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.

Solid.Wood.Furniture.Production.Factory

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.

Organic.produce

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.

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.

Boredom and Work

“Are we there yet?” “Why? Are you bored?”

Boredom. I never got that. How can any conscious being be bored? I think it is a matter of perception and attitude, maybe even choice. I recall hearing of people retiring from a job they had for most of their adult life, then dying within a few months, essentially because they had “nothing to do” and became despondent about their lives. They had so closely identified with and focused on their jobs that they had lost interest in the rest of the world. Separated from the source of their identity, they were lost.

Did they die of boredom? I don’t know. But I am sure that they had become unable to engage with the world beyond their job. Jobs, jobs, jobs. There are the “job creators” of corporate fiction; there are also the job destroyers of corporate outsourcing, moving capital to where the cheapest labor resides. Oh, but they are one and the same. Especially in today’s corporate dominated American culture, the growing power of the largest corporations and the wealthiest individuals results from the fact that the rest of us depend upon them for most of the shrinking number of well-paid jobs.

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Charlie Chaplin ~ Modern Times

As automated production and manufacturing are outsourced overseas to the poor nations with the lowest wages, the giant corporations, though flush with cash, keep demanding of their congressional lackeys lower taxes, even as they dodge most taxes anyway. They blame “government spending” and “entitlement” programs for the failings of a corporate economy that provides fewer and fewer jobs with a living wage. Senators and Congressmen openly admit that unless they pass “tax reform,” driving up the national debt, their donors will cut them off. And they probably will. But that’s another story.

What, exactly, is there in the world that is boring?  I thought I knew once when I was about 15 years old. It was 1955. My friends all had minimum-wage jobs, paying about 75

1951 Ford 2 dood sedan_6287_13x1.jpg

1951 Ford 2 door sedan

cents per hour. Or they had none at all. I was quite excited. My father had gotten me a summer job with his friend, a general contractor. I was paid at union scale, at that time around $3.65 per hour, almost 5 times minimum wage. That first summer it was easy to save up the $300- I needed to buy a used 1951 Ford as soon as I got my drivers license. If we all chipped in a quarter for gas, 3 or 4 of us could cruise all night until curfew. Nothing boring about that!

I remember clearly one hot summer day; I was at the bottom of a ditch the foreman had assigned me to dig. I can still picture myself there. He left me all alone in the hot smoggy Southern California sun to complete the ditch, for some drainage line at a hillside suburban home while he got some other workers started on another job. That ditch must have been 8 feet deep; I could barely launch a shovel full of dirt over the edge.  I wondered how long I’d be stuck with this ‘boring’ work.

Then I came upon an idea; I wondered how evenly I could cut the edges of that ditch while digging it as ordered – an interesting challenge for a kid trapped in a ditch with nothing else to do and nowhere to go. The day went much quicker as I faced that inconsequential challenge and learned how to not be bored.

So many of today’s jobs are boring because all ability to apply talent or skill to them has been taken out by automated processes, reducing them to simple mechanical performance with even less potential for creativity than digging a ditch. They are mostly at or near minimum wage too. And, minimum wage today, at $7.50 or $10- per hour buys less than that 75 cents did in 1955. Then, a 10-cent cup of copy was a small fraction of the hourly minimum wage. Today, a Starbuck’s coffee can cost you the equivalent of an hour’s work. That is not boring; it is intolerable.