On “good work” and the Tao

I have been (slowly, irregularly) making my way through Jonathan Star’s translation of, and commentary on, the Tao Te Ching. I read another translation of the Tao some years ago and remember little enough of it. I like this edition because Star offers not only a literary translation by line and verse but a verbatim translation: an analysis of the various possible meanings of each character in the original, thus giving the Westerner a better idea of just how difficult and dangerous a literary translation may be. As he explains in his introduction:

Ancient Chinese is a conceptual language; it is unlike English and other Western languages, which are perceptual. Western languages are rooted in grammar that frames events in real time, identifies subject and object, clarifies relationships, and establishes temporal sequences. Ancient Chinese is based on pictorial representations, without grammar. Characters symbolize concepts that can be interpreted as singular or plural; as a noun, a verb, or an adjective; as happening in the past, present, or future. (p. 3)

Any specific literary translation into English should therefore be held lightly—if not taken lightly; the concept is dear, but any specific perception of it is necessarily partial. I offer this as preface to everything I may say about the Tao: I know about enough to be dangerous, and anything I say should also be held lightly (if not, again, taken lightly).

I ought also to admit that I am approaching the Tao with a particular guiding question, which has to do with what I will loosely call good work. This is not the proper way to introduce that concept, but I’ll try to get around to an introduction later. What I mean right now by good work has to do particularly with technological making, and I’m guided to the Tao for insight into questions about work and technology by Alan Jacobs’ essay in the New Atlantis last year, “From Tech Critique to Ways of Living,” which I strongly recommend.

So. This morning I was poring over verse 3, in which the Sage “shows people how to be simple and live without desires,” which is boilerplate religious wisdom, but also “to be content and not look for other ways,” which could be taken as a repetition of the prior line but struck me as subtly and significantly different. Continue reading “On “good work” and the Tao”

Tools and externalities

Following on my previous post: In trying to define a “traditional” tool I raised the issue of toolmaking. But the way a tool is made has implications for the maker of the tool as well as (if not more than) for the end user.

The low stages of my scales suggest a toolmaker who pursues a craft in a small shop: people who make wooden molding planes, for example. That may be a kind of ideal, but it isn’t always practical.

In the middle are small, semi-industrial operations in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, with relatively few workers, an emphasis on craft, and a working environment that is, for lack of a handier term, more or less flat, in that it minimizes the distance and distinction between labor and management workers being given latitude for authority and the owner is not only capable of doing some actual work but even now and then does it. That, at least, is the kind of working environment I would prefer for myself, whether as a worker or a manager ( I have been both).

At the high end of the scale, you have machine parts cranked out by machines wherever labor is cheapest for the profit of corporate shareholders.

If I value the way I work, surely I ought to try to extend that privilege to others? That’s merely the golden rule. So I might say, as a third principle, that “A tool (and its components) should be made by workers who work as the user would want to work and who are treated as the end user would want to be treated.” Continue reading “Tools and externalities”

Hand tools and “traditional woodworking”

When I asked recently “What is a ‘hand tool,’ anyway?” I considered two fairly literal definitions of a hand tool: a tool held and operated with the hands, and a tool powered exclusively by the hands (or possibly by other body parts). Neither was really satisfying. Here’s another, more complicated idea that comes up in conversations about hand tools: the idea of “traditional woodworking.” Continuing my list, I could say that

3. A hand tool reflects traditional woodworking practice.

But what do I mean by traditional?

Here we go again. Continue reading “Hand tools and “traditional woodworking””

What is a “hand tool,” anyway?

When I describe my work I usually say that I do “hand-tool woodworking,” or that I work primarily or exclusively with hand tools. Nobody has ever asked me what I mean by “hand tools,” so presumably everyone has a clear idea in his or her head what I mean… or rather what they think I mean. What do I mean? What’s a hand tool, anyway? And why do I use them, as opposed to… whatever hand tools are opposed to?

Maybe this seems like a facile question. I don’t believe it is. Nor an unimportant one. If I’m only using the term for introductions at parties and taglines on business cards, then I suppose it doesn’t matter much what I mean, but if I’m trying to make serious decisions about work, then it matters a great deal. It matters in conversations with other woodworkers who use machines, and who are apt to see a hand-tool-first or hand-tool-only approach as stupidity or snobbery—opinions that I can’t refute if I can’t clearly define what I’m doing and why.

Most important, it matters in making decisions about what tool to use for a job. We all have standards by which we evaluate and adopt (or decline to adopt) technology, but few of us actually know what they are — or have considered what they should be.

But it’s also the kind of question a guy with advanced degrees who has written cultural history starts thinking about while he’s in his second hour of sawing and planing 8/4 oak. Not just why don’t I buy a freaking bandsaw? but no, really, why don’t I? This need to define my terms was made rather more urgent, if ironically also more quixotic, by my experience teaching homeschool environmental science last spring. When my daughter suggested writing her final paper on means of reducing or eliminating single-use plastics, I told her she had better start by defining what a “single-use plastic” was. She spent three months, wrote nearly five thousand words, and still never quite managed a precise definition, but by the end she knew a hell of a lot more about what she didn’t know. She grew wisely ignorant, you might say, as opposed to being merely a clever fool. Which I believe to be an improvement.

So let me see if I can become at least more wisely ignorant. This will take awhile to suss out; I’ll only get started today, and I’ll post new ideas as I think of them, revising my thinking as I go. Consider this an invitation to think along with me.

I can think of several qualities that might qualify a tool as a “hand tool,” but none of them is sufficient as a definition. Let’s start with two. Continue reading “What is a “hand tool,” anyway?”

The ecosystem of the workshop

As I have spent more time in the workshop the past couple of years I have been thinking more and more about what I do and why I do what I do — that is, work wood with what are commonly called “hand tools.” Certain tasks (like cutting dovetails) take all my concentration, some (ripping 8/4 stock for chair legs) take enough bodily energy that I can’t sustain a complicated conversation with myself, but others (sanding, carving spoons) leave good space for thought, and in that space I find myself asking questions that I am not always able to answer. Questions like: what is a “hand tool,” anyway?

I want to use this blog, in part, to explore those questions, if not necessarily to answer them to anybody’s satisfaction. Rather than starting with what seems like an easy one — what is a hand tool? — I’m going to start in media res, with something I was mulling yesterday: the interconnectedness of tools, materials, methods of work, and the broader economy and culture — what I think of as the “ecosystem” of the workshop. That means starting deep “in the weeds” of the craft and working my way out again. I’ll try to write in a way that gives non-specialists the gist of things without boring woodworkers. That’s a narrow target; forgive me if I don’t quite hit it in a blog post.

So, to begin, a bit of background. Continue reading “The ecosystem of the workshop”

I don’t like your style

This summer my stepson worked for his uncle, who makes mailboxes in what I guess is a mid-century modern style. I say “I guess” because “mid-century modern” can mean so many things that I would hesitate to apply it to anything I actually liked. In a conversation over dinner one night, I said something to that end, and added that I really did not like mid-century modern style.

Then, almost immediately, I had to backtrack. Continue reading “I don’t like your style”

The hidden cost of convenience

Stopping at the grocery store today to pick up something for lunch1It was an unplanned trip, else I might have brought along one of my approximately two dozen reusable grocery bags. Emphasis on might: just as likely I’d have forgotten. I don’t claim not to be part of the problem. I was reminded that whatever our intentions, not to mention our policies and our laws, humanity will continue to screw itself. To wit: When the young man (I am now old enough to use that term) bagging groceries was about to pile everything into one paper bag, the clerk pulled out another bag and started helping him, with polite but pointed verbal correction. Everything would fit, yes, but it would make the bag too heavy, and lifted by its handles it would tear. “I’ll lift it from the bottom,” I said, “don’t waste a bag.”

Of course I got the groceries home just as well as I would have done before someone thought to put handles on paper grocery bags. So I started wondering how much more paper we now use bagging groceries because we thought they needed handles, or, rather, that we needed handles, either by splitting the groceries into smaller parcels or double bagging the larger ones. This is why although I am not opposed, in principle, to banning plastic shopping bags, I’m not enthusiastically for it, either: we’ll just find other ways of wasting resources.

Convenience costs, in other words — if not us then someone else or, more commonly, “the environment.” Of course it isn’t like anybody ever decided, yes, I want handles on my damn bags and I’ll cut down twice as many trees to get them. That we use more bags is the kind of thing that might have been foreseen but wasn’t and seldom is. Cost-benefit analysis might be a cure, but it won’t prevent further stupidity, because we can’t foresee all the consequences of our choices even if we were inclined to. What’s needed is a different ethic: to say, when confronted with a new convenience, I don’t need that. Not that all conveniences are ipso facto bad, but that our default ought to be to reject them; you can always change your mind later. Instead, our default is to accept without question any and all convenience. As long as that’s the case, we’ll keep destroying everything around us.

Technology and active listening

You can never tell how big or how serious a trend is just from reading it about it in the newspaper, so when Melissa Korn wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal that college professors are increasingly banning laptops from their classrooms, I had to ask, what kind of growth and what kind of absolute numbers are we talking about? Like, two percent? Three guys the reporter ran into at a bar? But I’m intrigued, and maybe even gladdened, if there’s any trend that direction at all, because the more I’ve considered the ways I read, write, listen, and take notes, the less optimistic I am about the role of computers in those activities.

For example: I’ve been researching a new novel that takes place in Pennsylvania during the Civil War, and so I’m reading and digging widely — about the war, Pennsylvania German culture and language, the locations where the action occurs, farming practices, and so on. Some of this gets pretty specific: How would you build a fence, from start to finish, relying on your Pennsylvania woodlot and hand tools? What would your mobility be like with an unrepaired ACL tear? I started out from old habit doing historical research using Zotero to take notes, but while traditional formal notetaking practice is great for academic citations and bibliographies, it’s cumbersome if you’re writing fiction and all you need is plausibility. And while the ability to keyword-search a two-year corpus of research is tremendously useful if you’re writing a dissertation or a monograph, most of what I find myself asking comes up as I’m writing and is used almost immediately. Not to mention that if I’m reading a book while I wait to pick up my daughter from dance class, I have to carry my laptop with me.

So a few weeks ago I switched to using a bound notebook, hand-numbering the pages, and indexing topics in the front. It’s simpler and more convenient. But it’s also improved my research in a couple of interesting ways. For one thing, when I’m writing (which I do on a laptop, for very different but equally practical reasons), I don’t have to switch to another app to check my notes; I can flip through my notebook on my desk. Why is that better? Because I don’t lose my place in what I’m writing, and I’m not tempted to, say, check my email. The notebook doesn’t shift my focus.

notebook and pen

I also find, as I’ve found in any number of other tasks, that the body plays a role in memory. I am often quicker recalling where in the notebook a bit of information was, and in fact where on the page it was, than I am in remembering what keyword I used to index it. Even better, I’m more likely now to find that I don’t have to refer to my notes at all, because the very act of writing something down — and I mean writing it by hand with a pen — helps commit it to memory in a way that typing it doesn’t. (Let alone cutting and pasting.) Continue reading “Technology and active listening”

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.)

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 “Learning and the immediacy of correction”