Wednesday, May 30, 2012

shifting landscapes

one of my first memories is of my father using a handsaw to cut a piece of wood for a project he was working on.  I asked him to make me something to play with, and he said “I just made you that big pile of sawdust!”  I don’t recall what my reaction to that was, it is one of those memories that I can see only through a haze, that fades in like they do in the movies, with the sound of the saw cutting and that fades out again just as it comes in to focus.

When I was young my father made a lot of things.  My mother, too.  Looking back I realize now what a gift it was to have making be a part of my everyday life, and what a gift it continues to be.

When I was young I thought my father knew pretty much everything.  He knew how to make bookshelves, yes, but he also made me sand boxes and tree houses.  When I was about 5 he made me a plywood rocket ship with two seats in it.  It was spray painted silver and the controls in the front seat were made from milk-bottle caps and baby-food lids.  He made things for us to sit on, he made the table we ate at, he made the bed I slept in.  He did this because my parents did not have a lot of money for that kind of thing, yes, but he also did it because he and my mom loved to make things.  She did a lot of sanding and painting on a lot of the projects, but she also stitched curtains and baked and threw pots.  As I got older I helped a little here and there, a living example of what Shel Silverstein meant when he wrote “some kinds of help are the kinds of help we all can do without.”

These days when my family visits me we do it around a home improvement project.  It gives us all a common goal, something to work towards, and it gives us a focus for conversation, for planning out the days, for staying busy.  None of us are “sitting in the sun on the beach for a week” types.  I have noticed that my view of the landscape has shifted though; now when we work together my parents look to me for guidance.  At this point I have more training in furniture making and woodworking than my father, and I have different expectations about level of finish and about methods and materials than he does.

Over the holiday weekend my mother and father were both staying with us and we started work on renovating our porch.  My role these days is to plan the work for each day and to divide the work into tasks.  Some of how I do this I learned from my parents when I was younger, other parts I have learned over the last couple of decades of working with and for people on large projects.  The design of the finished project is in my head the whole time of course, and the methods for getting there also tend to be mine.  My parents have ideas about all of that, and there are discussions in which they bring to bear their considerable experience, but in general I am the in-charge person, the project foreman.

In addition, I now also have a small child running around who is playing in the sawdust and taking my hammer when I am not looking.  He does this not because he thinks the hammer is a toy, he simply knows we are using hammers and wants to work along side of us.  I am responsible not only for the project at hand, but also for his safety and his training just like my parents were when I occupied his role.

This weekend I lived in three times at once.  I was keenly aware of how recently I was the small child running around, getting in the way as I “helped.”  I was also the elder, watching with pride as my child led the way and swung a hammer with precision right alongside me.  And in the middle I was me.  Just me still, the one who was trying to keep tabs on everyone else, who was working out in my head what all of the steps might be, and who was trying to find the way ahead with all of the support that was around me.

I am used to the idea that “time is an enormous, long river” as Utah Phillips reminds us.  I like the idea and I try to celebrate it with the things I make and the way I make them. To be so viscerally reminded about my place as a person standing in that river was both poignant and lovely.

Monday, April 30, 2012

making and value

I have seen
The old gods go
And the new gods come.

Day by day
And year by year
The idols fall 
And the idols rise.

I worship the hammer.

-Carl Sandburg

i have been involved in several conversations lately about value.  It has become important recently to examine the things that I value and do what thinking I can around why these things or people or customs or cultural assumptions are valuable, and in fact whether they should be valuable at all.

Central to who I am, and who I have been for most of my life, is my ability to understand that I can shape the world around me physically.  This takes a lot of forms, but as a baseline being comfortable with myself as a maker and with my need and desire to make has helped define who I am to myself and to others.

When asked what we do we often respond with a job description.  "Teacher," in my case.  Or "woodworker."  Or for people that I know "computer programmer" or "HR director."  This is often what we are paid to do in order to maintain a certain lifestyle, but for how many of us is that what we do, what we love, how we choose to spend our time?  I saw a graphic recently that had been made when the unions were campaigning for the eight hour day (yes, that is a gift of the unions, not a magnanimous gift from a benevolent management.  People died to bring about the eight hour day.  As broken as a some of the union systems are, it is important to remember that they also brought about a lot of good in the lives of the working class) that called for "8 hours of work, 8 hours of sleep. 8 hours of what-we-will."  So responding to the question "what do you do?" with a job description is at best only partly right.  

What do I do?  I make.  I do that in my work life, but also in my home life, where my family and I make all kinds of things, from bread to songs to furniture to piles of rocks.  We make sticks into light sabers, we make dance parties in the early morning kitchen, we make furniture for our home.  My answer to the question at hand is "I make stuff."  So does my family.  And that is something that I value greatly.

It always surprises me to be reminded what an anathema the idea of making something for yourself is to a lot of people.  Smart people that I know and like who have thumbs and good brains have been culturally trained to forget that they can make, that they can influence the world around them in a positive way, that all it takes is the desire to do so and the ability to research methodologies.  Mark Frauenfelder wrote a book about that called "Made by Hand" that is a pretty fun read, but the striking thing to me is the subtitle:  "Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World."  The implication here is that there is a loss of value (meaning) in the objects around us.  For a maker, the assumed reason behind that is that the more separate we become from the origins of the objects and spaces in our lives the less value they have, even if they cost a great deal of money.

I was taught from a very early age by both of my parents that I could and should make things (in large part because they made things).  I learned the lesson so well that I live it today, and am passing it on to my children as well.  Now that is a valuable.

Monday, April 23, 2012

music and community

not sure you have any reason to know Steve Wishnevsky.  I sure do, he has been a part of my life in various ways for about twenty years or so now.  Ex-hippie, musician, maker, grump, writer, community builder, crusty old fart that he is, he helped shape who I am pretty profoundly.  I met him in the early 90s in Winston-Salem at a jam session that he was running.

I had only recently figured out that the long skinny end of a guitar went in my left hand and the big round part went against my body on the right.  It was through the extreme patience of Wish and the community of musicians at the weekly jam session at a little restaurant (now long gone to make way for a freeway overpass) called the Rose and Thistle that I slowly started to figure out that a guitar might be used as something other than a prop to attract young ladies, it might be used to, you know, make actual music that some people might even want to listen to.  This was a revelation to my twenty-year-old self.

I have played at a lot of jam sessions over the last couple of decades.  I have played in front of people as well, alone or with bands, as a regular member or as a guest, and I have learned a lot from a lot of people, but it was the initial welcome into the world of making music that Wish and the folk at that jam session extended that made it possible.  It remains to this day my favorite way to play music.  That is, with other people also playing, playing to and for and at each other all at once, with many voices rising and many hands working, joyously creating together something that is so much more grand than the sum of its parts and that transcends music and the act of making music and becomes the act of creating community.

Among the things that Wish makes and has made for much of his life is musical instruments.  Some of them are pretty strange, and they all bear the mark of a mind that, as we used to say down where I grew up, aint quite right.  In this case, Wish aint right in all of the best ways.  He experiments with woods that most luthiers would turn up their nose at.  He makes odd contraptions like harp guitars with experimental tunings or ten-string classical guitars.  I would not even know how to play most of what he makes, to be honest.

For the holiday this past winter I wanted to get a Wishnevsky guitar.  I have been making a lot of cigar-box guitars with a tenor scale, and have been getting pretty comfortable playing at that size, and I wanted a real guitar that had that scale to play around with.  One of the things that Wish has been doing a lot lately (well, for a long time, really, but lately I have been more aware of it) is re-using things that otherwise might not have much of a life left in them.  Of course this resonates with me.  He has also been getting locally felled wood for his instruments.  So the proposition that I could own a guitar made of wood from my hometown by a maker who lived in my hometown proved too irresistible a draw for me to pass up.  It finally arrived this past week, and it looks like this:

The back is just crazy, wormy box elder, which is not a wood one would typically use to make a guitar.  I am sure glad that he did, though.  It looks like hot rod flames drawn by fungus that get in to the tree, spreading the red pigment that can be typical in box elder.  In time this redness will fade, which means that the guitar itself will change identities visually as it ages, in the same way that all guitars change tonally as they age and the cells of the wood get older and more mellow.

The top of the guitar is made of cedar salvaged from the firewood pile and has the high-contrast flecks of red and white that mark red cedar.  The fingerboard is dogwood, a very hard wood that makes me think about climbing the twisting dogwood branches in my yard as a youth.  The dogwoods were the most accessible trees for a young climber, low to the ground with a lot of branches of a size that was good for small hands.  They provided a different kind of lesson as I grew, eventually occasionally breaking beneath my weight and teaching me about gravity and pain and the need to respect the natural limits of trees and people alike.

Needless to say I have been really enjoying playing this guitar, and I look forward to playing it with others in the very near future.  When I play it I am making music with my hometown and my childhood.  The trees that gave their lives to make this instrument grew up breathing the same air that I did, they felt the same sultry heat of North Carolina summers as I did, they absorbed the same sunlight as me.  I feel connected to this instrument immediately, and it is a real joy to play.

In an important way this is what powers me.  This idea that we can be a community of makers, that we can make what we make in a way that is heavy with meaning and that builds community and uses objects or music or movement or even just a way of thinking to create ties that are positive and supportive helps me get out of bed every day.  Most of the people who have been important to me in my life over the years have been community builders each in their own way, and this idea that together we can make the world better is a primary motivating force in my life.

It is a pretty fortunate place to habit.  I am thankful.

Monday, April 16, 2012


I have a complicated relationship with New York City.  When I first moved there I was young and there was no other place I wanted to be.  Smitten in the way that belongs to the young, I wrote bad poetry and read good poetry in praise of it.  I collected and read and re-read books about the history of the City or that use the City as a backdrop or a foil.  I loved flying in over the vast grey landscape of artificial canyons and fabricated mountains as I returned to what I thought of as “home” when I came back from work trips or family vacations.  I was mystified by people who wanted to live anywhere else, and extolled the virtues of what I thought of as “my City” to anyone that did not walk away.

Needless to say, there are many people who still feel that way.  Some of them are good and old friends of mine.

Also needless to say, my views about the City shifted.

The reasons are many and varied, and took several years to fully assert themselves, but for a lot of reasons I started to feel crushed by the relentlessness of the city, and I started to resent many of the things that I had previously celebrated.  Important to note that the city itself did not change, of course, it never does.  Or rather, it is constantly changing in the same ways over and over again.  What shifted were my own feelings about where I was, physically and existentially.  Most importantly, I started to think about where I wanted to be and how that fit into my life where I was and I realized that there was a disparity between those two points.

In 2006 I moved out of the city, feeling like I was able to breathe again for the first time in years (my wife did not share that feeling of deep relief, and it was and remains a topic of discussion).  Moving to Providence, Rhode Island was a joyful experience for me, and I thought that I was at last free of the concrete shackles of New York City.


Except my emotional DNA had been irrevocably altered by a decade in New York.  There is something about the city that got under my skin, that burrowed down through flesh and sinewright to my bones, and then dug deeper, into my marrow, where it took hold and has not released its sharp grip even now.  Though I emphatically do not want to return long-term to that place, I even now can not escape what Thomas Wolfe calls “the terrible and obscure hunger that haunts and hurts Americans, and makes us exiles at home and strangers wherever we go.”   Having spent time there, having met my wife and gotten married, having made a great many friends and forged experiencesthat shaped me, I am to this day connected to this place I have so little desire to be.

In some ways I still think the way a lot of New Yorkers think, that it is the center of all things, and that allother cities want to be like it.  It would be hard for me to move to Boston, say, or Los Angeles, because if you are going to live in a city why wouldn’t you choose the City so nice they named it twice?  Everything else is just second place, an “also-ran.”

I fully recognize how broken this thinking is.  And, as I say, I have no desire to return.  Flying in this past weekend, looking down at those same grey canyons and fabricated mountains that used to fill me with joy and pride I had to suppress a shudder.   I felt a flash of thanks for having escaped, and for having a different home to go to when I flew back out and a flash of dread at the knowledge that I would be inhabiting these concrete canyons for a day and a half.  Six years later the feelings that City evokes are strong and complicated.

Perhaps the most important thing leaving the City did for me was that it gave me a feeling of power over my own decision making.  I had gotten into a way of thinking that had a lot of rigid (and self-imposed) rules about behavior and consumption and my ability to have my own hand on the tiller of my own destiny.  When I left, I felt that I had been given a chance to re-write all of the rules, to wrest control of the tiller away from the forces that had been directing it and take control of it myself.  Sometimes we really do need dramatic change of locality to remind us about the power that we do have over our own lives and over our decision making.

Moving away from the City did that for me, and it has so far proved to be a lasting lesson, one that I have been working to keep in the forefront of my mind.  We have so many external forces prodding us to abdicate control of our decision-making:  Social customs, familial behavior patterns, corporate desire to sell us things, a collective commitment to equating value with cost.  If we can calm the maelstrom and step back and really look at the decisions we make and really pay attention to the factors that are causing us to make them, we often find that we alter the way we make those decisions and often we alter what those decisions are.