The Good Life

The Good Life

It’s been a busy few months, and in a sort of “new years resolution” sort of mood I thought I’d try to use this space again. No promises regarding my ability to sustain it. I’m trying to work out better habits, and get more done than I usually manage to.

One of the things I miss most about the stresses of these past months is reading; another thing is writing. I’m trying some self-assignment type things to help improve the situation.

The first book I assigned myself was The Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing.

The modern edition contains two books, the first published in 1952 and then its sequel from 1970. One of the tenets of the Nearing approach is budgeting your time to “bread labor” and also budgeting time for study and relaxation. I like that a lot.

In the first book, the division is firm between “bread labor” and the activities that make life worth living, like music and reading and such. The Nearings suggest limiting ourselves to four hours of each. In the later book, this is refined a bit to three four hour segments– bread labor, self labor, and then community labors. The sort of good life they’re aiming for is simply subsistence— aiming to avoid any sort of profit or surplus. This of course runs counter to a capitalist lifestyle.

Needless to say, the Nearings were political radicals, but there is relatively little of that in this book. It’s a bit like Walden, which the dust-jacket blurb compares it to, wherein they account their modes of living for a much longer span of time. I liked it better myself, because it was more pragmatic, longer term, and less dependent on borrowings from others. (living in Emerson’s back yard, using only borrowed tools, etc.).

Reading it reminded me a lot of the books I read as a teenager, including B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two and the usual suspects of hippie culture. But this goes back further, deeper, and is in most ways richer than most of those books. Perhaps I’m working toward my fiftieth adolescence, or something thereabouts. Looking for something though I’m not sure what.

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thin line

It’s a thin line between careful and lazy.

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Solnit: I feel a great affinity for photographers and I was told gently early on that I wasn’t  good at interpreting paintings and I never had a real affinity for them. You have to get into the cult of painting, both the craft of it and the lineage of it, neither of which interest me very much. Photography and non-fiction feel very close because, as you say, there is a very direct relationship to subject matter, which was taken in earlier eras as meaning they weren’t creative. There is a tremendous responsibility that goes with that. As a photographer I know if I take a photograph of you and I make it public, people will expect it to be true. If I Photoshop it so that you look like you are snorting coke, I know that will impact what people will believe, the historical record, and your life. Therefore I have tremendous creative possibility but I also have tremendous creative responsibility. When that responsibility is seen as confinement it bugs me—when people who are supposed to be doing non-fiction tweak the facts I feel that is a creative failure. You do not have to make shit up or misrepresent what happened to tell a fantastic story that has literary form. You just have to be good at it, be good at your job and let the constraints give you a more interesting solution. Constraint is often read like the word compromise, but there is a way of compromising that is like collaborating, finding common ground, where you serve truth and vision both, and those feed rather than sap each other.

I sense, just beneath the surface of this response, the core of the “Q” question— can rhetoric be defined as “a good man speaking well”? I hadn’t really thought of “truth” as a constraint before, but yes, I suppose it is. I’ve always felt that constraints are often a good thing.

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Education of a Woodworker

At the utmost, the active minded young man should ask of his teachers only the mastery of his tools. The young man himself, the subject of education, is a certain form of energy; the object to be gained is economy of his force; the training is partly the clearing away of obstacles, partly by the direct application of effort. Once acquired, the tools and models may be thrown away.

The Education of Henry Adams (2007), xiv

In the author’s preface, Henry Adams sets up a model of the author/narrator as a mannequin, a stand-in that should be discarded once an adequate level of skill is achieved. This device has replicated itself over time, but has frequently been ignored or overlooked. Chris Schwarz, in his first book The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, declares his “anarchist” manifesto with the admonition “disobey me.” It is difficult, however, to discard or disobey his assemblage of a tool kit that he substantiates historically, even annotating it across other authors covering centuries. Just what does “disobey me” mean when all paths, apparently, lead to the same conclusions as he has reached?

I think I have read the opening chapters of Schwarz’s book a few dozen times in the past few years. In fact, I am putting the finishing touches on the sort of English tool chest he describes right now, not because I think it’s the best solution to the problem of tool storage but simply because it seemed  like the right thing to do. He’s right of course, this sort of chest makes a lot more sense once you start to use it. It’s rich with the sort of “economy of force” that Henry Adams was on about. The patience and practice that you acquire while pursuing this sort of project is priceless, really. But the fact that Schwarz looms large as a person instead of a persona obscures the “anarchist” agenda that he seeks to pursue. The more I visit the book, the more I see how he got there. Like his basic tool assortment, Schwarz’s anarchist disposition is an easy journey to support historically.

Right about the time of the first publication of The Education of Henry Adams, at the dawn of the twentieth century there was a basic shift in the perception of “craft” among its proponents. William Morris, a devout socialist saw the onslaught of industrial production driven by capitalism as an evil to be defeated by traditional crafts.  Interrogating the social benefits of “hand” crafts versus machines was a the center of a lot of writing in the late nineteenth century (particularly Hawthorne). However, as the Arts and Crafts movement began to falter in the early twentieth century, socialists were replaced by anarchists (and capitalists like the Stickley brothers) with a more machine friendly stance.

The anarchist Herbert Read, writing in Art and Industry (1949) suggests that Morris was simply asking the wrong question. We shouldn’t be asking if the machines are damaging our society, but rather if the machines can give us the art we need. He thought yes. The merits of individualism/anarchism vs. socialism frequently generate ripples across the discussion; they are models that seem to consistently provide a sort of touchstone to rub. Is this really useful in the long run? I have mixed feelings. As Henry Adams remarks, politics as a practice has always been the systematic organization of hatreds (6). However, as the truism goes, the personal is always political.

For myself, perhaps the strongest urge is always what I’ve come to call the “hunter gatherer” impulse. The draw of The Anarchist’s Tool Chest is its well researched set of tools; most people reading the book, I suspect, use it as a starting point to figure out what tools they should be proficient with. It’s much easier to hunt and gather tools than it is to develop skills, so we gather them up and then and only then attempt to use them. Overcoming the frustration when they don’t work the way we think they should, well, that’s a problem.

Schwarz is really no help there; he and most of the dons of the the woodworking forums online suggest that you simply must have the best tool. There is no substitute. Schwarz, as he so succinctly points out in his book, due to the circumstances of his profession, found himself buried alive in tools. His book is about stripping away those things that he found he didn’t need, including “tool-resembling objects.” For most, readers they’re gathering tools, not getting rid of them.

For some reason though, I just keep coming back to Schwarz’s first book. I’ve read and enjoyed his latest book, Campaign Furniture, and there is much to say about it. But the more I read around, the more I can see why that first book had to happen for him.

Manifestos usually bore me, but for some reason this one doesn’t; it irritates me in the best sense of the word. I constantly wonder if there is a better way to get there. The path that his education follows is fairly straightforward, and in its own way traditional. But I do not think that you can cast away your tools and models once you get there, which makes it flirt dangerously with dogma.


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Simple Emotions

twice-told-tales-rappaccinis-daughter-beatrice-joyce-taylor-killer-plant-toxic-poison-review1Blessed are all simple emotions, be they dark or bright! It is the lurid intermixture of the two that produces the illuminating blaze of the infernal region

“Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales (Norton) p. 195

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Talking Shop

9780813931210You won’t find Talking Shop on many woodworker’s “must read” lists. I started it a while ago and put it aside, once I got the gist of it’s thesis. I was enjoying it, but it just didn’t seem relevant to the other craft reading I was doing until now. I thought of it soon after I finished Tarule’s book, because like another book I’ve read recently, it sort of degenerated into a sort of idolatry and presumption rather than making significant observations about craft.

It was a bit odd to think of Talking Shop while contemplating craft, because it’s really more about rhetoric than craft. But then it was the rhetoric of The Artisan of Ipswich that galled me more than real information about craft. From Talking Shop‘s jacket blurb:

“By arguing that what matters culturally, finally, is the representation of craft, the idea of craft, rather than the objects, Betjemann takes the whole subject of craft and stands it on its head. In doing so, he makes a substantial contribution to the cultural history of the United States, changing our way of thinking about craft by broadening its meaning considerably.”—Miles Orvell, Temple University, author of The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880–1940

I’m quite familiar with Orvell from my studies in New Deal photography. He always irritated me too, because his primary focus was representation rather than documentary; to read most of the postmodern documentary critics the fact that people were suffering and well meaning people were trying to alleviate it was secondary to the oppressive nature of representing anything at all. This is uniquely unhelpful, and I suppose I was afraid that Betejemann’s book would be unhelpful as well. But it was really interesting to me at first, because it began with a long interrogation of Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography.

Cellini’s autobiography was on my nightstand for years, when I was photographing in nightclubs. I would come home and read it to unwind before I slept, I thought it was a real hoot. Betjemann’s use of it as a sort of 19th century lightning rod for descriptions of craft is apt. Cellini boasts endlessly about what a great craftsman he is, but he never really gets around to describing much about it. Instead, he’s too busy swashbuckling about having adventures and claiming that everyone else’s methods are inferior to his. What his method is, is of course ambiguous. Not many of his artistic works have survived, but instead his autobiography looms large as a sort of paradigm for the life of an artist.

Which is precisely Betjemann’s point. Craft remains outside, constructing a sort of platonic ideal which simply can’t be represented in the text except as a shadow doppelganger of a life fully lived. It’s the paradigm for modern DIY as well– grow your own tomato, make your own bacon, mill your own flour, bake the bread and make the condiments to produce your own BLT and only then will you be the consummate craftsman. The craftsman is involved, if not proficient, in everything.

I suppose Tarule’s book, as well as many others, follow a sort of Cellini model in resurrecting long dead craftsman. In a sense, the internet has created armies of Cellinis. Woodworking forums are filled with tool talk vs. object talk at the ratio of at least 100:1, not to mention digressions into cooking and other crafts at a fairly steady pace. Not much need to talk about the craft itself, because after all you just have to do it rather than represent it. To his credit, Tarule does talk about a single specific object and the construction of it— it is nothing if not object oriented and in that sense deviates from the Cellini model. It’s discussions of tools are only present when they have a direct impact on the object at hand. But hanging over it like a spectre is a sort of idolatry that is all too common. It was just the tone of certainty, built into a narrative of the consummate craftsman at work.

I’m really feeling chafed by this just now. I can’t agree with Orvell that removing the discourse from its context of the objects of craft is a great breakthrough. I think it’s useful in order to see how these discussions are so often derailed in various ways, and for that reason I’m now reading Talking Shop. The objects, and their places in our lives will always be more important than the things we say about them, just as documentary is more useful as a window rather than simply a fiction constructed about people outside our immediate sphere for political reasons.

Of course the window of documentary distorts, just as the narrative we construct about objects distorts.

There is much more to say, of course. But I wanted to get this off my chest. My primary concern isn’t really to classify things as good books or bad books, but rather to cross-connect some significant ideas.

I suppose it goes back to discovering David Pye’s Nature and Art of Workmanship. Pye takes Ruskin to task for idolizing “handwork” without developing a coherent theory of what handwork was. Betjemann’s book begins by examining the spread of Cellini’s “hand” as an object of admiration, and as such feeds into the Arts and Crafts movement. There are some important connections here, but with major differences in emphasis.

Betjemann’s task was to examine language, while Pye was examining workmanship. It really bothers me that the discussion started by Pye seems to have just been derailed and stagnated, buried by the weight of language. Contemporary writers on craft haven’t made much headway into theories of work and workmanship. More worrisome is that they really don’t appear interested in that at all, and would rather perpetuate a pantheon of artistic swashbuckling heroes.

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The Artisan of Ipswich

artisan of ipswich I just finished The Artisan of Ipswich by Robert Tarule, and I’ve got mixed feelings about it. Paul Sellers mentioned it as one of his top ten, and Chris Schwarz has reviewed it postively as well. While it was informative, it just set off a bunch of irritations in me. I’d still recommend it to others, but the writing style just really got on my nerves.

The book begins like a dissertation that’s been converted into a book, full of numbing statistics and details. I really enjoyed that part the most, oddly enough. But compared to say, Tudor Monastery Farm or Tales from the Green Valley, it was dry as toast.

What irritated me most was when it switched into storytelling mode to detail the construction of a particular oak chest. It was a fanciful telling, marred with constant references to what the maker intended and why they made the choices that the did. The switch in tone was abrupt, and just grating. I found myself screaming “You just can’t know that!” or “How dare you use a dead man as a puppet for your own voice!”

I have no doubt of Tarule’s credentials, or his theories regarding the way the artisan worked. I have the greatest admiration for those who work to recover historical working methods. It was simply a “voice” thing. If one builds a historical piece using their technologies, one does not become that person. There are things that a person simply can’t know.

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Poe on Furniture

“PHILOSOPHY,” says Hegel, “is utterly useless and fruitless, and, for this very reason, is the sublimest of all pursuits, the most deserving of our attention, and the most worthy of our zeal” — a somewhat Coleridegy assertion, with a rivulet of deep meaning in a meadow of words. It would be wasting time to disentangle the paradox — and the more so as no one will deny that Philosophy has its merits, and is applicable to an infinity of purposes. There is reason, it is said, in the roasting of eggs, and there is philosophy even in furniture — a philosophy nevertheless which seems to be more imperfectly understood by Americans than by any civilized nation upon the face of the earth.

In the internal decoration, if not in the external architecture of their residences, the English are supreme. The Italians have but little sentiment beyond marbles and colours. In France, meliora probant, deteriora sequuntur — the people are too much a race of gadabouts to study and maintain those household proprieties of which, indeed, they have a delicate appreciation, or at least the elements of a proper sense. The Chinese and most of the eastern races have a warm but inappropriate fancy. The Scotch are poor decorists. The Dutch have merely a vague idea that a curtain is not a cabbage. In Spain they are all curtains — a nation of hang men. The Russians no [[do]] not furnish. The Hottentots and Kickapoos are very well in their way. The Yankees alone are preposterous.

The Philosophy of Furniture


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Missing goals


I’m continually missing goals, shifting the target, and then trying again. This winter is getting a bit better, but not by much. I wanted to be able to post a newly completed project here at least once a month, but one thing or another always frustrates me. Right now I’m working on a big tool chest (basic anarchist model) and an Enfield Shaker cupboard. Neither project is really going well; nothing fatal but nothing really rewarding yet. I’ve not been able to finish much reading, and of course I haven’t been doing much writing either.

Splitting firewood and cooking occupies most of my time these days. Strange, but that is what it works out to. Maybe there will be something more positive to write tomorrow. I remember how I used to cope with “writer’s block” years ago in Arkansas. I would drive down the street and look around until I saw (or imagined) something worth writing a short blog post about. The key is just to face up to it, and place one word after the other— the only way out is through. Spring always happens eventually.

As for the projects, I go into the shop most every day. And if I fail, I at least try to fail differently than I did the day before.

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Shaker Side Tables

Shaker Side Tables

It took a long time to gather the courage to make these tables.

I first glued up and cut the tops of these tables from a nice wide curly cherry board over a year ago. I cut them to rough size, flattened them, etc. and then started trying to figure out the tapered legs. The legs scared the heck out of me. They are only 1 1/8″ square tapering down to 5/8″ at the foot. It seemed nearly impossible to cut mortises on such a small leg, and to keep them straight and true. I threw up my hands when I got overzealous squaring up the stock I had, reducing it to 1 1/16″. I went in search of more leg stock, both for the first table and for a second one. I must have bought $150 worth of boards that weren’t quite right (or so I thought at the time). I wandered away to work on other projects, over the fear of those tiny legs.

At that time, I hadn’t even visited any Shaker sites, or looked at any of their furniture in person. I picked out these tables, mostly because I needed something that would match the bookstand I built for the guest room (my first bookstand), and they looked very simpatico with the Stickley #72 magazine stand that I finished a bit before starting to work on these. That stand was really a traumatic project, mostly because I tapered the legs before doing the joinery (big mistake). It marked the beginning of my transition into hand tool work. I screwed up at least 4 sets of legs on that one before I got it right, so I was really gun shy. That’s probably why I tabled these tables for so long.

When I resumed, I decided to go ahead and use the 1 1/16″ legs I’d already milled (they’re on the table on the left) and make another set the right size for the second table. After seeing many Shaker tables at Hancock Village, I figured out that minor differences in measurements really don’t matter. If you measure the real pieces there, you’ll find a lot of variation among pieces that look pretty much the same. I also got a lathe for Christmas, so this provided a good opportunity to make knobs, and of course no two of those look exactly the same either. It wasn’t really about “compromising” it was about just relaxing my fears about somehow getting it wrong. It’s about spirit, rather than machining to precise specifications— after all, it’s supposed to be woodworking, not wood-machining.

The other fearful part of this table was making the drawers. I have made many rabbeted drawers before with power tools, but this time I wanted to do hand-cut dovetails like the originals. I’ve done lots of dovetailing before, but not half-blind dovetails. I was worried about the tiny edges splitting out. It turned out to be okay, and though they’re not the best and did involve a few small patches to fill gaps, they do work and they are authentic. Overall, I’m pretty happy with them.

My first attempts at half-blind dovetails.

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