Craftsmanship for Creative Productivity

~ ~ ~ Another in the Mad Jubilado series ~ ~ ~

It seems a lot of retired men take up woodworking. At Santa Fe Community College (SFCC) I have met quite a few. Some are immensely talented and/or just have a huge storehouse of knowledge and experience. As with many fields of endeavor, only time and talent limit the depth and breadth of understanding possible in woodworking.

Description d un menuisier en travailOne of the most skilled of those I’ve met at SFCC is a woman who retired from a career as an ethnographer. In the typical class of 12 in the woodshop, ‘elder’ know-how is balanced by some very creative younger talent. It is a great experience to work with these folks. The environment is remarkably cooperative and supportive. Ideas and knowledge are shared; polite critiques and useful suggestions organically emerge from conversations about how to approach a problem of joinery, finishing technique or aesthetic design as a project evolves. It brings to mind an ideal image of how apprenticeships might have worked in shops producing for local communities and regional trade in the pre-industrial pre-corporate world of clear-air and artistry.


Industrial Furniture Production

Craftsmanship is not quite a lost art, though it might seem so. Industrial production, with its outsourced cheap mostly unskilled labor and highly automated production processes, has resulted in an overabundance of unimportant transitory products. Have you ever really thought about why a cable-television program such as “Storage Wars” exists?  So many people in so many suburbs across America have accumulated so much stuff, that a whole industry has developed just to store the overflow.

The glut of unused abandoned yet “valuable” consumer products that people are not yet willing to call waste, produces the ‘demand’ for all those commercial storage lockers. Without such ‘pre-waste’ there would be no need to find space for the overflow from garages where no cars can be parked because of the clutter.

Excessive extraction of materials needed to produce all that stuff, using gigantic mining and earth-moving equipment is seriously straining many living Earth systems, disrupting otherwise stable ecologies. The quantities of energy used, from mining to shipping to manufacturing to shipping again to warehousing to super-store display, are hard to grasp. It is all mechanized and automated to reduce labor costs in order to supply cheap stuff to feed the consumer culture. And they call it “progress.”

The whole global process is, of course, disrupting climate to a point fast approaching catastrophic collapse and global chaos. Too many “environmentalists” think we can fix the problem with new technology and substituting depleting resources with new materials. Instead of cutting back on their profligate consumerism, they want to “fix” the environment by recycling over-used materials and using just as much energy from more “sustainable” sources.

Instead, they could choose to live a less carbon-intensive “low-tech” life, buying only what they really need, goods the production of which is labor intensive rather than capital intensive. That would, of course, entail more work and more jobs. It would also entail a new great transformation in the way we live in relation to the planet and each other.

What if we all re-focused on smaller scale production of higher quality useful goods that last and require us to apply craftsmanship in their making? Many human-scale tools are available that require no energy inputs except those of the human head and hand to get the same work done.


Nutrient Rich Organic Produce

Oh, but that would take more time to produce. Yes, and that would mean jobs, jobs, jobs! Everyone could have one. More people are turning to human-scale production. As it turns out, small organic farms are significantly more productive than giant factory farms are. They also restore soils to a natural state in which they provide the nutrients missing in industrial agriculture. Given the power of the neo-liberal corporate industrial economy, making the transition to a viable low carbon emissions future is the hard part. We have the tools. We just need to figure out how to transform extractive economies into ecological communities.

The experience of making meaningful things (or performing meaningful services) is exactly what is missing in our declining perpetual-growth industrial economy and is exactly the economic model needed for mitigation of climate chaos and for ecological restoration. Look for hand-crafted products, locally made. Become a “locavore.”  It’s our choice: Creativity or Catastrophe.

Some Words on Wood and Wings

 ~ ~ ~ Another in the Mad Jubilado series ~ ~ ~

I can’t remember not working with wood. My father was an amateur woodworker. He built some really nice furniture for our house – a hallway entry table, a coffee table, and end tables in the “early American” style – with little more than a radial-arm saw and some hand tools. It was an antidote to his high-stress small-salary white-collar working-class job as an insurance adjuster. He was known as the top adjuster in the Los Angeles area; that, of course, did not get him a particularly high salary. But, as a confirmed “company man,” he took his job very seriously and was ultimately damaged from the chronic stress. He didn’t get much of a retirement; the lung cancer, aneurisms, and vascular disease made sure of that. But along the way, woodworking provided a creative outlet.

My first year in high school he got me a summer job as a construction laborer with a contractor friend; that was an education in itself about the use of wood and other materials in building construction. It also gave me an initial understanding of the ways of the working man’s world. The contractor specialized in demolition of fire-damaged buildings and their reconstruction – he called himself a “building surgeon.” The experience of tearing down old houses taught me how they used to be built decades before. Even in 1954, I could see that they didn’t build them like they used to. But I digress.

Gruman F6F-3 Hellcats in tri-color camouflage_May_1943

F6F Hellcat

When I was about 9, I built a model of a World War II fighter plane. It was a Grumman F6F Hellcat carrier-based fighter, which had dominated Japan’s infamous Zeros in the Western Pacific in 1942 and ’43. The real Hellcat was mostly metal, including armor plating for the pilot and engine-oil cooler – two “mission critical” on-board systems. I made mine mostly out of balsa wood for the structural parts such as ribs and bulkheads, tissue paper for the skin, and “airplane dope.”

Just like the older airplanes, you paint the tissue paper (linen on a real 1920s biplanes) with airplane dope, a quite volatile organic compound no doubt illegal in California today. The dope soaks in and dries like a lacquer, transforming the paper into a strong light ‘skin’ for the airplane.  That model had balsa wood bulkheads and ribs just like the airplanes of the 1920s and early 1930s; the real ones, of course, had used mostly spruce.  That Hellcat model I made must have been almost 2 feet long – but I was smaller then, maybe it was 18 inches…or less…  Along with numerous other airplane models, I also built some model boats, including the classic Chris-Craft speedboat, that one with a skin of thin mahogany veneer. Only about 7 inches long, it had a little electric motor, a brass drive shaft through the keel, and a little brass propeller. I ran it in a local pond.

Well, as life would have it, from college and graduate school and through most of my working life I did little woodworking, except for building two houses – but that is a story for another day. All that time, I never lost my attraction for wood nor the desire to work with it again. But, ah ha, jubilación! (That’s retirement, en español.) Once settled in Santa Fe, I began to take classes in the Fine Woodworking Department at Santa Fe Community College, which has a national reputation for its high quality instructors, program, and well-equipped shop. At the onset, I decided that I would take my time with whatever project I undertook, learn everything possible and enjoy the process. So much to do, but I had all the time in the world, as a Mad Jubilado.

“Time is money,” the saying goes. But that is just a way our overheated over-production over-consumption predatory economy keeps us focused on serving it instead of serving our lives. Time is actually Life itself. That is why, when I am in the woodshop fully engaged in a project, seeking elusive perfection in wood, time dissolves into life. To live is to ‘take’ the time needed to live. Life is a craft; live it.

How to Evolve

Someone quoted Jeff Bezos as saying that the biggest mistake is not to evolve. But what exactly does it mean to evolve? In the case of, it has always meant to grow Amazon by growing sales above all else, including profit. Well, the entire history of the industrial era has focused on growth as well. What distinguishes Bezos is that he was able to grow Amazon more powerfully than just about any other company on earth.

But really, is that all that evolving means? Of course, amazon developed many techniques of marketing more and more product lines, which enabled unprecedented corporate growth. One might argue that independent bookstores failed Bezos’ test of evolution by not following his business model as it evolved. But could they? Besides, we can hardly call copying someone else’s business model, evolving. Even more important, why should they?


Evolution Gone Awry

The assumption that economic expansion is the only viable model for human progress has played a central role in the industrial-consumer economy. A growth-as-necessary-and-inevitable model of business success and of societal progress still drives the U.S.-led final stages of the industrial era. It also produced the converging crises of economic injustice, ecological destruction, and climate chaos that we now experience with increasing frequency and intensity.

The idea of evolving has always carried with it an underlying assumption that improvement is the ultimate goal of evolutionary change. Well, there’s the rub. Improvement implies change measured against some particular value. In human affairs, that has meant the cultural value of achieving a better life for more and more people. But we must be careful in how we define better. Is life really better if we can buy more junk cheaper at Wal-Mart than fewer products of higher quality with greater and longer use-value at a small locally owned store? Moreover, widespread access to affluence more closely appears as a fiction every day.

Quality and quantity have often conflicted in our ideas of progress. Quantity, often disguised as quality, has increasingly dominated the industrial-consumer culture as pressure for endless economic growth continues. Are more and more people living better lives today than they might otherwise? That remains a focus of political debate.

Then we have the other entrepreneurial standout, Elon Musk. Now, there we find another mixed bag of ingenious innovation of significant social value and pie-in-the-sky inventions of little use to anyone other than to entertain the super-rich. Low carbon-emissions transportation, home, and business energy storage now have immense societal evolutionary value. The potential for transportation to evolve toward carbon neutrality demonstrated by innovative Tesla vehicles, with their advanced designs, is remarkable. But the sci-fi fantasy of commercial space travel, given our current human evolutionary crisis, is nothing but counter-productive.

To evolve in the most positive sense is to make changes that take into account the context that those changes will affect. At this stage of human evolution, we have reached a crossroads. More than 200 years of our economic “progress” has caused increasingly widespread destruction to the living Earth systems that our species (and all others) depend upon to survive. Humanity has lost its resilience by destroying the conditions that make our lives viable.

We have run out of wiggle room. Now, we can only afford to (and must) evolve in ways that: 1) counteract the damage we have already done, and 2) radically innovate our economic activity in ways that help regenerate the severely damaged ecosystems upon which we all depend to survive.

Running Toward Danger

As I watch the seemingly endless cable news video recap of the Parkland Florida high school shooting, I watched the fully swat-outfitted police move toward the danger of an “active shooter” who had set off the fire alarm to bring out his victims for execution—17 dead, 14 wounded at last count. These officers were willing and trained to risk their lives to save the children.

Melissa Falkowski

Brave Teacher Melissa Falkowski ~ MSNBC

Brave teacher Melissa Falkowski herded her students into a closet, hiding them for half an hour, painfully hanging up on a call to her mother so she could hold it together for her kids. A hero of protection was Mellissa, rising to the very highest level of her duty.

School officials had implemented safety protocols and had trained teachers in emergency procedures. In any case, Melissa became a hero of circumstance who had sufficient resources, presence of mind and spirit to save her students from this moment of modern depravity. Her heroism was the kind that saves others from danger and death.

A father came on scene to see the force of terror on the faces of others as he looked for his daughter’s face among those fleeing death. He immediately knew that image would be with him forever.

The police who rushed toward the shooter were heroes of a different sort, exercising the heroism of confronting killers. They ran toward danger to shut it down so fewer would die. They risked their lives directly by seeking to confront the killer with their own deadly force.

As I watched this deadly drama unfold, in its cable-news configuration, it occurred to me that an entirely different, but maybe related, form of running toward danger is happening in this entire nation of violence.

We as a nation seem unable to stop running toward the greatest danger of all — another form of violence we have created ourselves. It is the self-destruction of denying that we are killing each other and ourselves by destroying the very basis of our own existence—the living Earth systems upon which we depend for our sustenance and survival.

Seventy-Five and One

Oh my! Seventy-five! Seems like it happened just yesterday. Actually, it was two and a half years ago. Copper is no longer a puppy. Yet, full-grown now, she still has quite a lot of that puppy playfulness. I have not changed much. When I turned seventy-five years of AGE, three quarters of a century seemed a strange reference to me. Never been there before… In comparison, seventy-seven doesn’t seem to matter…much.

I remember my mother used to say at various points in her later years, “…but I don’t feel like 80 years old; I feel like I’m forty.” She was a vigorous ‘power walker’ until her hips gave out, and she lived until just before her ninety-fifth birthday. She always retained her curiosity. Life’s trajectory remains a mystery in some ways, especially in terms of how we feel and how we categorize , interpret and judge who we are.

Often, I think, people fall into a narrow range of categories by which others defined them most of their lives. They perceive and define themselves by the categories that stuck to them, even though many of the alternatives they refuse to consider may have had better reflected their talent and potential. But if you study language much, you begin to see that all categories are largely illusions anyway.

Some illusions work just fine, some much worse than others. But they are all mental constructions. Language grew out of need and capacity. Before the massive changes of the modern era, language and life were often quite stable for long periods – if not necessarily easy. Now, change is rapid and increasingly catastrophic. The concepts we use to define ourselves and our lives can be liberating or constraining forces, because we believe in them.

So, however mythological we may judge the concepts and categories of so-called “primitive” peoples, they worked just fine for those folks in their own times and places. We live in a different kind of language environment today, just as we live in a different technological and economic environment. In my 77 years, change has accelerated in the extreme, resulting in a New Great Transformation, which I’ve discussed in other blog posts and my forthcoming book, At the Edge of Illusion.

We live in an environment of change, rapidly accelerating change by any historical measure. With this in mind, we need to recognize that most categories are contingent and increasingly transitory. One of the most dangerous things you can do these days is to lock on to some categorization, of yourself or your world, and firmly believe that it is some permanent “reality.”

IMG_0731Copper turned one year old a few days before I turned seventy-five. I noted the contrast. Well, of course, Copper was a puppy then, a beautiful Vizsla whose name matches her color. In puppyhood, of course, she knew nothing of the world, but was open to and sought out all new and interesting things – everything.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all retain much of that openness to the world and the curiosity of youth throughout our lives? But to do that we would have to relinquish the pseudo-control we feel when we retreat into the certainty of the rigid categories that actually stifle us.

I was hesitant at first to get a new puppy “at my age.” But Copper turned out to be quite a resource for me in reflecting on the best outlook for this Mad Jubilado in the coming years – along with being an endless source of joy and frustration. Ah, but that is the nature of puppies, and life too, eh? You cannot become a liberated Mad Jubilado and hang onto the arbitrary social definitions of what it means to be “retired,” or a “senior,” or anything else. Keep moving.

Choices and Freedom, Decisions and Destiny

Choices multiply with time, or maybe not. Potential decisions proliferate as knowledge grows, but we may not necessarily make them as obligations set in. With good health, the Jubilado [retiree, en español], if modestly financed with a decent pension, has many choices, not all costly. Unfortunately, many Jubilados either never had a pension or it was stolen by the corporation that was supposed to manage it in trust for its workers.

Never trust a corporation. It has no soul, and no, it is not a person. Some say that disproportionate numbers of corporate executives and politicians are psychopaths or sociopaths, two terms for the same affliction. The sociopath’s amoral drive to power can often lead to economic or political success. Either way, sociopaths have no empathy, though they learn to fake it. That is why they are not averse to doing whatever they can get away with to attain that next level of power.

Theft is in the eye of the victim if not of the corrupt official. As with the bribery from which politicians benefit, we rarely observe the punishment of corporate criminality. With the decline of labor’s power versus that of capital, pensions have become rare; many of the few remaining fall victim to management plunder. The politicians have “borrowed” most of the Social Security Trust Fund, then argued it is going broke. They claim that we can’t afford such “entitlement” programs, even though Social Security is funded by workers ourselves, through the payroll tax.

With a modest retirement income, this Mad Jubilado sees many choices. Too many ‘retirees’ sit stupefied and disengaged from the world while staring at the flat-panel screen of a degraded culture. Their time is now their own if they know it, an unusual if somewhat theoretical circumstance. We are, after all, trained in school not to think but to remember ‘facts’ that are unimportant to us, and to do what we are told. Choice becomes an echo of obedience. That way we are more likely to become unthinking obedient workers, tolerating a dull routine, rather than citizens engaged in critical thinking about the world around us, ready to decide.

Engaging in the world is not a spectator sport. Look around. There is so much to see and so much to do. There are endless ways to satisfy your curiosity, if your career left you with any. That is part of what makes the thinking Jubilado Mad.

Engaging with the world can range from terrifying to transcendent, sometimes both simultaneously. The old Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times,” seems fully realized today. We do live in the most interesting times imaginable. If you think about it, how could our times be more interesting? Well, maybe soon…

The more I research climate disruption, ecosystem collapse, and the political-economic dysfunction behind them, the more interesting – and terrifying – they become. It is about the survival of the world as we know it. Politicians do so little about it because of the simple power of short-term corporate interests corrupting public policy. They call corporate bribery “campaign contributions.” Politicians easily suffer paralysis when confronted by an overwhelming challenge, especially if the price is right. Besides, the challenge of figuring out what to do about such a monumental planetary problem is nothing short of daunting.

I used to tell my students to “follow your bliss.” Huh? [The phrase depicts a bit of wisdom borrowed from Joseph Campbell] It was all too common for students to come for academic advising with some notion in their head about choosing a major that was simply wrong for them. I didn’t even have to know much about them to tell that they had grabbed an idea from somewhere that superficially sounded good. But that good thing they thought they perceived at the moment of their choice, was momentarily “hot” and jobs in that field had good starting pay. So what?

Is that how to choose one’s life work? I told them that they should find out what really interests them, because by the time they graduated some other field would be the “hot” one and they would spend an entire career doing something they really did not like. Some got it; others did not. But I’ll bet the ones who did get it will have lots of choices in retirement.

Craftsmanship, Flying and Boredom

Craftsmanship is the opposite of boredom.  One does not usually think of digging a ditch as a matter of craftsmanship. But when I dug that ditch at age 15 as precisely as possible to avoid boredom, I had no idea that I was becoming ‘craftsman-like,’ but I was. If you do anything with craftsmanship, striving to do it well is a positive experience. Doing something well is not the same as being a “perfectionist,” which is simply taking precision beyond reason, into compulsion. We all know from high school geometry that a perfect circle does not exist outside the mind of Euclid, or a perfectionist. But in engineering drawing or architectural drawing we need to convey technical-spatial matters without ambiguity.  Achieving a circle that appears to be perfect to the user’s eye is rather enough.

I was quite proud of myself when I landed my little Piper PA-28 at San Luis Obispo airport after an instrument approach “to minimums” – about 220 feet above ground I think it was. That “Minimum Descent Altitude” is a “decision point,” the split second when you have to either have made visual contact with the runway or immediately execute a “missed approach.” At that point a pilot must decide whether to try again or to divert to an alternate airport with better weather.

That night the sky was crowded; several planes were trying to get into SBP. The controller put me in a holding pattern for probably 20 minutes. It seemed like an hour. piper_warrior2_panelAs each aircraft attempts the approach, those waiting fly the holding pattern, a rectangle with rounded corners, each at a different assigned altitude. When one aircraft lands, the next begins the approach and the rest descend to the next lower altitude, waiting their turn at the approach. It is tedious, very stressful, and definitely not boring. Lucky for me, I had just finished my instrument training and my flying skills were probably at their peak. I landed after spotting the runway just seconds from having to call a missed approach.

It was 1980, and in a way it was the culmination of a dream I’d had since early childhood. There are many challenges in flying. But an instrument approach, at night, in clouds when the airport is only visible the very last second – or not –is probably the epitome of flying challenges, except, I suppose, for aerial combat. I had been accepted into the Air Force Aviation Cadet officer training program after a year of college. But then they decided that they had too many pilots and cancelled further classes. That was not long before the Vietnam war ramped up. Maybe that was just not my time to fly. Anyway, I never got around to learning to fly until several years after grad school.

Some skills, like flying, require constant practice.  Some are “mission critical,” like an instrument approach to an airport runway, when choosing to land or execute a “missed approach” involves a split-second survival decision that requires polished skills. Others, IMG_1112like fitting a part so that it will look just right in a piece of custom furniture you are making, can be much more leisurely in execution.  Neither is boring.  Craftsmanship is never boring. I don’t do instrument approaches anymore. It takes so much practice and I do not have to be there before the storm clears – I’m retired. Now, I practice woodworking at a more leisurely pace, and fly mostly for fun, without the pressures of having to get there “on time.” Besides, I have so much to do and all the time I want to take. None of it is boring.