids. He was a person making his way in the world like the rest of us. He is gone, and that is irreparable. This is where I think a lot about how I regret losing touch with someone who was once so important to me. And where I hope he is resting easy, wherever he is. Here is an obituary by someone who has known him more recently:

Sasha McCarthy Clapper1/22/1973-4/25/2009
Sasha McCarthy Clapper died early Saturday, April 25th, 2009, from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident.Sasha was born on January 22nd, 1973, in Columbia, South Carolina and raised in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He attended the North Carolina School of Math and Science and Reed College prior to dedicating his life to adventure. Sasha traveled widely, visiting nearly every continent and all the islands in between. He cross-country skied to the North Pole and rode a camel in the Sahara Desert in full motorcycle leathers. However he considered Portland his home, and had recently returned there after seven years in Alaska. Sasha was passionate about the environment and was currently pursuing an engineering degree in renewable energy at the Oregon Institute of Technology. He loved bicycles, motorcycles, windmills, fireworks, neck tattoos and rock’n’roll (especially ZZ Top). “His mental state was totally related to the working condition of his vehicles,” says girlfriend Sophia La Valley. Sasha was known to express righteous indignation whenever a bar—no matter how fancy—did not stock Old Crow bourbon; he idolized the humble potato—calling it the quintessential food, spoke endlessly of his two treasured daughters, and took darn good care of his friends. The heavily-tattooed vegetarian heartthrob was adored far and wide by both men and women. His big heart, goofy grin and maniacal chuckle will be desperately missed.Sasha is survived by his parents, Jim and Debbie Clapper of Nashville, Tennessee; a brother, Evan Clapper of Moab, Utah; two daughters, Aria Watkins of Carolina Beach, North Carolina and Stella Speakman of York Beach, Maine; his girlfriend, Sophia La Valley of Portland; and several thousand close friends.A private memorial service will be held on Wednesday, April 29th, followed by an open reception and celebration of Sasha’s life from 5-8 p.m. at Plan B, 1305 S.E. 8th Avenue, Portland. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be sent to the Community Cycling Center, 1700 N.E. Alberta St., Portland, 97211. Tax I.D.: # 931127186. Condolences may be sent to 3826 Brighton Road, Nashville, Tennessee, 27205.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

craft part ii

spent some time last night with an artisan who works in a very different medium than I do. Mike Brusso is somewhat shorter than me, late twenties to early thirties, with black hair that stands straight up off of his head. Above an unshaven chin is a pair of thick black glasses, similar to the ones that I wear. He was wearing a black t-shirt that had a picture of a circle on it, under which it said “You know, for kids,” a reference to a Cohen brothers movie called “Hudsucker Proxy.” On his neck, above the t-shirt collar, on the right side is a tattoo of an upside-down horseshoe with a banner that says “Trying.” On the left is a tattoo of an old style butterfly. The right knuckles are tattooed with the word “coca” and the left knuckles with “cola.”

Mike Brusso is, as you may have guessed, a tattoo artist. I was there to “get some work done.”

As a craft, tattooing fascinates me. It is equal parts artistry and technical understanding. It takes the skills of a graphic artist, illustrator, painter and sculptor, but also requires a historical knowledge as well as the ability to maintain and use tools, and to understand the different qualities of the inks and how they will age. Every tattoo artist understands these things (and many more) to varying degrees and practices them to varying degrees. Obviously, there is just as much range of skill and ability in the world of tattooing as there is in every other craft. I was recently in a tattoo studio I happened to be near and, poking through the portfolio just for kicks, was appalled at what I saw. It is certainly possible for a tattooer to be insensitive to the shape of the body, disrespectful of imagery, and garish and thoughtless with regard to color. Those are folk to shy away from.

Brusso is on the other end of that spectrum.

Many of you are familiar with the process of receiving a tattoo. Some of the following may be over-explanatory for you, bear with me. The work that I was getting done was around a tattoo I already have, a banner that bears my favorite Mark Twain quote. I was getting a traditional style swallow holding the banner in its beak, that would balance out the swallow on my left shoulder, and then some flowers, et c. to fill out around the banner. Nothing too huge, but something that I have been wanting to get, and a way for me to document having lived in Providence for a couple of years. The thing that made this complicated was the fact that the new swallow had to balance an existing one on the other side of my body.

If it seems strange for me to say that a tattoo artist has to have the skills of a sculptor, consider the human body. It is an incredibly complex assemblage of planes and angles, intersecting curves and forms. We think of the human body as symmetrical, which, to a certain extent, it is. When you get down to it, though, it is not rigidly symmetrical in the way that a manufactured object can be. There is an art school project in which you take a photo of your face, cut it in half, trace half of it on tracing paper, and flip it over. The point, of course, is to demonstrate the assymetricality of the human face. The result looks an awful lot like a person, but there is something that is a little bit off, a little wrong, because it is too rigidly symmetrical. The rest of the body is like that too. We stand in ways and use our bodies in ways that make subtle but very present differences between our right and left sides.

Mike printed out what is called a stencil (which transfers the design onto the skin) and cut it out. He wet my shoulder with soapy water, applied the stencil, and stepped back, looking from shoulder to shoulder to check the placement. He squinted, and then reached forward and pushed down on my left shoulder, stepping back and squinting again. It was like watching the sushi chef in my previous post examine the hunk of tuna. I was watching an artisan at work.

“You stand with your left shoulder higher than your right,” he said. I did not know this. “Stand normally.” I tried. He shook his head and wiped off the stencil. With his right index finger he located the very front of the ball at the top of my left humerus, then located the front of the top of my right humerus with the other hand, sighting back and forth. He re-applied the stencil. I was in his shoes recently, laying out pieces of jewelry on a slice of long leaf pine, moving shapes around and flipping them so that the grain would be shown at its best.
It took seven tries to get the placement right. A little up, a little down, a little more forward. Time well spent, as once the decision is made, it is made. Like cutting into a piece of tuna, or making the first cut into a piece of wood. As long as it is just drawn lines it can be changed and changed, but once the needle is involved, it is there for good. Each time he would look at it, squint a little (a trick that my undergrad painting teacher taught me that I still use), and move left and right to see how things balanced.

Finally it was placed to his satisfaction. It was interesting to watch this process as the client instead of the maker. I am used to this kind of contemplation from the maker’s end, of course, but to see it from the other side made me appreciate the end product that much more. This was not something copied out of a book and slapped on the skin, inked in and forgotten. Even though this was not some glamorous tattoo on a rock star or in front of a TV camera or shown in a magazine it is still a tattoo. It is his work. It needed to be right.

I have written before about Bill Beadle. He has passed now, but he was one of those people who taught me things when I was too young to know I was being taught. We were working together on a set piece once years ago, I was probably fifteen or sixteen, and I wanted to get finished with it so that I could go outside and smoke cigarettes with the cool kids. I slapped a piece of plywood onto the scenic unit and said “there, that’s good enough.” “For who?” he asked. “No one will ever see this, it doesn’t matter.” “No one may see it,” he said, “but you will know that it is there.” It is an exchange that has stayed with me. Even when I do take shortcuts, even now twenty years later, I remember him saying that to me.

Once the stencil was properly placed, Mike drew in some flowers and the banner and we got started. The first thing that gets done in most tattoos (especially if they are “old-timey” which all of mine are) is the linework. A fine black outline goes around all of the shapes. This part tends not to hurt too much because you are so pumped about the process and full of beer and adrenaline. Fascinating to watch. The tattoo machine hums and the needle moves in and out of the skin, leaving a fine black line of ink and a slightly raised welt. Some ink pools on top of the skin, and gets wiped away with a paper towel, leaving the sharp line behind, the beginning of a piece that will be, as one of my favorite tattoo artists has on his business card “with you for life.”

The linework took about 40 minutes and looked like this when it was finished.

Now it was time for the shading. Brusso took up another machine that had been loaded with a shading needle, which looks like a bundle of three or five or (for a really big area) seven needles. This is where knowledge of the tools comes into play, knowing which needles are appropriate, and which tattoo machines handle which types of needles the best. Mike Drexler, who did the RISD pin up tattoo on my leg, actually has a side business making tattoo machines. These are custom machines made by hand and sold directly to clients. Not unlike what I do. We have had a couple of really interesting conversations about making tools, about enabling artists and makers to ply their trade with the fruits of our labor.

The first shading is black ink, and the basic idea is that the tattoo should look finished after the shading is done. Here is a photo after the shading on my piece was finished. Looks pretty good…
Now for the color. We were moving into hour 2 of the sitting, and now the adrenaline is wearing off. The piece starts to burn a little, and the continued passes with the needles start to really hurt. This is really the only scenario in my life that I get this physically close to another man, Brusso is leaning into my shoulder and turning me back and forth as he applies red and blue ink to the new parts of the scroll and pink and yellow to the flowers. There is an extreme intimacy to this act, a direct physical and emotional connection between the artist and the client. It is a connection inspired by trust, and by art, and (cheesy though it sounds) pain.

This is not a long “sit” as tattoos go. This is a small piece and a relatively easy part of the body. Lots of flesh, comparatively little discomfort. Those big back pieces you see in magazines, those can be two or three or four sittings of five or seven hours each. That is some pretty extreme discomfort, especially as the reciprocating needle moves over the places where there is nothing between skin and bone (like the vertebrae). What I experienced last night at Federal Hill Tattoo was several points below putting my finger into a table saw. Maybe closer to a burn you get from spilling scalding water on your arm. Pretty uncomfortable, but totally bearable.

As he worked, Mike and I talked about tattoos and tattoing, about art and history. He stopped at one point to pull down a couple of books of collections of old type faces taken from 19th century printed documents, as well as a reprint of an early 20th century Sears and Roebuck catalog. He showed me all of the filigree that adorned the banners and letters, and talked about how the early tattoo artists added that kind of ornament to their work because it was what they saw all around them all the time. Much the same kind of impulse that drives my design choices, a response to what I see around me. Now that kind of ornament is de riguer in tattoos, though the source is often forgotten. Like those horrible raised-panel doors in cheap kitchens, doors made of MDF that have a “panel” routed into them, even though there is not structural necessity. The aesthetic persists, but because the original reasons for the aesthetic are forgotten they seem hollow, inapplicable. Even to the uninitiated, they seem somehow “off.”

By the end of the session, I was ready to be done. This is my story with tattoos, generally. Right at the end of the session, exhausted and with raw burning skin, I just want to have a beer and not have needles jabbed into me. Then a few months or a year later I am raring to go again. The memory of the pain fades and the joy that I feel about the work grows. I love all of my tattoos. They are markers of events, of places, of important things in my life: my wife, boats I have sailed, places I have lived. When our son is born, I am sure we will both get tattoos that commemorate that event as well.

Here is a photo of the tattoo taken this morning. It is a fitting frame for the quote, and I think it came out really well. I feel fortunate to be the recipient of such artisanry and craftsmanship, and grateful to have three hours last night with someone who respects and loves history as I do, and who reveres craft and artisanry as I do.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

things that take a long time

the project on the bench at the moment is a gift. My sister is getting married (congratulations, Ellie and Kelsey!), and as a wedding gift I am making her and her fiancé a coffee table. The exact shape of it is a secret for now, as there are some surprises that I think I want to keep until the unveiling, but I can say that a part of it is a great big chunk of local red oak.

I have written before about South County Post and Beam, which is a post and beam building company here in the Isle of Rhodes. They are very nice, and they give me their off-cuts when they make beams. So I have kicking around the studio a couple of very big chunks of wood. Which I of course love. This particular piece is about 18” tall, and about 8” by 12”. Solid piece of wood. Weighs about thirty pounds. I have had it for a while, waiting for it to tell me what it wants to be, and now it has.

When a tree is cut down, is immediately begins to divest itself of water. The trunk of a tree, after all, exists pretty much exclusively to move water from the roots up to the leaves, and then move nutrients back down to the tree. That is what the trunk (where wood comes from) is for. I could do a whole post just about the beauty and sublime functionality of trees, but that will wait for another time. The point is, as they divest themselves of water, and as they do so, they shrink. And they change shape. So what had been a square beam now was warped and twisted, and I wanted to square it up. One edge and one face could be taken to the jointer, a big machine that does this kind of thing, but our planer will only accept 6” thick lumber. Somehow I had to cut two inches off the side of this thing in order to get it through the planer.

First I tried our big old 1912 Tannewitz band saw. Good saw, but the blade needs replacing, and that much oak was too much for it. Blue smoke started to pour out from the bottom of the work piece. Smoke, generally, is not good. Oak 1, power tools 0.

Next I took it to the table saw. The blade will only project about 3” from the table of the saw, so that was clearly not the answer, either. Oak 2, power tools 0. I knew what I had to do, of course.

I have been re-reading one of my sacred texts, “The Village Carpenter” by Walter Rose. Rose’s family had owned and operated a sawyery and woodworking shop for generations when he wrote about it in 1937. He writes incredibly eloquently about two large men using a saw between them to reduce logs to planks. Hard, sweaty, slow work. Slow but effective. The thing is, humans are not more powerful than power tools, but they are able to vary the speed and power that they have to accommodate the work piece in a way that a machine can not. That kind of approach was what was needed with this great big chunk of red oak.
On the wall of my studio hangs a rip saw (“ripping” is cutting with the grain of the wood. I also have “cross-cut” saws, which are for cutting across the grain of the wood). Well, more than one, actually, but there is one in particular that is special to me, as it is a family tool. As near as anyone can tell, it belonged to Gardner Greene, who was my great- great-grandfather. I was made in the late 19th century. Nothing special, really, not a collector piece by any means. Just a good, sturdy handsaw. Somehow it has survived the hundred-plus years and come to me in good shape, and intact.

There is a gentleman down in Cranston that is a saw sharpener. Used to be pretty easy to find a good saw sharpener. Harder, now, as saws, like so many things, are made to be used and then discarded. He is the only person in this state that I have found that does handsaws anymore. There might be others, but he is the person that I entrust my saws to. Took him old Gardner’s saw and he did a great job of setting the teeth and jointing them flat and sharpening them up until they were as good as they were the day the saw was sold. Rose writes about a saw “humming” through the wood, singing a song as it works. That is how this saw works. So I clamped the great big chunk of lumber to the bench and set to work. I happened to note the time, it was about 2.10 pm. At about 2.15, I thought I would take a photo of my progress.

Back and forth, back and forth. The saw made a tidy pile of sawdust on the far side of the workpiece. The tannin-y scent of red oak wafted out from inside the block, the smell of wood that has not ever been exposed to air. I have written before about how every wood has its own smell as you work it, and red oak (a studio mate of mine calls it “piss oak,” because the tannin smell can be very sharp and almost overpowering sometimes) always makes me think of red wine, that sharp taste that tannins in the oak aging barrels give it when you drink it. Here is where I was at 2.25pm.

Sawing and sawing. It is not about speed, this kind of work. It is about care, and about making sure that every time the saw moves forward, it is following the scribed line. It is about endurance. The wood has a lot of twist in it, and it started to grab the saw blade a little, so I rubbed paraffin on it and drove a couple of screwdrivers into the top of the block to take tension off of the blade. You can see them in this photo. At 2.35 I was here:

And here is a photo of me sawing. Well, actually, I had paused for the photo. I wanted to preserve it because of the resonance of this particular project. So it is staged, but truth to tell I was tired and wanted a break.

Finally, finally, the off-cut fell away, I was able to run the block through the planer, and get it very smooth and very square. It will likely not stay that way, but so it is for now. Here it is at 2.45pm, roughly a half hour of near continuous work after I started. Boy, were my arms tired. I was winded. And I had only cut through a foot and a half. Imagine using this method to reduce a whole tree to planks.

And here is a shot of the top of the block, showing the beautiful growth rings. Each ring, of course, happened over a year. I can count 70 years, from the pith (that is the center of all the rings, and is actually the sapling that this tree started from) to the far corner. And, of course, the tree was older yet than that, when it was felled. It was a baby before World War I. Maybe even before the dawn of the last century. It was a callow youth when Gardner Greene bought the handsaw I used on it today. It grew slowly and patiently through wars and unrest, through financial boom and bust. What is money to an oak tree? It grew as my grandparents were born, and as my parents were born. It was a good, sturdy tree when the first human footprint was made on the moon. It was older than I will be when I pass when I was born.

Now it will be part of a piece of furniture that my sister’s family will hand down to their children and their grandchildren. It will be with them through the many good times and the occasional bad. It can be handed down and used and loved for many years, and I hope that when Ellie and Kelsey and Karen and I are just faces in a yellowed photograph that that table will still be in some descendant’s home, and that Gardner’s saw will be hanging on some unknown wall, sharpened and ready for use when available modern technology is not able to rise to the challenge.

Whoever uses the saw then will be sawing with me today, just as today I was sawing with my father in the forties when he was young, and just as I was sawing with Gardner when he was doing the same thing. We are linked through time by family, by tradition, by labor, and by our impulse as makers. I am incredibly proud to stand in that line.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


went for dinner tonight to my favorite local sushi restaurant. As I sat there letting the toro melt on my tongue, a worker emerged from the kitchen with a vacuum package of tuna and handed it off to the second-in-command sushi chef. He put it on his cutting-board, and after quickly removing the plastic wrapping, stood and contemplated it for a moment. Pretty much the way that I look at an old chunk of wood when I first meet it.

He spun it around, and turned it over, and looked at it again, weighing the options and the responsibilities. Then he got out a sharpening stone and took a few swipes with his knife.

Well, hell, I thought. I know what he is doing, absolutely.

With his left hand he lifted the beautiful deep red piece of meat over once, and then again. He rotated it end for end. He held his knife against it and then stood back. I had this very same moment this morning with a complicated piece of white oak. There is a moment of thinking “this is too much. I can not cut into this, it is perfect as it is.” Then “Well, I have to cut into this. It is my job.” A catching of the breath, diving in. He took a long lateral cut with his knife. Smooth, precise, quick, that oh-so-Japanese quality of speed and precision that is so prised in that culture, a quick, perfect movement that you miss completely if you aren’t watching.

The first cut is the hardest.

Once the maker has committed, every subsequent choice is easier. The tuna spun and flipped. He leaned in to check the grain, flipped the piece to check his instinct, and then made another long cut. Deep red fillets started to pile up, each showing the grain of the muscle perfectly, each one destined to be many pieces of melt-in-your-mouth perfect toro. Captivating to watch. Every cut was considered and quick. With every cut another piece of tuna landed on the cutting board. Every piece made me think of an old friend that sailed from South Africa to Brazil, and how he talked about trailing a fishing line and catching tuna, and having sushi that had been alive five minutes ago, and how I would never have that experience. I also realized that if I was ever in that situation I would be completely lost as to how to reduce that living thing to food.

Watching this master ply his craft was soothing and exhilarating. There is always that moment when you watch someone do their thing well when you think “well how hard can that be? Looks pretty straight forward.” I often feel this when watching a good musician. Then I go home and realize how completely flummoxed I am. This was the same way, the ease that this man felt was infectious, making me think I should get some tuna and give it a shot myself, but having a complete realization that I would never be able to do what he does, not with the ease and surety that he does it.

I resigned myself to eating the product of his labor, in the way that others enjoy the product of my labor. We each of us have a calling, and we each of should be comfortable in that. I am pretty glad that I get to do what I do, and pretty grateful when I get to watch someone else fulfill their purpose.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

ezekiel saw the wheel

barreling along the New York Throughway, listening to a mix cd that my sister made a few years back, something happened. I was driving through one of those cuts in a hillside, the ones where you can see the layers of rock, a snapshot of millions of years, a history written in schist and quartz pressed and lifted and pressed again, and only a comparative nanosecond ago blasted apart by insects that felt a need to lay a ribbon of asphalt just there.

These strata became threads in a tapestry, and then I realized that I am a thread, too, and then I was almost outside of myself, looking back at myself as a thread in this tapestry, my beating heart woven into the warp and my arms and legs stretching out as weft, reaching back, back, back, woven in with growth rings of trees and layers of rock, woven in with water wheels spinning wet around and around and with the lines hauling up the square sail on a trireme, woven in with hands and arms painting massive animals on cave walls and chipping flint arrowheads. Then I looked forward and saw my arms woven with Karen’s and with the arms of our son, and the thread weaving forward and forward through time that we can not know, to a time when our son is a great- great- grandfather, a time when we are impossibly far back, yellowed photographs that no-one really believes.

As I zoomed back and back and back, I saw the whole tapestry, stretching up and down and left and right, on and on and on beyond my ability to see, and lost my self in it, and lost everything that I could recognize, and just saw this massive, multi-colored tapestry that is all of us, those that have been, and we who are now, and those that will come, all here, all at the same time, and it was breathtaking.

In a flash it was gone, and I was barreling along the New York Throughway, listening to a mix cd that my sister made a few years back, driving through one of those cuts in a hillside. Tears were running down my face and it was hard to catch my breath. It has taken me much longer to write about this than it took for it to happen. It has taken you much longer to read this than it took for it to happen. It all was there in between two beats of a song. In between two breaths. But it was real, I felt it and saw it and am still trying to figure out why.

I am not a terribly religious person. If I was, I would describe it as a vision, in the manner of Old Testament prophets. I might call it a moment of clarity, a moment of understanding. I still feel it, a little, a day later. Like a bruise, sort of, but a bruise somewhere in my heart or (dare I say it) soul.

I know and believe that our knowledge of and respect for our history is the best possible guide for moving forward. I know that we are all connected and that we all have a deep and abiding responsibility to every other thread in that tapestry. I know that I will never be able to comprehend how far-reaching my choices can be, and that my life needs to be lived in awareness of all of this. I am not sure what to do with this moment, this vision. I am still working it out. But I am honored that I saw what I saw.

Ezekiel saw the wheel
Way up in the middle of the air.

Monday, April 6, 2009

on the bench just now

i have been turning over a new project, lately. With babies on the brain, I have been surfing baby sites, as one does, and have been blown away by the truckloads of plastic crap that are offered up for sale. Not only is it offered up, there is the implication that if you do not own every last sickly-sweet petroleum-based product, you are a Bad Parent that clearly does not care a Single Hoot for the Safety, Well-Being, or Proper Development of your child, and probably would fricassee it at the first possible opportunity, you heartless, penny-pinching, terrible soul.

There never seems to be mention on any of these sites about phthalates, or the studies being done about their effects on developing nervous systems. Nor is there any mention of the studies that have been done about MDF and particle board and the off-gassing that comes from the formaldehyde-urea resin in these and similar products that not only does quantifiable harm to developing nervous systems, but even to adult systems. Nope, just an exhortation to buy the plastic high chair, the plastic bathtub, the particle-board changing table.

So, as I say, I have started on a new project. It started with a high chair, which of course we “need.” It seems to be beside the point that for about 200,000 years the concept of a chair was unknown, let alone a high chair. It is really only in the last 4500 years or so that purpose built objects have existed for sitting on, let alone “high” ones for babies. There is not even reliable evidence of this furniture type until about 200 years ago, which, let’s be honest, is WAY after humans started having babies. Nonetheless, we “need” a high chair, or again, we are Bad Parents. So, okay, that I can make. I can even make it in a way that I like, that makes sense.

A woman in my yoga class came up to visit the studio a couple of weeks ago, and said a lot of very nice things, and as she was leaving said that she had a furniture object that had been in her family for quite a while that I might like and she would bring it in. Apparently someone in her family had made it years ago, and many and many a cousin has used it, and the food stains and pencil marks bear out that story (not that I would doubt her).

Well, goodness. Did I ever like it. Her generosity with this family artifact has been a real gift, and has given me a great project.

Briefly, it is a high chair that has a built in rocking horse and desk. The photos below make more sense of this thing than I can with words. It is exactly the kind of thing that appeals to me: Concise, straightforward, and rife with opportunities to play with shape and form. It becomes several things, it has a variety of uses, and it is small enough to be stowed until the next user needs it.

I played around with the shape for quite a while. The lovely thing about being in the studio that I am in is that there are a lot of folk around who have great ideas and opinions. So we have been going back and forth about it for a couple of weeks now, and the prototyping process has maybe gotten a little out of hand, but it has been fun. Today I worked on the final touch, which was the identity of the rocker part. The original had a horse, which was a choice that made a lot of sense. But then, I have never been a horse person, particularly, so the idea of putting a horse silhouette in the piece did not particularly resonate with me.

The first candidate was a lion. It seemed like a good strong image, and one that resonates with so many memories from my childhood. The Chronicles of Narnia affected me so profoundly that I spent years checking every closet I passed in the hopes that the back would open up into another world. Never happened, but not for lack of trying. Though conceptually apropos, it turns out that it is tough to make a silhouette of a lion that does not look sort of like Albert Einstein. And I do not want to paint details on any of this, I want it (like the original) to be clean and without too much cutesy adornment.

The next shape that I tried was a mermaid. An homage to ship figureheads, as well as a reference to a tattoo I got a few years back, I thought it would be fun to have a rocking mermaid. It took a while for the idea that my son riding a mermaid might be pretty dirty to work it’s way through my thick skull. Oh. Right. Maybe he should not ride a mermaid…

Finally I have settled on a goat. Goats are fun and funny. They are kid-sized. They are easy to identify. I have many a memory of childhood petting zoos, of cautiously holding out handfuls of alfalfa pellets through wire fences at goats, fearful of their perfect little teeth and exhilarated when the gently picked the pellets out of my grubby little hand. I have a particular memory of being a little older, seven maybe, and being at the Nature Science Center with my mom and seeing a baby goat, only a couple of weeks old, gangly and timid, following its mother around with those clumsy steps particular to hooved infant animals. In retrospect, I think I identified with that baby goat because I felt so similar in school, clumsy and awkward, a feeling that would not evaporate for a long time. Goat it is.

I am going to make my “high-brid chairs” out of Baltic birch plywood, which is very white and clean. I think I am going to paint the edges blue and sand them back so that the plys show, acknowledging the material, but bringing some color into the piece. Clean and simple, with just a clear lacquer coat on top. I am not particularly keen on lacquer, it is pretty VOC-heavy, but it is good and hard, and will withstand years of the kind of hard use that babies can subject it to.

The prototype is almost finished as you can see. I am off to sunny Syracuse again tomorrow, but plan to start on the final versions next week when I am back. I am going to start with two, one for us and one for Karen’s sister and her husband, who are also having a baby. And we can hand them off to other siblings when our kids to big for them, and take them back when we have kids again, weaving these clever little furniture objects into the warp and weft of our families.