Saturday, February 28, 2015

wrest and wry...

Readers will have noticed that I have a fascination with words, and the use of those words allows me to appear intellectual despite the number of hours I've spent isolated in the wood shop. It is surprising how many interesting words come from our use of our hands. Even though it appears that the academicians have the upper hand, the hands themselves are inescapable in that our language cannot remove itself completely from the physicality of our beings. The hands are the most instrumental part of human anatomy and thus take a sustaining role in all that human beings do and in how we think. George Lakoff has made a study of metaphor as a means of understanding our human perceptions, and it is absolutely true that without the hands supplying the metaphors, much of our literature would be diddly squat. That's why it's important to actually understand what a dovetail is, how it is used to join wood at cross grain and how it is formed in order to use the term dovetailed to its greatest effect.

Two other good hand words are wrest and wry and etymology online is my pal in the exploration of language and its interrelation with what we do.

I am not attempting to imply that to be a good writer, one must have done every possible thing in the book of human action, but simply that to have done real things brings greater depth to what is written and what is understood. In the case of fiction, to have done real things, rather than using second hand metaphors or third hand metaphorical frameworks, provides the tools necessary to bring your reader to a willing suspension of disbelief. In the case of non-fiction which is either based on having done real things, or upon thoroughly researching someone else having done real things, what one learns in the process of engaging deeply in real life, provides a necessary framework for both interpreting and sharing reality with readers.

The point I am trying to make here is that as long as we insist that schooling be the most important thing in children's lives, school should involve doing real things. The doing of real things is what provides the necessary framework for depth of understanding. So, if schooling is to be built upon a foundation of reading and writing, efficacy demands that the footings for the foundation be dug deep by doing real things.

I have a friend Bill, who retired from a career teaching philosophy at a major state institution. Bill was always the odd man out in the department due to the fact that he had supported himself throughout his education with jobs in construction and agriculture. Doing real things is the mine to which we must all return to dig narrative gold. It is the source of all metaphors, and to use them effectively, it is best that we wrest them from the soil through our own strength, that they be fresh and useful to us.

It is extremely odd that so much human effort would be directed toward releasing the hands from their labors, while the labors of the hands offer the greatest liberation, even for those who eschew labor.

Tim sent the following link to Comment Magazine, the work of our hands. Also, in that issue, you will find an interview with Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft and about his new book, the World Beyond Your head, Becoming an individual in the age of distraction. You will remember Crawford as the philosopher/motorcycle mechanic, who effectively connected the two.

Becoming an individual requires doing something upon which you can draw upon. Without being grounded in the work of the hands, things become wry, and much goes awry, as you can witness for yourself in this modern life.

It is snowing today in Arkansas. There is no better way to spend the day than in a warm wood shop, and there is no warmer image than the one above.

Make, fix and create...

Friday, February 27, 2015

symmetry and form

Our students at Clear Spring are studying ancient history, and are now working through the Greek and Roman empires. In art classes, the students were cutting the shapes of amphora from brown paper, and the masks representing comedy and tragedy, and placing them on a background page. These were excellent projects illustrating their study of civilizations, integrating them with art, and using folded paper to create symmetrical forms, much like those we discover in an examination of all life.

We put nearly all studies into the realm of reading, and as important as reading is, the arts, are also. In the arts, the eyes are led to examine, and the hands led to create.

Barbara has finished her first round in the translation of I Sløjdsagen Et Inlæg. The last section  of Christian Jacobsen's book has to do with beauty, the attractiveness of form, how it is perceived and how it is made. This section comes as a bit of a surprise to me, as who in schools today would take an interest in such things outside of art classes?

And yet, in the training of the eye, to perceive, beauty is discovered and that process is important for all scholars.

I am reminded of the place where I was living when my wife and I first met, and married. I lived in a small log cabin with a waterfall outside my bedroom window. The hollow (valley) was deep with high ridges on each side, and the trees towered overhead. The patterns of the branches were arranged so that each tree gave space to the other and by looking up, I could sense the natural harmony between each one and its neighbors. In this case, as always, it could be said that beauty was in the eye of the beholder, but it could also be said that the the beauty was also a real thing available in that interrelationship of form for the eye to behold.

In the arts (and in wood shop) the student becomes an investigator of form and a participant in the interrelationship between form, beauty, and functionality. And in becoming so, the student adopts a more thorough role in life itself.

I on the other hand, have become a slave of the machine. The 3-D printer at school does not want to just print a simple hand. As it goes through the steps, one piece or another will become loose from the print platform, turning the whole of it into a snarl of spewed fiber. At first you will want to watch it at work, because it is fascinating. Then you will become bored with it, and when you are not watching, it will mess up and there will be nothing that you can do about it, except stop and start over.

We have, however, printed parts for a third hand, and I am training my students for the next steps.

Make, fix and create...

Thursday, February 26, 2015

printing plastic stuff in our kitchens?

The idea in the 3-D printing community has been that we'll buy printers and then have them available to print out the things we need and want from plastic. Some in the industry are beginning to think that idea is "over-hyped." Today I'll resume 3-D printing of parts for prosthetic hands and my students will finish assembling the parts we've printed so far. The potential for screw-ups in the printing of parts is enormous. It seems small parts lift from the printing plate and after the thing has run for an hour or several hours what you may end up with is not what you might have had in mind. So other than personalized legos that take over an hour to make 6, tiny kitchen spatulas with a personalized emblem or family crest, or things we have downloaded from, what will we make?

The important question about any technology is not what to make, however, for the value of the object is not in the object itself, but in the transformation of self that comes when one is engaged in creative work. The question becomes, how did this process shift my understanding and my character? Did it bring me into closer union (or communion) with my companions in life?

Barbara has finished the last of her first round of translation of I Sløjdsagen Et Inlæg. Now she will read the whole of it through, applying to the first what she had learned in the latter part of the book. And is it not the same with everything? We take the materials we are provided, whether it be wood, or plastic, or concepts, or metaphors, and bring them into refinement. Still, in this, it is important to go deep.

The name of this blog, Wisdom of the Hands, came from a radio interview with Stanley Kunich, former US Poet Laureate,  in which he referred to "the wisdom of the body." The further we get from that wisdom, whether we are creating in the wood shop, or writing in the attic, the more disembodied our work may become. The term, in the parlance of the hand, is "out of touch."

This morning, as I lay in bed, too soon to get up,  I was thinking of the metaphor that has become so commonplace, that things dovetail together. The term is used to describe a perfect fit, and yet we may know that dovetails are not always a perfect fit. Nor do they go together just-like-that. They take practice and care (at least the hand cut ones do), and for those with experience in real dovetails to say that these things dovetail (if one is to be honest in the reading and writing of such things) would be an acknowledgement of the work involved. Things don't dovetail, unless they've been carefully crafted to do so.

It is odd that human beings want all things to be easy, even though we know that all things are not as easy as they look, and that it is the hard work we put into learning things and using tools and materials in the best fashion that leads us on the journey in which we arise to higher levels of wisdom and responsibility. In the article linked above, Autodesk CEO Carl Bass suggests that once folks have bought cheap 3-D printers for their kitchens, our fascination with watching cheap plastic stuff arise before our very eyes will soon diminish and the stuff we've made will enter the waste stream, only to be followed later by the printers themselves. But it is telling in contrast, that my woodworking students have collections of their own work. Their parents, too, keep collections of these objects their children have made, as evidence of their growth.

While we look for ease, we may remember that the greatest growth comes from doing difficult and challenging things.And I think that's why my students treasure the things they've made. They worked hard to make them, learned something and managed to arise in the process.

Make, fix and create...

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

shaving horses and tool boxes

My first and second grade students have nearly completed their tool boxes and are excited about them. The odd thing is that they aren't in a hurry to take them home yet, as they want to make tools to go inside them first. Does this express a new level of maturity? Normally they are in a very big rush to take their work home. I think I have some skilled artisans in the making.

Yesterday I also finished two John Alexander styled shaving horses to introduce at school.

Today I am in Little Rock for a hearing before the Arkansas Court of Appeals, over a power line case.

Power companies use "piecemealing" to divide large projects into digestible chunks as a way of forcing projects through the regulatory process that would not be swallowed by the public if they were allowed to see the whole project in its entirety. This case involves the first part of the project that would have come through my community, and that had been approved before the general public was allowed to see what they had planned for us. At this point, the utility AEP/SWEPCO has a working power line to nowhere that should never have been built. It's one that we had not known was headed our way, and that we become aware of too late to help stop.

Make, fix and create...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

defending the early years.

As we attempt to overly script and control child development, we narrow their opportunities for discovery. It is time (once again) to talk about the Greek word "heuristic". It's derived from Archimedes exclamation that became the name of my wonderful home town, "Eureka! Springs" Now, let's holler all together, "Heureka!" for it conveys the sense of discovery, and is what education should really be about in the first place. Now when educators talk about "heuristic," you will be able to exclaim, proclaim and explain what the heck they think they are talking about... a means through which to create an opportunity for hands-on direct personal discovery.  You may remember that Archimedes discovered while in the bath that he could measure the volume of his body by measuring the water that flowed from the side of the tub. He ran naked through the streets, so excited was he about his discovery. And yet, discovery is the vital ingredient we've managed to leave out of our plans for education. The following is from the Danish National Library Authority.
The Finnish brain researcher, Matti Bergström concentrates on the child’s inner life and its – as we see it – chaotic ’possibility space’. Professor Bergström maintains that it is not only a question of ’white games’. The white games are our pedagogical efforts trying to bring up children in our own image. But there must also be room for the ’black games’ where children test themselves and the world around them.They must be given space. At a recent conference, Matti Bergström posed the question: do children need a knowledge lift? His answer was no, they need a chaos lift. We must allow children space and opportunity for the black games which are created in the unorganised and unsupervised meeting with other children.

Very briefly, Matti Bergström’s reasoning can be boiled down to this: The core of culture is art. The core of art is creativity. The core of creativity is possibility. The core of possibility is play. The core of play is chaos. Therefore all culture is based on chaos. More than ever before do we wish to encourage each individual’s creativity and culture-creating ability. The skills of the agrarian and industrial society have long since become obsolete.
This afternoon, I plan to drive to Little Rock so I can be present at a hearing before the Arkansas Court of Appeals. A power line case related to our own SWEPCO debacle has been granted a hearing, and I'll be going to observe and learn.  Had SWEPCO not decided to abandon their unfortunate proposal, we would be attempting to take our own case before the court.

Make, fix and create...

Monday, February 23, 2015

folded up with a book...

The emphasis on reading in our current culture is strong. In fact, if you are not reading incessantly, there are those who may think there is something wrong with you. Certainly, if children aren't reading at an early age, we worry for them and pressure them to perform.

As I mentioned yesterday, reading fiction has been described as a transforming experience, but the odd thing is that you can watch an avid reader for years and years without perceiving any outward effect... Unless they are reading how-to materials, and testing in their own hands what they have learned. Several years ago I got an email from a man in Israel who said he slept with my books at his bedside. He wanted to think of his own creative engagement as he fell off to sleep each night. I felt honored to have had such an effect.

Open a really good book and fall in. You may fold yourself up in a corner of the house or nest under covers and feel as though you've partaken of transformation. Your emotions can rise and fall according to what the characters endure. But if you are truly unchanged when the book is folded shut, we can reasonably then question the "transforming power of fiction."

Today I proved the occasional merit of being a pack rat. Popular Woodworking books had asked to reprint my first two books in a new edition. That meant files were needed, but after signing the contract, they learned that they had tossed everything out, including the high resolution images and text files. Today I sent my slides off for scanning, along with a DVD that they had produced of .pdf files showing each page and containing all the text files necessary for the new volume. If I had not seen value in these slides and DVD, the new book could not be made.

It was more than just a stroke of good luck that I had saved the files. I had hoped that they would be of value at some point. Incidentally, those two books that helped my Israeli friend find sleep, are the two that will be compiled into a new edition.

Make, fix and create...

Sunday, February 22, 2015

the fear of useful transformation...

Norwegian author Jan Kjærstad wrote about the fearful power of fiction:
”We know hardly anything about our strength and possibilities. Sometimes I see man as a creature all folded up. We walk upright, but we have not managed to raise thought. Mentally speaking we are cripples …. I further imagine that books, fiction is just about the best tool for making us unfold …. And that is precisely why I am worried; why am I not hunting in a more determined way those books which will make me rise, which will make me grow a few centimeters? Because I no longer wish to be changed? I admit it: because I am afraid”.
How many books can you read that leave you essentially unchanged? There is a danger in this blog, in that if you do nothing from what is offered in it, you may feel in some ways impotent and diminished. If Mr. Kjærstad or others think that reading may lead to a fearful transformation, they might try making things for awhile instead. The change will offer less and even more to be afraid of. One might worry, "Am I to become a tradesman because of this?" Don't despair. Your first efforts will not bring your whole life to such a point of risk. You would have to actually get good at something first, and by that time you will have discovered that what you've done is something noble that makes you of greater real value to others, easing your transition into a more meaningful life.

As a writer in my small town, I am seldom thought of as a writer. Folks are surprised to learn that I've written books and I am never invited to participate in the situations that writers put themselves in to promote their work. It's because I write about how-to-do real stuff. I've thought of presenting the following at a local writer's night, if I were ever invited to present at such things.
The How-to of How-to (and a bit of why-to thrown in for good measure)

We all know that life in the 21st century is busy. There are so many choices of entertainment and distraction that it is hard to get any work done. And of course there's the Internet. It's a powerful tool that provides a sense that the whole world is right at our fingertips. But when we go off-line, the same drippy faucet is dripping its drip, the deck is in dire need of refinishing, and there are countless other things that need fixing or making or are just about to break. Gotta either hire a handyman or become one.

There are great writers that we all know and love who have the power to whisp us away through time and space, distracting us from our concerns, and placing our consciousness outside our own bodies, into the lives of fictional characters far removed from the real situations of our own lives. We welcome diversion from our own drippy faucets. Those are the writers who get the big bucks… the ones who entertain and distract. Their words carry us into feeling states from which we ultimately reawaken to lives unchanged.

How-to writers are a bit different. We write about small things that empower others to cope, to fix, and to make. We inspire readers to get up, put down their books and remotes, head for their basements, garages and backyard sheds with eyes, hands and imaginations directed toward improvement, change, betterment and growth.

How-to really has to do with the hands, and here are three very important things that I’ve noticed. The first is that the use of the hands makes us smarter. This is an idea proven by modern research as well as it being observed by scientists and educators as long as there have been science and education. You can even test it for yourself but (warning) it requires actually doing something tactile, and of real substance.

Secondly, the use of the hands makes us feel better. You all remember Cinderella, the wicked stepmother and ugly stepsisters, and you may recall in the Disney version, Cinderella sang joyously in the garden and kitchen as she served her unappreciative and demanding family. The simple untold story is that this is what happens when you are aligned through your hands with the creative and expressive bounty of the universe. Neurohormones triggered by engagement in creative activities bring forth a sense of joy. That joy is noticed by others. It may make them jealous, as was the case with the step-sisters. Or, it may make them suspicious you're on drugs.

You noticed that in the Disney version of the Cinderella story, there were magical things happening with fairy godmothers, pumpkins, mice and the like. We often use magical beings as a means through which to depict inexplicable phenomenon. The most important part of the Cinderella story is not something that is told in the story, but it's something you can discover for yourself, and I'm not just making this up. Check out Kelly Lambert's theory of "effort driven rewards," and you will find that joy arises from the simple tasks we might be twisted toward believing are beneath our dignity or beneath our intelligence... While the stepmother and stepsisters were poisoned by self-importance, and crippled by the evil clenched tightly within their idle hands, Cinderella worked opennly with her hands and expressed joy within herself and to those around her.

Here in Eureka Springs we live in a community of artists and craftsmen, and each and every one will tell you that they feel better when they are engaged in their work. But you won’t have to take their word for it. This is something you can test for yourself in the garden or in the kitchen, without loading up on new tools, and without even having a wood shop.

Third, working with your hands puts you in touch with the vast expanse of history and human culture. Can you imagine what a visitor to a museum would think if they had never had a chance to make anything? Would they look at the real Mona Lisa and marvel at brush strokes made by Da Vinci's human hand? If they’ve never held a brush, have only engaged the world through a mouse and keyboard, will they have the power in their own souls to connect with the vast human legacy that only clicks-in when there is texture, the warmth of the human touch, and a sense of one’s own power to create?

How-to writers carry a great deal of power in our own hands. We, more than most, know the small wonders of our own creativity. We, more than most know the forces and means inherent in the human soul to improve the reality of the day to day and the here and now. So, I want to point out the value of who we are and what we really do. We empower. In the face of a consumer culture with the masses driven to consume we inform and instruct: how-to, why-to, encouraging others to build and make better. Perhaps some of us may feel compelled by the unrelenting lure of fantasy to write the great novel instead, but perhaps we should remember there is no more important calling for today’s age than that of the how-to writer.

So, how to get started?

Being a how-to writer is very much like being any other kind of writer except for two very important things. First is that you have to have some level of non-literary skill and direct experience in what you are writing about. You don’t have to be the very best in the world at something, but you do need to know the processes well enough to explain things clearly. Unlike the fiction writer who just makes stuff up to challenge your readers' willing suspension of disbelief, what you write will be tested in the hands of those who follow your instructions step-by step.

Secondly, The how-to author is required to be completely honest. Other writers, of both fiction and non-fiction have the pleasure of making stuff up or distorting information to twist the readers opinions to their own perspective. But the lying how-to author gets himself and his or her readers in a peck of trouble and won’t last long in the market place.

The first thing the prospective how-to writer must do is begin watching and taking note of his or her own life. Every good writer uses personal experience to frame what he or she wants to share with others. This is like having an editor, except the editor is in your own head. And the editor will begin asking questions. Is this interesting? What story does it tell? And a good internal editor leads you into exploring more and more options in the ways through which things can be done.

I had an important realization that everything I do is narrative. In my case, I use a chisel to cut wood. The wood records the motions of the hand and arm, the shape and size of the chisel, the quality of its cutting edge and the amount of force applied. Once you come to the awareness that you, in everything you do, use a variety of tools and materials to tell the story your own life, then you find that it is easy to transition from narration in wood or whatever other material you've chosen, to documenting your work in photographs or video, and in written word.

Adding your own editorial component, you then ask, “Is what I do of compelling interest?” If you come up with the answer, “No.” Then it is time to make adjustments in what you make or even in how you live your life. In the selection of what to write about, ask, "Is there anything particularly interesting about this process." If the answer is yes, then gather the materials and tools and begin work.

Sometimes I’ll clear a project first with an editor from one of the magazines I work with before I begin. I take photos of each and every step, and for me, the photography is crucial for keeping my narrative in order and reminding me of each step as I am writing so that nothing is overlooked. I use a digital camera on a tripod and use the self-timer to control the shutter. For very best lighting, I have the studio well lit with daylight fluorescent bulbs, so that wherever I am shooting, I don’t have to bother setting up lights or use the harsh glare of flash.

When the project is finished, I’m left with the finished object and take beauty shots of it that can be used either for the first page of the chapter, or the opening page of an article. Then I go through my photos and put them in step-by-step order, selecting the ones that best illustrate the processes used. When I’ve finished organizing the photos I write the main text and photo captions, and create a materials list and scrap art that will give the illustrator all the necessary information required to do drawings.

So how to get really started? Where can you test and develop your how-to writing skills? Fortunately these days, you don’t have to be discovered by a national magazine. There are on-line newsgroups and forums where you can share your tips and processes and practice your writing skills.
Even if you are a fiction writer, getting grounded in the making of real stuff, can make sense. Just think of the Cinderella Story told above. Another Scandinavian writer, Vilhelm Moberg, had begun reading by stripping the layers of newspaper from his walls to follow a serial once printed and buried there. Following years of successful writing, he drowned himself in his backyard lake during a period of writer's block and depression. Had he just a knife and some encouragement to whittle, he might have lasted to better days. Instead, he wrote a note indicating the time of day, and telling his wife he could no longer cope.

Make, fix and create...