Tools, adaptation, and seriousness of work

The stuffed wingback chair in my office puts me at eye level with my woodworking books, which was not deliberate but maybe not entirely accidental either. Last week I noticed a book I’d forgotten I’d bought: The Village Carpenter, written by Walter Rose in 1937, a memoir of life as a carpenter in an English village in the late nineteenth century. There’s a great deal here that interested me, both as a woodworker and as a rural historian, and I may have more to say about it later, but what struck me most was the relationship Rose describes between the workers, their methods of work, and their tools—the ecosystem of the craft, you might say.

Several years ago, as I tried to get back into serious woodworking, I realized that if I was going to continue I was going to need to sharpen my saws, which were a decade or more old and growing too dull to use effectively. But I couldn’t find anyone who could sharpen a handsaw for me, and I knew I wasn’t going to figure out how to do it from books and videos alone. So I took a class on sharpening hand saws, and I dutifully took along my old, dulled crosscut saw for practice.

It turned out that my old, dulled crosscut saw could not be sharpened. “Modern” saws of the sort sold by big box home centers are made of steel tempered too hard to be sharpened with a steel file. They’re designed to stay usably sharp for a long time… and then to be thrown away and replaced.

Most of us, in other words, aren’t even used to the idea that tools have to be maintained. The switch to machines has a lot to do with that. I mow the lawn with a reel mower, and periodically I have to sharpen the blades, or they simply quit cutting grass; but if I used a power mower, the force generated would be enough to tear off tall grass even with dull blades. I don’t recall my father ever sharpening his lawn mower blades, and he was raised by a woodworker. —Or, instead of using a knife in the kitchen and keeping it sharp, we use a food processor whose motor will break before its serrated blade is too dull to shred food.

Hand tools, however, have to be sharpened, and sharpening takes skill and practice. Sharpening saws is particularly tricky, because you have all those individual teeth to file and set, because sawing across and along the grain require completely different patterns of sharpening, and because even different types of wood may be easier or harder to cut with various tooth patterns.

That brings me to The Village Carpenter. Rose describes the practice of pit sawing, in which when trees were turned into lumber by sawyers who worked in pairs using a long, two-handled saw, one standing above the work and one below. This video shows the process, though without an actual pit: Continue reading

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26. Even the ‘e’ is silent

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” …Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” —John 8:3–7

Lurid yellow spray paint on the overpass,
a childish scrawl:
HAYLEY HAS HERPS.
Imagine!
A girl who keeps a corn snake, or a lizard,
maybe a terrarium for tadpoles—
who knows the songs of tree frogs,
tessellations of a turtle shell,
patterns of a python’s skin—
who spots a toad in a pile of molded leaves
all brown on brown, and knows its name—
who loves so well the least-loved
of her fellow vertebrates?
I like this girl already.

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Smart tools, dumb craft

I have a new microwave, or rather I have an old microwave that is new to me. I don’t like it. It is bigger and more powerful than my old microwave. I didn’t need a bigger and more powerful microwave, but I don’t object to the size or the power. Actually I wasn’t entirely convinced I needed a microwave at all; I use it for very few things. Mainly I defrost meat, because I am good at putting together dinner on the fly but bad about planning ahead; and soften butter, because my daughter likes to bake, but, well, ditto.

I don’t like this microwave because it has too many single-use buttons and multi-step programmed procedures and not enough basic flexible options. I don’t mean that it is too complicated as such, because some tools have a lot of functions and thus need complicated means of interaction. The problem is that its interface is far more complicated than it needs to be, and sufficiently complicated that its design actually interferes with intelligent use.

Here’s an example. If I wanted, with my old microwave, to soften a stick of butter to cool room temperature, I could simply “defrost” it for about 20 seconds. I had only to lower the power and set a time. On the new one, there isn’t a simple way to lower the power; there are only options for various specific foods and purposes. So I have to press “soften/melt,” then watch a scrolling digital readout asking me to press a number for whether I’m softening or melting, and then another number for what sort of food item I have, and then a third for how many sticks of butter. The old process required me to press four easily readable buttons (defrost, 2, 0, start) and worked perfectly, because I’d experimented a bit to see how long it took to soften a stick of butter. The new process takes a good ten seconds to get started and halfway melts the butter, so that I have to stand and watch it through the (typically streaked and greasy) glass. And if I want to soften half a stick, I’m out of luck. Same for defrosting less than a pound of meat. It simply isn’t an option. And while there may be some way to make the machine do what I want, I’ll have to find a manual somewhere online to figure out how, because the “custom” settings aren’t.

I was thinking, yesterday, about how I would solve this problem. One way would be to plan ahead and/or just use the gas stove, but that’s not really in keeping with the spirit of the age, so take it as a design problem. Here are some observations: Continue reading

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2. The jay

He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said. —John 1:23

Perched in a crooked notch, the Cooper’s hawk,
glass-eyed, staticky, reptilian,
politely dismembers his breakfast.
From a windy branch, the jay’s shrill scream
shatters the frozen morning.
Sparrows scatter.

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33. Lost and found

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. —John 10:27–28

Sunday 6:19 pm
My friend adopted a dog this week.
He slipped his collar and ran away.
Doesn’t respond yet to his name:
Is skittish, but will come for food.
Black lab mix, 45 lb. Pls. call.

Sunday 7:44 pm
Black lab runner found his way home.
Good dog, Otis!

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The devil of false precision

Eating lunch today I noticed on my bottle of soy sauce the words expiration date on label and, an inch away, a dot matrix stamp: 2019.03.28 14:48.

I expect that the stuff was bottled on March 28, 2016 at 2:48 pm and that it’s supposed to be good for three years from the date of bottling. But that’s not the same thing as saying it’s good until March 28, 2019 at 2:48 pm. Certainly a machine can record the exact time of bottling, but the idea that the soy sauce is good for exactly three years, for three years down to the minute, is absurd — as if, at twelve minutes to three on a particular March afternoon two years from now, the contents of the bottle will instantly develop a fuzzy blue mold and smell distinctly of gasoline. Obviously that’s absurd.

For one thing, it was bottled in Taiwan, so it would actually expire at 1:48 am EST and not in the middle of the afternoon.

“Three years from date of bottling” means three years, give or take. Give or take what? That’s the question. Six months, maybe? I would assume that they kept a bottle around for three years and it seemed to be okay. I doubt it’s very scientific at all. But it’s so easy just to take the present time, add three years, and stamp it on the bottle.

The expiration date on my soy sauce is not in itself a big deal. (I’ll use it within a few months anyway.) But this kind of arbitrary precision is everywhere — the practice of assigning a number to something, giving it as many decimal places as we can, and then slapping it on a label, noting it in a chart, entering it into a database — where it takes on a kind of magical invincibility, a rightness that can no longer be questioned or challenged. There are cases where this might have disastrous consequences, but more important is the impression of invincibility. Knowledge is power; false precision is an implication of knowledge; therefore false precision is an assumption of power. False precision is one way that science and industry and government claim power over us. But wallpapering the world with false precision builds false confidence in our own abilities, individually and collectively.

Every measurement is an estimate. If I were king of the world, I’d decree that every published measurement must be accompanied by a margin of error, e.g. “Expires on 2019.03.28 14:48 ± 6 mos.” It would be honest, it would be accurate, and it would remind everyone many times a day of the limits of human knowledge.

(And no, since you ask, I cannot think of anything better for a king to do than to demand accountability and humility from the powers of the world. Can you?)

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Further perils of authenticity

Completely by accident awhile back I ran across this ad from Life magazine:

Heinz ad, 1958

Heinz ran that ad in August 1958, at the height of the popular interest in Pennsylvania Dutch food, when that cuisine was being made over in the popular imagination into a mishmash of generically comforting old-timey domesticity. And, of course, co-opted by the Culinary-Industrial Complex, because what hasn’t been? Today you may just (and justly) reel in horror from the thought of vinegared baked beans or of canned tomato soup with canned corn and a pretzel floated on top. Purists of 1958 might weep over the cheapening of a long tradition of sweet and sour accompaniments to a Sunday dinner or holiday feast, an array of homemade pickles, salads, and preserves. Store-bought wouldn’t do. By the time I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, though, aside from an occasional batch of home-pickled beets, the nearest I got to that tradition was commercial pickles on a salad bar. So to me, authentic Pennsylvania Dutch pickles meant a jar of locally processed chow chow.

a jar of chow chow

Today, even that much tradition is fast fading away, and some benighted soul clinging to the last tattered shreds of uncertain heritage might search in vain for chow chow on a salad bar, even if he hadn’t up and moved to the South.

One man’s authenticity, in other words, is another’s bastardization. And that paradox isn’t the product of industrial food. Continue reading

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The mad farmer, after the election

Every Wednesday, as part of our homeschool curriculum, I read a poem with my daughter. We talk about what it means and whether we like it (and why). Sometimes we analyze it. Then she responds by drawing or painting.

Last week I had intended to read G. K. Chesterton’s “For a War Memorial” in observance of Veteran’s Day and the Feast of St. Martin. But it was the day after the election, and she was upset and worried. So we read, instead, a couple of Wendell Berry’s “mad farmer” poems: “The Mad Farmer Revolution” and “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”

the mad farmer plows up the parking lot in front of the polling place

In a parking lot / he planted a forest of little pines.

I think we both felt better afterwards.

Practice resurrection, friends.

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Short people got reason to live after all

A sermon preached at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C., October 30, 2016.

Gospel: Luke 19:1–10

It’s funny what we remember and don’t remember from childhood. The church my family attended until I was seven years old is a complete blank to me. I can’t recall the name of my Sunday School teacher or a single thing I did there. I do, however, remember three very important lessons from those days. One, Jesus loves me. Two, the animals went in two by two. And three, Zacchaeus was a wee little man.

In case you’ve forgotten, or never had the joy of singing the “bible song” about the little dude, or, like me, couldn’t quite believe your memory when it was jogged, here are the lyrics, sung to something not unlike the tune of “Old King Cole”:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
A wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see;

And as the Savior passed that way,
He looked up in the tree,
Zacchaeus you come down
For I’m going to your house today.

The author’s no Bob Dylan, and I feel like there’s something missing in this version of Luke’s gospel, but, you know, there’s no better way to remember something than to set it to music. And so even today, even this very morning, children all over America are learning that Zaccheus was a wee little man.

Poor Zacchaeus.

So the guy was short. Do we have to go to “wee little man”? I keep wanting to say it in a bad imitation of a brogue, as if he were a leprechaun. Imagine what it would be like to spend your life being referred to as a “wee little man.” (Imagine being referred to as a “wee little man” two thousand years after you’re dead!)

Zacchaeus probably didn’t have to imagine it. Even in Luke, “short” seems to have been his identifying characteristic, and given that human nature sadly hasn’t changed much in two thousand years, I suspect that he may have been mercilessly made fun of for his lack of stature in life as well as in death. It happens. Children will mercilessly make fun of one another for pretty much anything, given the chance. So will adults, for that matter.

If you’re Zacchaeus, if people greet you with “hey shorty” or look over your head, pretending not to see you, if they always pick you last for dodgeball games and pass you over for promotions… if, in short, nobody ever seems to take you seriously… Well, what do you do? You could learn to laugh them off. You might choose to believe your mother when she told you the other kids were just envious. You might meekly curb your ambition, accepting that you would never command the respect of your tall friends.

Zacchaeus didn’t do that.

Zacchaeus became a tax collector.

We know what tax collectors were in first century Israel. Agents of the occupation. Traitors to their people. Flanked by Roman soldiers, they collected taxes from hard-working Jews and, to provide for themselves, tacked on whatever bonus they liked. Since Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector but a chief tax collector, we can assume he provided for himself quite well indeed…. at the expense of those rotten little so-and-sos who never took him seriously.

Oh, they’ll take me seriously now, all right.

Zacchaeus was not only a wee little man. He was a mean little man. If being short held him back, he could always get meaner.

Zacchaeus got revenge. Continue reading

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Corrupting the youth

I have four bird feeders in my small urban yard (tube, thistle, platform, hummingbird) but can’t see any of them from my second-story study window, which is veiled by a maple tree far taller than the house. So I fixed a suction-cup window feeder to the upper pane. Earlier in the spring I didn’t get many takers, and those who came grabbed a quick morsel and retreated to the safety of the tree. But the past couple of weeks have seen a constant stream of fledglings: young male cardinals, scruffy and mottled, whom I’ve watched gradually redden and swell; a slender mockingbird who tried out his new repertoire in a nearby branch; a song sparrow who takes his peanut to the stone ledge of the window to peck it to bits; a juvenile house finch who, rather than perching on the feeder’s edge, stands in the pile of seed, hunts for the one he wants, then thoughtfully (as it appears to me) hulls and consumes it while watching me with (what, again, appears to me) casual curiosity three feet away behind glass. The finch is content to occupy the feeder for several minutes at a time while other birds wait in the tree like adolescents in line for the bathroom. Hurry up in there!

This little feeder has given me a chance to observe the birds far more closely than I have before and to see behavior that I hadn’t noticed — the way they use their beaks to remove the inner hulls of safflower, and the way they glance quickly around before examining the contents of the feeder. And it pleases me to think that having learned to trust my window, some of these juveniles will stay the winter and return with their own young next spring.

I do feel an occasional twinge of guilt. The adults know better than to eat a leisurely meal three feet from a human, even a human separated from them by glass. I am after all a predator, whose beneficence is sporadic; I barbecued a couple of chickens just last weekend. I’ve lured their children with the avian equivalent of candy, and I fear I’m teaching them bad habits — undoing millennia of behavioral evolution.

But of course  my very presence here does that much, doesn’t it? This little yard, landscaped to a human’s aesthetic, has created an ideal habitat for these birds — and long ago drove away the birds for whom it wasn’t. Feeding the birds shapes them; not feeding them shapes them. Planting grass shapes them; planting shrubs shapes them; letting the yard turn into a chaos of first-stage transitional woodland shapes them. Before the houses were here the birds were shaped by farmers and farmland, and before that by the varying land uses of Piedmont Indians. There’s no baseline, nothing “natural” I can return or even refer to. I’m on my own, pretty much as I am in raising my own teenagers. The vague predatory guilt only bemuses me: that’s the thought that’s really disquieting.

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