Thursday, April 10, 2014

what is wrong with this picture?

I have this rant I've been holding in.  About stuff that seems to be considered normal, but doesn't make any sense.  I saw this cartoon in the New Yorker that shows I'm not the only one thinking about it, which is a relief.

Corporations are certainly willing to bulldoze any pristine wilderness in order to create profits.  Environmentalists protest and are told that stopping the project will make a lot of workers unhappy--they need the jobs!

But all these companies are outsourcing jobs overseas, and lobbying lawmakers to pass more free trade agreements, so that fewer and fewer satisfying jobs remain.  The reason they do it is profitability, and an obligation to shareholders.  And who are the shareholders?  Well, anyone with a regular retirement fund, right?  So basically some wholesome middle aged person approaching retirement has a stock portfolio.  So the person's retirement fund needs to grow, but meanwhile, that person’s kids probably won’t be able to find meaningful work.

Am I missing something? 

I do not want any part in wall street and its sins towards the people and the earth.  so how can I prepare for retirement?  I’d like to own a home mortgage free—so I don’t make banks rich while paying off the house.  not sure if either one of these are possible, but maybe owning a home debt free is a way to care for myself in my old age.  or part of it. 

Modern life is such a trap and I’m trying to escape all the things that people take for granted as inevitable parts of the American dream:

1) college debt/loans
2) expensive wedding
3) mortgage
4) corporate job
5) retirement portfolio

I keep feeling pressured to capitulate, to join everyone, to not be such a weirdo and just be happier.  Of course I want to own a home, and to have a secure old age, not to mention to be able to buy clothes without agonizing over lives ruined in a factory in China to make my cheap t-shirts.

I read a profile of a Quaker, John Woolman, who seemed to agonize with many of the same dilemmas back in the 1700's.  In addition to being an early abolitionist, he was thoughtful how he ate, dressed, and worked, and how this impacted others.

The little I've read about him inspires me to stay weird and true to my vision of simple living in a way that is worthwhile.  


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

walking invisibly

"I now feel under-equipped if I walk out of my apartment without my mobile phone, but I used to travel across the world with almost no contact with the people who loved me, and there was a dizzying freedom, a cool draught of solitude, in that. We were not so monitored, because no one read our letters the way they read our emails to sell us stuff, as Gmail does, or track our communications as the NSA does. We are moving into a world of unaccountable and secretive corporations that manage all our communications and work hand in hand with governments to make us visible to them. Our privacy is being strip-mined and hoarded."


-Rebecca Solnit
From this article.

I like the feeling of walking, paying cash, and reading a book or having a conversation.  All of these are activities that aren't monitored by corporations. 

The feeling of doing something real is different than the feeling of doing something online that others will be able to monitor.  You feel real to yourself, absent any witnesses. At times it seems important to blog about or post the important events of our life.  That posting makes them more real.  But there is a realness that the internet can't bestow on our life.

This past weekend our internet was out for 2 days.  Weirdly and inexplicably, we had access to youtube, and nothing else.  No one was able to explain this.  Now it is fixed.  It helps to be able to look things up.  But not having internet is a wake up call:  my life can be real without the internet connection.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

why does furniture matter?

At first glance, my obsession with interior design photos seems superficial.  I have a degree in mathematics--supposedly pure truth distilled down to its essentials.  Why is a math major scrolling through photos of people's living spaces and saving them to a blog?

Beautiful objects make me happy.  And I've learned to pay attention to the joy that springs up in the center of my chest.  

I took this photo while driving home in the snow yesterday.  This is the most lovely part of my drive.

But do things matter?  And why?

A handmade object made from wood tells a story of a craftsperson working with earth's materials and creating an object that has a place in a life of a human.

"The solace of physical objects"--this phrase jumped into my head one day.  When you have a real thing in front of you, it is evidence of the history of the object.  The object is made of materials, and it has a history.

What is it made of?  Who made it?  How was it made?  Even if specific facts are not remembered, the physical object tells the story somehow.  That's comforting to me.

When an object is made of a simple natural material such as wood, it tells of a connection to nature.

When an object is made by human hands, it speaks of time and attention, of skill and care, which is basically--love.

When you live every day interacting with something made of nature, and of love, your life is enriched.  It seeps into you without you even realizing it.

p.s. these wool socks that I bought for Adam are exactly what I'm talking about too.  100% organic wool, from Austria.  The only socks I could find that were all wool.  I live for finding these high quality objects.  oh yeah, handmade shoes too, and mine were made with undyed leather.

Friday, January 17, 2014

bench part II

My little bench is finished.  It is now functioning sweetly as a nightstand.



While this project was rather tiny and extremely simple, it was rich with learning experiences.

1.  I designed this bench by starting with a single board I must have picked up some time ago.  The board has functioned as a shelf for us (with the help of a couple of brackets).  After considering a 1:2 ratio (favored by some designers) and the golden ratio (closer to a 1:1.6 ratio), I made this bench with width:height and height:length ratios closer to 1.4.  I'm pleased with how it looks.

2.  Some Japanese woodworkers chose to leave their wood unfinished.  I have found that some pieces I've made have begun to age nicely with no finish at all.  This approach is better for pieces that won't come in contact with food or water.  Over many years, as a piece is handled and used, it develops a unique patina.  Only a long-term commitment to a piece of furniture will yield this look--unless you buy a pre-aged piece at an antique shop.  I have grown fond of the idea of keeping a piece for life, and then passing it along.  The rich patina would be accompanied by many memories associated with that piece of furniture.

(Perhaps a future post would describe some pieces of furniture from our home in Bolivia that live on in my mind and perhaps still influence me to this day.)

3.  Angling the legs outward (forming a 95 rather than 90 degree angle with the top) proved to make this project much trickier.  I had cut the pieces before I had finalized the design, and my cuts were made at 90 degrees.  I used a block plane and chisel to angle the top and bottom of the legs so the bench would rest correctly on the floor and meet the top snugly also.

With a power circular saw, it would be simple to set the angle precise and re-make the cut.  Having handicapped myself by getting rid of my power saws, I learned how best to correct my error with hand tools.

4.  I cut the pieces in order to be able to play with the design by physically positioning the pieces and seeing how I felt about different arrangements.  Having the design finalized before making the first cut seems very challenging to me.  However, in time, I hope to come up with a standard design that can be repeated.



5.  Cutting the notches first with the saw and then chiseling them out worked very well.  I have now prioritized having a sharpening system for my chisels.



6.  I don't know how I would feel if I made many multiples of the same piece.  Part of me thinks I would find the repetitiveness relaxing.

7.  It is important to me to make sure the piece feels good to the touch as well as looking nice.  I sanded every piece so there are no rough edges.


8. The joint above is imperfect!  Ah, imperfection.

9.  I chose to use glue and nails rather than screws.  I wanted this piece to be solid and I don't see a need to take it apart.  I have used screws with larger pieces and it's been convenient to dis-assemble a large table for moving.  However, the stability suffers.

Monday, January 06, 2014

two woodworking videos

I finished my bench today!  I'll post with pictures later.  Today I have a beautiful video to share.  As you watch it, image you are smelling the wood shavings.



The Wood Turner from Elliott Forge on Vimeo.

 I also really relate to this guy:

Saturday, December 14, 2013

little bench in progress

Today before the snow got too thick I drove over to the hardware/lumber store near by.  The man in the basement section of the store is a woodworker.  I asked him for a 1x2 that was about 28 inches long, and he found a scrap for me.  You can see it behind the bench assembly on the table.  


I'm still working on putting the pieces of the bench together, but I asked him about a device that would enable me to drill a hole at a precise angle, say about 85 degrees instead of 90, in this case.  I'm pretty sure the stability of this little bench will be enhanced by having the legs angle out slightly instead of forming a perfect rectangle.

So he loaned me the tool you see in the back ground.  He wasn't sure what it was called, but when I explained what I was trying to do, he knew right away what I was talking about.  I promised I'd get the tool back to him in a week--which will be a stretch given that this is finals week and I'm supposed to write and grade tests this week.  We'll see.

Below you can see some of my sketches for this project.


When I was making furniture in the past I worked with found wood.  My designs were dictated by the dimensions of the lumber I'd collected.  I was pretty fast & loose with the way I put things together.  During my time away from woodworking I've looked at a lot of pictures (some of which you can see here).  I've read about design, thought about the golden ratio (about 1.61:1), or about 2:1 rectangles, which other designers have preferred.  I think I'm ready to embark on a slightly different approach to woodworking.  I'm drawing and planning more.

The dimensions of the width to the height of my bench are closer to the golden ratio.  I'm using an old piece of wood for the main portion of the bench.  The gentleman at the hardware store identified it as old growth douglas fir.  By looking at the grain, he said it was probably from a tree that was 100-150 years old.  The cross brace is newer douglas fir, and the grain is pretty different (more curved, with lines farther apart).  The color is significantly lighter.  

close-up of the older wood--you can see how straight the grain is
I'm planning to finish this bench with either a walnut oil/beeswax blend I put together some time ago, or maybe just going with pure oil of some sort.  I've read some about how certain japanese woodworkers leave their wood unfinished.  I have pieces that I've left unfinished and liked them, but others got ugly stains.  I'm not sure if different varieties of wood age differently when left unfinished.  I like letting wood age, darken, get banged up, and generally show signs of age (kind of like an old person with gray hair & wrinkles can look so beautiful).  

Even with a project this small and simple, there are so many design decisions.  I just love analyzing something to death (some have identified this as an annoying trait of mine).  In this case it's just a delight to decide on the most beautiful angle for the legs, the ideal finish, the positioning of the cross-brace.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

at the bottom of fear

Is it possible to make a break from the world of 40 hour weeks, benefits, monthly rent in excess of $1000, and 45 minute commutes?

I have a tenure-track position at a community college.  I think that tenure track is a term that indicates I could get tenure.  I don't have it yet, but I think I'm close.

I work with really nice people, and I'm reasonably good at what I do.

It's hard to make a break from this when I don't have a solid sense of what it is I'd rather be doing.

Fear comes up when I think of quitting.  Fear of what?  I decided to examine my fears more closely.  What it is that I'm truly afraid of?

1.  Loneliness (finding myself isolated as I become more unconventional)
2.  Poverty (not the elegant, monk-like poverty, but the stressful kind)
3.  Failure, and subsequent judgement by those who think I'm crazy to want to do this.

In thinking of how best to face fears #1 and 2, I imagined what the opposite of such fear would feel like.

It feels like surrendering into the arms of the earth, of mankind, and trusting that I would be cared for by people around me, and by the earth, and its bounty.

(As I write these words, I hear voices pouncing:  how irrational, delusional, and irresponsible!)

I imagine that the perfect experiment is to set forth into the world with very little.  The image is walking with a backpack on.  A relatively small backpack.

In "Without a Map", Meredith Hall describes a point in her life in which she is walking alone in Turkey (I'm pretty sure it was Turkey) with basically nothing but the clothes on her back.  She is lost, disconnected, and stripped bare of protection and comfort.

I related to Meredith's memoir for a number of reasons, and her description of that moment seemed to describe a fear that has subconsciously haunted me.  Isolated by judgement, and owning nothing.  Reliant on the goodness of those around not to harm her.

At the same time, it seems like the ultimate freedom.  You have nothing, and you survive.  After that, how could you ever be afraid again?

Isn't finding that fearlessness the ultimate reward?  If I can find that at the bottom, there is nothing to fear, then perhaps there is nothing to hold me back from setting out into the world to find what is there.