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.)

The eve of destruction

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., February 28, 2016.

Gospel: Luke 13:1–9

It’s 30 AD, give or take. Galilee is abuzz with the news of yet another atrocity of the despised Roman governor Pontius Pilate—one not related by other historians but perfectly in keeping with what we know about Pilate’s character. The best guess is that a band of Galilean zealots who acknowledged no lord but God and refused to pay tribute to Rome had run afoul of Pilate and been ruthlessly repressed. Pilate has, as we hear, “mingled their blood with their sacrifices” in the Temple. Jesus hears the chatter about this incident—maybe someone tried to trap him into taking a position, as people often did to get him into trouble, into either sympathizing with or condemning the zealots—and instead of commenting on the case at hand, let alone the politics of it, he says, “Do you think they were worse sinners than you? Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

If that doesn’t cheer everybody straight up, Jesus tells a parable. A man plants a fig tree, and for three years running it bears no fruit. He wants to cut it down because it’s a waste of good soil. The gardener says no, no—let’s fertilize it again and wait another year. Maybe it will bear fruit next year.

And if it doesn’t, then we’ll cut it down.

Doesn’t sound like good news.

I mean, you were probably hoping to hear something about God’s infinite goodness and mercy, and here he goes setting deadlines.

It is valuable, I think, to remember that while God’s grace and mercy may be without limit in scope and magnitude, they do seem to have an expiration date: we’re all going to die. Maybe there’s hope after that, but the Bible doesn’t say so. Best not to risk it. You have another year. Make the most of it.

There’s also value in remembering that whatever the quality of God’s grace and mercy, our fellow humans with whom we have relationships may not be so patient. You have today. Make the most of it.

If that’s all we took away from this story, that would be something. It would be a pretty good lesson for Lent. Don’t wait. Repent now. Start atoning today. You don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

But I think we need a little more than that from this story. I need more from this story, anyway. Jesus was, after all, responding to a discussion about politics—about the terrors of oppressive regime and the foolishness of the zealots who were trying to overthrow it. People were upset, legitimately upset and fearful, and Jesus seems to be frankly dismissive of their fears. I don’t think he was: I think he was answering them—albeit a little sideways. Continue reading “The eve of destruction”

Life and death (and soup) in the city

Originally published by New American Homesteader in 2015.

Under a bright December sky we gathered to kill the St. Elizabeth House chickens. My friends who built the coop and tended the chickens had moved to Georgia for a new job, and the chickens had mostly quit laying. Now the aging hens strutted and preened one last time in the weak solstice sun, oblivious to their fate.

“Why can’t they just keep feeding the chickens?” my daughter wanted to know.

Because, baby, nobody here can afford pet chickens. It is a house by and for those living on the margins, where the doors are open for community dinners and a room is reserved for someone with nowhere else to sleep. For two years the chickens fed our friends with their eggs, and in return received clean grain and warm grass and a well-built coop. But the humans come first, so now they’ll have to be soup. Better that than to be a racoon’s lunch. My daughter nodded: Her chickens met that fate last fall. She saw the carnage.

So our farmer friend Jamie offered to help slaughter and dress the birds, and I volunteered because—why? I was happy to help. I’d done this before and I have good knives. It was a beautiful day and I enjoyed the company. And something more. Years ago, I needed to prove to myself that I could kill an animal, feeling that if I were going to eat them, I ought to accept my responsibility in the matter. I made my peace with meat. But it’s good to be reminded the cost. Continue reading “Life and death (and soup) in the city”

18. Hypothetical connection

For hypothetical connection. Two strangers talking over a counter, the one ringing up groceries, the other sipping his coffee. Words slip through the buzz. “He could be so much better than he is,” says the one. “If he sticks around he could be so much better next year.” The other nods. “I think the kid just needs a cheerleader.” This boy, his presence only imagined, hanging too easily in the air over a loaf of bread and a bag of chips. A troubled youth. A basketball player? Two strangers over a grocery counter: the only boy held by both in common would be public knowledge, public property, everyone’s business and no one’s responsibility. We can comfortably analyze his sins, safe from seeing the inevitable reflection of our own. We can chastise without resentment, prescribe without consequence, sympathize without hope—hope being the most dangerous consequence of all. And having done our duty, pass over in ignorance the real presence around us. The woman buying a thank-you card needs a cheerleader. The man in line behind her could be so much better than he is. Who knows?

Public space and ignorance

This story seems, at first, like a classic tale of the little guy fighting the big mean corporation. A group of Korean seniors was tossed out of a New York City McDonald’s they had turned into a hangout:

Mr. Lee said the officers had been called because he and his friends — a revolving group who shuffle into the McDonald’s on the corner of Parsons and Northern Boulevards on walkers, or with canes, in wheelchairs or with infirm steps, as early as 5 a.m. and often linger until well after dark — had, as they seem to do every day, long overstayed their welcome.

The men had, by their admission, “treated the corner restaurant as their own personal meeting place for more than five years,” and management and other patrons claim that they’re interfering with business. There are several senior centers and civic centers in the neighborhood, but the men seem uninterested in going to any of them.

If I were their age, I wouldn’t want to be cordoned off with a bunch of old people, either, any more than I want to be cordoned off with a bunch of forty-somethings now. Nothing against people in their forties, but I like a little variety. The presence of children and young adults lightens things up a bit, and I appreciate the proximity of people of people considerably older than I am. –On the other hand, taking up valuable real estate in a busy restaurant at lunchtime is at a minimum inconsiderate; the people who own these restaurants — franchisees, in this case, not the global corporation — have to make money, and the business model imposed on them isn’t such that they have a lot of wiggle room.

The problem here is not what the owner of a fast-food restaurant ought or ought not to do but that the choice has arisen in the first place, because we simply don’t have enough genuine public space — spaces where people can meet, talk, catch up, get to know one another, even just sit and rest or think without being cut off from the rest of humanity, and without their actions being watched over and prescribed by well-meaning volunteers and civil servants. Continue reading “Public space and ignorance”

The specificity of good wishes

I ran across this quotation this morning, with which I’d like to agree if it didn’t irritate me so much:

…When a festival goes as it should, men receive something that is not in human power to give. This is the by now almost forgotten reason for the age-old custom of wishing one another well on great festivals. What are we really wishing our fellow men when we send them ‘best wishes for Christmas’? Health, enjoyment of each other’s company, thriving children, success—all these things, too, of course. We may even—why not?—be wishing them a good appetite for the holiday meal. But the real thing we are wishing is the ‘success’ of the festive celebration itself, not just its outer forms and enrichments, not the trimmings, but the gift that is meant to be the true fruit of the festival: renewal, transformation, rebirth. Nowadays, to be sure, all this can barely be sensed behind the trite formula: ‘Happy Holidays.’

Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity (St. Augustine’s Press)

I haven’t read the book from which the passage is taken and know almost nothing of Josef Pieper, so my criticism may be less of the author than of the person who quoted him, but the jab against “Happy Holidays” seems a tad overwrought — as if a two-word cliché constituted a magic formula for the bestowal of divine grace, or were meant to be. And it fits far neatly into a certain kind of good-old-days thinking that I will admit I find tiresome. Back in the days when people wished a Merry Christmas to strangers over a store counter — say, a quarter century before Pieper wrote this in in 1999, which is just about the earliest reach of my memory — did they really have all that in mind? Renewal, transformation, rebirth? I wouldn’t venture to give people quite that much credit, even when the store counter was replaced by a folding table at my small-town church bazaar, even when they might have had the necessary theological grounding. Certainly it’s possible to pack all that meaning into “Merry Christmas,” and perhaps that’s what people ought to have meant, but I don’t believe they’d thought it through quite so carefully.

Then again, the possibility of meaning is not something to be lightly dismissed. Continue reading “The specificity of good wishes”

Local patriotism, ecstatic joy

We spent Independence Day weekend, as we do every year, at a three-day festival in celebration of the Eno River. The festival has been held every year since 1980 to raise money to protect this river, which runs through the city of Durham and was once threatened by damming and pollution but is now bordered by parkland and conserved land for its entire length. There are four stages of music, and people selling crafts, and food, the elements of any summer festival. But it’s more than that, far more, if you pay attention and look at it in the right light: it’s about redefining patriotism. Continue reading “Local patriotism, ecstatic joy”