semaphore whiskey

I am mainly a writer: of books, essays, stories, instruction, poems, and ephemera. Most of what I have written is available in some manner on or through this website, and much of it is actually housed here. There are various overlapping collections, covering history, food and agriculture, culture and religion, education, and craft work, in forms from recipes to essays to sermons to poems to textbooks.

When I have time I build things out of wood, and I bake a lot of bread.

You can read considerably more about me, if you are interested, or browse the categories, topics, and projects at right.

Some thoughts on learning together

Most of what I’ve learned about both cooking and woodworking I’ve learned on my own, from books, from the internet, occasionally from television, and from experimentation. There’s been a lot of what I’d not uncharitably call hacking. Much of it has worked. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate the value of direct instruction, and by direct I mean in-person, physical instruction. There are questions you can’t ask of a book and answers you can’t get without physical presence.

Here’s an example. I learned to cut pretty good dovetails by watching Roy Underhill on television and reading his books, and then by practicing. But when he opened his Woodwright’s School I jumped at the chance to take a basic joinery class, because by then, fifteen years into my haphazard and frequently interrupted pursuit of hand-tool woodworking, I had a pretty good sense of what I wasn’t figuring out on my own. I knew how the tools worked, what the process was, and what the result should look like, and I could replicate all that decently, but something was missing.

So I took a class on what I supposedly already knew how to do. When Roy stopped by the bench to check on my progress, I knew what I wanted to know: How do you stand in relation to the work? Where do your feet go and where do they point? How can I best use my hands and fingers to guide the chisel when I’m paring? It’s elementary stuff, the kind of thing you get on day one in a face-to-face class or an apprenticeship, but it’s hard to see on video and harder to interpret from books. As I said last week about the difficulty of learning from cookbooks, this isn’t a limitation of the authors or directors, but of the medium. Woodworking is a physical craft; you learn it best from physical presence! While it can be reduced to a process, a procedure, an algorithm, doing so… reduces it. The physical, bodily aspect is lost, and the bodily aspect, of course, is the one that matters most.

Anyway, I got what I needed from that class. What I had been doing sort of jangled around, getting decent results but never feeling right and eventually stalling on a plateau; now my work slipped into a groove where I could keep improving. I’ve made a few adjustments since, but they’re gradual improvements or experiments from a solid foundation. I love books, and I can’t imagine how I’d have ever gotten into woodworking, let alone kept developing skills, without libraries and magazines and television and the internet. But I can’t help thinking we’re hamstrung by relying so heavily on all these visual and intellectual means of instruction for what is, after all, work of the body.

What to do about that is the question, and I don’t know how to answer it, except to say more community. (I was going to say that I can’t imagine how traditional woodworking could have been revived without technologically mediated communication — television, internet, radio maybe not so much. But of course if we didn’t have technologically mediated communication, we might still have something more like traditional community in which it was easier to work together, literally together. So I was imagining our society as it presently is without some of the things that made it what it is but that also provide us a means of navigating it, which is nightmarishly dystopian but not very realistic. So never mind that.)

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Learning and the immediacy of correction

illustration from Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors
Comedy in the sense of a happy ending, not because mistakes are always funny. (Image courtesy of The British Library.)

I want to follow up on what I said in my previous post about the importance of errors in learning a craft, and think about what kind of errors are useful — because not every mistake is a “learning opportunity,” or at least some are more opportune than others. Certainly learning any sort of skill or craft is not a linear process of instruction and emulation. Here’s philosopher Richard Sennett, whose The Craftsman is an excellent exploration of the process of learning a craft:

To develop skill requires a good measure of experiment and questioning; mechanical practice seldom enables people to improve their skills. Too often we imagine good work itself as success built, economically and efficiently, upon success. Developing skill is more arduous and erratic than this.

Erratic is a apt word, I think. It’s a cliché to say that we learn from our mistakes, but some kinds of errors are better teachers than others. The more immediate that feedback is, the better — especially when what’s being learned involves bodily work. The wrong note on the violin, for example, corrects the learner immediately, while she still remembers quite clearly what she did to produce it. For a teacher to come by half an hour later and say “Very good, but you were flat on that eighth-note G-sharp in the twenty-third measure,” would only draw the student’s attention again to what she should have done, not to what she did and therefore how to correct the error. Continue reading

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Physical skills, intellectual instruction, and the complexities of egg-beating

A few years ago I left off my research into historical gastronomy when it became clear that I was onto an idea bigger than the project could contain — a set of interlocking ideas, really, about craft and the body. I’ve decided to simply shake the old project, a sort of biography of gingerbread that is also an encapsulated history of American baking, and let the bigger ideas fall out to be dealt with later. I’d like to have the gingerbread off my plate, pun intended. But I also want to get back to those big ideas, because I think they’re important, and I’m going to use this space to write my way back into them.

Let me start with a practice that is basic to modern baking, but which home cooks almost never bother with: beating eggs. Continue reading

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36. Waking

When [Jesus] had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” —John 11:43–44

I slept
fitfully, and laden with dreams.
Storms lashed the panes, and winds
howled like grieving women. I could not answer
only claw at vanishing breath
and twisted in sweat-damp sheets.
The knowledge of morning came hard
but now a cool breeze dries my hair (when
did I open a window?) and birds
with morningsong: Come out.
By the door, a lone pale crocus
blooms in the mud.

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35. If

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”… Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” —John 11:21–22, 25–26

If you had cleaned your room like I asked.
If you had not left your shoes on the stairs.
If you had studied.

If you had remembered to lock the door.
If you had been home when you promised.
If you had only told me the truth.

If she had looked before she pulled out.
If she had used her turn signal.
If I hadn’t had that last beer.

If he had seen a doctor sooner.
If he had told me he was sick.
If I had asked.
If I had stopped by.
If I had told him I loved him.

What price second chances? What price
a clean slate?

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33. Homeward

“He who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way; that man is a thief and a robber; but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” —John 10:1–4

After the rain, the gutters
are decked with redbud petals.
The afternoon grows warm.

Outside the church, a line of strollers.
Each child emerging to its mother, and buckled in.
—What did you do today? Did you
play with play-dough? Did you sing any songs?
—Mommy, when we we be home?
—Soon, honey. Soon.

The parking lot grows quiet.
Overhead, a dogwood blossoms.

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32. What remains unseen

The Jews had already agreed that if any one should confess him to be the Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue…. So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and said to him, “Give God the praise; we know this man is a sinner.” He answered, “Whether he is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I know, that thought I was blind, now I see…. Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out. —John 9:22,24–25,32–34

It is hard to remember the darkness.
At night I hear the sounds—
the clink of coins on stone,
the hollow footsteps of the hurried.
Muttered sympathies—or epithets—
a young girl singing from a door, as if to me.
The breathing of cattle when I slept in stables.
Even the rain fell louder,
each drop a conversation.
And the feel of it on my face!
They thought me mad,
looking into storms with empty eyes.
I have not learned to dream in light.

Sometimes I close my eyes and only listen,
feeling my way on hands and bloodied knees,
but nothing sounds as I remember.
My lids flick open of their own accord.

I stand outside the town and wait for work
with all the others. They do not stand too close.
Wagons pass us by in clouds of dust
that look just as they used to taste.

Half a man, I had their pity;
healed, I’ve earned their hate.
Seeing, I remain unseen.

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22. For Toby, in apology

Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” …Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” —John 6:60,67–68

We all knew you were dying. Even the cats
paid their respects, nuzzling you where you lay
in the kitchen. You gave us ample signs:
eager eyes grown jaundiced, graveled breath,
your playful body heavy on the bed.

I had eyes, but would not see.
I wanted answers. I wanted a second opinion.
Once more I helped you into the back of the car.

And so I got the call: Your heart gave out
on a table, in an office, alone.
By the time I fought the rush hour to your side
the truth was palpable, and cold.

We’re fools to trade our lives for phantom proof
when truth is there for taking, and for love.

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31. Room 304

Jesus answered… “We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” He spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle and anointed the man’s eyes with the clay, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Silo’am” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing. —John 9:3–7

Shall I tell you that the morning blazed
with sapphire flame—ice cold, but with a warmth
that promised months of glorious summer days

as flowers promise fruit, and grey skies storms—
that cherries, hyacinths, azaleas bloomed
with God’s own rainbow, and an angel’s charms?

Here in this white and sanitary room
where weakness and a morphine drip contain you,
how could my vision, unseen, pierce your gloom?

The only promise here’s that death will claim you.
Still a wafer’s worth of beauty, if you take it,
though all I have to give, may yet sustain you.

We thirst for life, and living cannot slake it:
Still every day’s a spring if so we make it.

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30. The river

The Jews then said to him, “You are not fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” —John 8. 57–58

Older than footsteps, more ancient than its names,
its course flows in and out of lifetimes
and changes in the memory of a boulder
yet bends to squirming fish or wayward leaf
and tessellates the sun at newborn angles.
Don’t come here seeking stillness. Look sharp:
This day, this hour will never come again.

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Current Projects

  • Historical Gastronomy

    Explorations in cooking with recipes, ingredients, flavors, and techniques from before 1900.

  • Graces and Laments dawn on snow

    A series of short poems written in response to passages of the Gospel of John. It's a work in progress, and it's as much a discipline as a project meant to be completed.

Featured Posts

  • Herbs for meate and medicine in North Carolina herb garden

    An adapted version of a talk I gave at Duke Homestead State Historic Site in Durham, North Carolina, in June 2012.

  • The mad farmer, after the election the mad farmer plows the parking lot

    Practice resurrection, friends.

  • Raising backyard ducks: Final thoughts (for now)

    Much has changed since I first started raising ducks and chronicled my experiences here in 2002. To close it out — for now, at least — I stage a brief interview with myself about the experience of raising ducks. There’s also a movie.

  • Boycotts, action, and penance

    What I would suggest, therefore, is this: Whenever you sign a boycott or a petition, any time you email a corporation or a Congressperson to ask that they change their own behavior or force a change in someone else’s, first think of five things that you could have done, relative to the same issue or a closely related one, in the past month, but did not do. Then think of one thing that you could do, and do it. The five things ensure that you don’t get to feel self-righteous about your action; the one ensures that you take personal responsibility for the issue.

The illustration is adapted from Military Signaling (U.S. Infantry Association, 1920). I will leave its significance as a puzzle, but you can use the source volume to figure it out.