Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Long Away

Long Away

I have to write as if I am not here. Not surrounded by daily minutiae, not distracted by demands or tasks not yet answered. These things that sweep us up and carry us along, thrumming with a pace and necessity that fully expects a response.  These things that will always be there, without much pause. Waiting for a cessation of the necessary noise of life won't work.

The idea of a retreat sequestered somewhere far away from activity and mayhem has its appeal, but isn't realistic for most of the time. And to be disconnected for too long risks the non-atmosphere of a bell jar, possibly losing the cache of inspiration in hand, at the same time making a debit of new insights: a full-time retreat isn't the answer, even if it was possible.

Rudyard Kipling's desk, UK

So, then, this trick of imagination, this discipline of focus, using will to wrench away from the distractions of the day and just write, just put something down. If imagination and will give out, there is always the middle of the night. It's only sleep, traded for the night quiet. I don't always have the fervor, the discipline, for that. During the day, as part of the demands and tasks mentioned above, some kind of writing gets done, the kind with a deadline or at least a few people waiting for the result. But for the deeper weaving of words, the exposition of observations, that often start and end without stopping once the writing begins, I find I require serendipity or at least a brief pause in the mayhem, or I can't begin. Given the least bit of entry, however, and the writing is swept up and carried along, thrumming with a pace and necessity that fully expects a response. 

I rebel somewhat against writing  a simple travelogue of observations, though like many I can be prone to that. A diary-like archive doesn't interest me--if I unwittingly start journaling, I lose interest as soon as I notice; I'm not interested in writing as if I'm the only one who will ever see the words. Though the process itself pleases me even if it goes no farther than my desk. But I think that my best effort is realized when I imagine a reader, however nebulous, scanning the words, taking in the thoughts. 

Writing for a blog can be performed many ways. The platform supports individual approaches providing a varied experience for readers. If a blog is monetized, there may be a push to pump out words, tag them, and do things simply to promote page views. For me it is instead a practice, a place to shine a light on something, to hang thoughts up and examine them, to assemble them into a whole. An exercise in creativity and connection. Lacking an arbitrary deadline for this particular creative outlet, sometimes I am long away from this place, these pages of entries. I just wait for the next one to come. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Hope for the Human Race

  Hope for the Human Race

Have you seen the heroic lately?

It might have appeared, crossed your path, sat at your table, shared your space.  You may have seen it, or just as easily you may have missed it. There may not have been any fanfare or attention called to certain heroic acts occurring around you. Someone is ill; they make no remark but instead ask how you are. A person has suffered an unbearable loss, yet spends their time lifting up others. A friend has worries, still they give you their smile and set an example of cheerfulness. On reflection, I become aware of so many instances of heroism or greatness. Some acts are fleeting, and some are a glimpse of a continuum where ordinary people are doing the things they have chosen to do, and the things they feel they must do. The commitment with which they do these things makes them extraordinary acts. 

An example of this is apparent if you spend time around the world of a small child and watch those who care for them.  In its simplest context this is perhaps banal, ordinary, the stuff of life continuing as it always has. There is nothing immediately recognizable as heroic going on. But the activity you observe around children reveals much about people and their connection to others. 

With everything we are pursuing, busy adults can be prone to impatience and a failure to account for others' impulses, differences, weaknesses, and needs. We make plans, and in our individual pursuit of them we might assume we will accomplish those plans just so, starting at this time, and ending at that time. For many reasons this can't always be so. Around the daily needs of children, this kind of planning is a house of cards, collapsing, going off-schedule as a matter of course. Routines, yes. Structure, sure. You work toward providing a sense of stability.  But there is the need to let go of the idea of a predictable march of events, when you keep pace with a child. 

I see it as real maturity when someone can keep pace with a young child, meet their needs, and let go of the relentless feeling that so much more should be getting accomplished at that same moment. It is a mark of character to my mind when an adult can slow down and accept this different pace. A saying I grew up with was: "Let there be chaos in little things, so that we may have order in greater things." Recognizing what takes precedence is our challenge. Which is the greater thing? Can we tolerate necessary chaos, and see which are the little things that can be left behind? Or will we push ahead, demanding order absolutely everywhere, in spite of the folly of that demand?

We naturally expect the bond of a parent to their own child to produce this kind of maturity and impulse to care. As a society, we must also hope that we can foster this kind of maturity in the larger community. Between people who know each other, and between people who do not. Among those who have children, and those who do not. There is the "it takes a village" sentiment; I like to think that can take us a long way toward doing better. When I see the 'village' at work, it gives me hope for the human race. It's not hard to see that this kind of compassion and fellow-feeling can transfer to all kinds of encounters, not just those between adults and children. 

I'm fortunate to know family, friends, neighbors, and a life partner who seem to get this right. It's an up and down process, we find out what works by living, doing, trying, and reflecting.  I'm grateful to the heroes in my life. To watch a tired athlete climb out of a comfortable chair and work in the hot sun, making a safe space for a friend's toddlers to play. To see my sister wordlessly grab the dirty dishes and clean them because that's just what was needed at that moment. Watching someone's older child take the hand of someone else's shy younger one, make their acquaintance, and build a gentle trust with them. There is the mother who sets aside for a moment (so many moments) the pursuit of her own interests, and moves at the pace of her child that needs her. The father who sees this, and creates a window of time for the mother. The mother in turn will step in for him. Sometimes the need is exhausting.  Or frightening, when you can't figure out what they need. 

I know these aren't outright acts of heroism: they are instead the behaviors we would hope accompany all human interaction. Still, because it isn't always so, to me those who do such things create a culture of heroism.  I'm touched to know that everyone in this strange and serendipitous cast of characters that is my 'village' is capable of these and other selfless acts. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013


Just realized orange is very much my color lately. Seeing it everywhere today.

Walked through my immediate surroundings, collected these orange images in a matter of minutes. An orange-fest.

All photos by author. - Posted using BlogPress.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Wood and Water

 Wood & Water
I've noticed that the majority of visitors to this blog come to read the entry "A Building Lifestyle," about building my kayak, "Hei Matau."  There have been readers from Sweden, New England, India, Eastern Europe, Indonesia, and Nanaimo, British Columbia, just to name a few far-flung places. Of all of the things I've built or studied in the area of woodworking, boats have been for me the most fascinating and compelling. By comparison, a fine piece of furniture, or an artfully appointed room using various trim and moulding is satisfying work, and I've spent time doing that. 

A boat, though, has so many mesmerizing elements. One is just the visual beauty of curvilinear vessels. Smooth and sweeping lines, dynamic even when sitting still, the eye is drawn to study them. The nature of these shapes keeps you guessing, tricking your sense of perspective. If you've ever photographed boats you know that the two dimensional image leaves a lot to be desired. A false image is common, leaving a long and lithe craft looking stubby or even cock-eyed. Length is elusive to guage, and finding a good viewing angle is difficult. With lines vanishing from view, tapering and curving inward, lifting and terminating, it's easy to be fooled about the real proportions. 

Viking reproduction being built in Roskilde, Denmark

The idea that static wood, milled from the forest, then coaxed into shape by your hands, can soon carry you away over water, is a hugely appealing element. Seeing that the wood still lives, and reacts to the watery environment, is part of the process. They say that an astute cabinetmaker makes a poor boatwright; making joints too close and tight, illiterate about the kind of behavior to expect in the life of a boat. From baby Moses in a reed boat, to Joshua Slocum sailing around the world, the adventure and freedom to traverse water is a siren song, even to those who haven't tried it. Lore and literature is full when it comes to boats. To go from just swimming, to navigating a floating craft, is a great leap in potential. You can carry things. You might stay mostly dry. Water denizens don't trouble you as much. You can go far; travel alone or with a crew. The privilege of inhabiting a space not meant for our ambulating mode of movement feels almost like a transit to another planet. 

For me, a long ocean journey is less a draw than near-shore or lakeside adventures. Experiencing the motion of the water, a gliding sensation of speed, wind, the altered view, all rank high. Exploring inlets or cliff-bound shorelines makes for an outing you couldn't accomplish any other way. (Being able to quickly come ashore in bad weather another plus.)

There is the actual construction of the thing to make an admirer out of you. The shape and form of a boat makes for special challenges. Beauty arises from working to make a hydrodynamic hull, not from flourishes just meant to impress.  The language of boatbuilding is succintly described with the word "fair."  There may be some rectilinear constructions in furniture or homebuilding that can successfully rely on repeated components for length and width, coming out well again and again.  But a boatbuilder reserves a part of the process for using the eye, more than just taking off dimensions from a blueprint. Rote cutting and laying up of predetermined planks is not something you can expect to do successfully. Instead there is lining off as you go, letting your eye judge the curvature that the frame and the bending planks are expressing moment to moment. Being influenced and guided by the results as they appear. Although there are parameters designed into a hull as to number of planks and their general width being defined by carefully placed ribbands on a building form, so much depends on whether the trial fit in front of you is "fair" to the eye; and so you make adjustments until it is.  Especially where curves terminate at stem or stern. 

Growing up, our family lived on the west coast of North America near San Francisco, and then for a time on Pacific Islands. In the East Bay, I remember the creaking sound of seagulls along the shoreline, and seeing marinas full of sailboats. I didn't learn to swim until I was ten.  My motivation was to be able to take sailing lessons. After passing my swim test, I then spent a few weeks on Lake Merritt, learning to duck under the boom of a little Sunfish, coming about, waiting to capsize, which never happened. That was the extent of my lessons, as we moved and I didn't keep up with it. In the islands, I remember the first time I was aboard a good-sized sailboat, the captain belonged to our cycling club and had crossed an ocean or two. We sailed out far enough to lose sight of land. That was a moment of commitment, trusting the captain to find land again. When Diamond Head reappeared, some of us stopped holding our breath. So, I am a near-shore boater, I find. 

Anyway, I don't have a maritime resume, and I'm not a sailor.  But woodworking has been a big part of my life, and as part of that I've devoted many hours to exploring the craft of boatbuilding. Even though I've lately spent years landlocked in the Rocky Mountain West, always on the lookout for a quiet lake without a surfeit of motorized craft. 

Recently, I took a trip to Maine, and I was struck by how completely familiar it all seemed to me. I've spent years poring over Woodenboat magazine, reading about Pete Culler, or Nathanial Herreshoff, 

and taking in boatbuilder Tom Hill's words about 'gunkholing,' as I built an example of one of his lightweight canoes. Numerous other windows into the 'Downeast' lifestyle came to me as I stood on a hill looking over Camden, or looking out to sea from Owl's Head. Weaving along the coast in a car or on a bicycle, the ever-present shoreline and the sound and smell of the sea seemed so familiar, so dej√† vu, though I had never been to these places. Almost everywhere, even at the end of the season, boats and fishing and a lifestyle of living near the sea were prominent. 

Even my time spent living on a Hawaiian island, surrounded by 3,000 miles of ocean, did not feel so bound to the sea as did these small coastal towns, with their fishing boats, lighthouses, boatyards, and lobster traps. Perhaps my own distraction with school and work kept me from feeling such a connection. Sadly the lack of a strong traditional sense of the sea may have been because seafaring has been eclipsed by the frantic tourist trade. Most visitors arrive by plane now. The beautiful Pacific islands are certainly historic for seafaring tradition. That Polynesian navigators and sailors found the islands in the first place looms large, these sailors arriving without modern navigational tools but in possession of truly canny knowledge of stars, currents, and myriad other signs of the sea.  An odd memory I have is of the carved and painted wooden sailors found in Lahaina, Maui; from traditional carving styles brought by colonial sailors in the 1800's. Anglo, white-bearded, smoking a pipe. They look just like a sea-captain statue you would see in an east-coast seafood restaurant. Tourists bought them. I feel a vague sense of loss that this symbol, rather than some other, would define Hawaii to some brief traveler.  The antipathy many locals had for 'discoverer' captain Cook rubbed off on me, I guess. 

Certainly every hour, every year that I spent near the ocean left a mark on me. I can call up the sound of crashing waves without any effort. Doppling from quiet to loud;  hissing in retreat. Jumping into the waves, buoyed by their saline strength, it never felt clich√© to be exhilarated by the ride back to shore. Counting the sets, seeing the crest grow taller by the seventh or ninth wave, and deciding at the last minute whether to dive under or to turn & join the fluid force that either propelled you, or might instead pummel you. 

My sentimental attachment to the sea, and my admiration for boats made of wood, made my visit to Maine feel like an unexpected homecoming. 

I stood at various wharves and ports and beaches, made aware of my vast ignorance, while I was at the same time feeling a stirring connection to the whole scene. 

Rockport, Maine

I've stood at water's edge in Skuldelev, Denmark, admiring small double-ended boats whose design goes back to Viking times. I've pedaled along canals in France, outpacing sturdy and sometimes artfully built bateaux. I've seen iconic gondolas in Venezia, coexisting with modern vaporetti. But having a boat of one's own, of any design, is hard to beat. So I like to imagine that those many readers who are studying my little Hei Matau kayak have strong connections of their own to wood and water. I find it a hopeful thing, that folks in places near and far are looking at something they can build with their own hands. I say, do it!

Skuldelev, Denmark

All photos by author."A Building Lifestyle"

Thursday, January 3, 2013



I started to notice it a few months ago.  First, a lone truck with a cab-over camper. It was parked on a dead-end city street near a giant elm tree in the middle of a cul-de-sac. Almost every time I passed the little-trafficked spot, the truck was there, especially in the evenings.  At night, lights were on in the camper.

After a while, another vehicle became a regular sight.  In the daytime, there'd be someone in a lawn chair, reading.  Towels or sheets draped over the insides of windshields and side windows for privacy.  A third vehicle soon appeared, looking lived-in as well.  

At first, it seemed it might be a concern for neighborhood security.  Should someone report them? For what? Were these urban gypsies doing any harm?  If I put myself in their shoes, I'd have thought I'd selected a location rather well. Quiet. Cool under the shade of a hundred-year old tree. A park bathroom nearby. Not a lot of cars going by to  disturb them. It took only a moment to realize these folks were homeless. Their cars are probably their last large material asset. And now their only physical shelter. 

After many months the situation started to seem ordinary on my trips through the park by bicycle. Living just a few blocks away, I feel a mild sense of ownership over the neighborhood, but I began to think that it would be nice if no-one bothered these resourceful campers. As long as they aren't disturbing anyone or endangering the area. We have several anecdotes to show that these particular campers have some civic pride. They seemed to become unofficial members of our loose neighborhood watch. One or two of them are quite polite, sharing resources and looking out for each other. A nearby homeowner observed that the casual drug deals sometimes seen at the park ceased once the campers took up residence.

One recent summer morning, I was riding back from errands, slowly weaving around the dead end past the old tree. I saw a new car parked in the area. A beautiful dog was lying on top of blankets and a sleeping bag piled on the sidewalk. A vibrant young woman was organizing a pile of clothing and some boxes. Her older sedan was overfull. I thought, What if this was my own fate? What if I am someday reduced to living out of a car? 

How did the campers learn about this spot? Did they meet each other elsewhere and share "hobo knowledge" about how to survive? Is there a tipping point coming, where too many will eventually make an unsupportable impact and ruin it for all? (Months later, for unknown reasons, there now seems to be only one car, and it's not there all the time.) 

Is this happening all around the city? I think it is.  Several homeless camps come and go along the river downtown, and around various empty lots in secluded places. Wooded bike paths out of sight from roadways are known spots. The police have done a sweep


or two, moving vagrant campers out at times.  There was a campaign to give bus tickets home to many of these transients in our city. At the time I wondered if there was anywhere they wanted to return to; were they still inclined to name some faraway place as their home? Did they not think of our city as their home? 

As the city grapples with the issue of the indigent or homeless, sometimes they legislate or make proclamations to try and overcome perceived side effects. Recently our city drew a line around downtown and outlawed panhandling within those bounds. It was contested in a higher court and looks like it won't hold up legally. Maybe too broad of a brush, too arbitrary a rule. Is there a better way to groom the behavior of all kinds of citizens downtown? Are we not all free to say no to a panhandler? What kind of asking campaign is legal? Is fundraising the domain of only the elite? Among other things, the rule threatened holiday bell ringers, and a dilemma emerged.

Meanwhile, historical images in black and white come to my mind. Images of early horseless carriages, overloaded with haphazardly secured objects, improbable ones; pianos and furniture. As if a new home were certain to be secured soon, with space big enough for these large material goods.  A poignant sense of hopelessness drips from the scenes. But hope is there, in their defiant sense of courage, striking out for the unknown. I'm referring to migrant photos from the Dust Bowl era, famous images captured by Dorothea Lange.  Writer John Steinbeck made stark reports on the migrant phenomenon appearing in California. He traveled around with the man responsible for trying to govern the many camps that sprang up near farm fields. The work was not enough to sustain the families, their children were not welcomed at local schools, illness and hunger was rampant. Many incurred debt just trying to buy food at local stores, sometimes owned by the same large farms they worked on. A wage may never have translated into savings. 

The homeless dynamic of those displaced after their homesteads were buried in dirt naturally would have had a fragile thread of pride, a forlorn desire to deflect the pain of stigma. Through no intention of their own, they had been wiped like dusty chalk from a chalkboard; the midwestern fields flew up in a seeming rage and made going on impossible. They clung to the possibility of finding work out west.  Large caravans 

Dust bowl era house, North Dakota   (Photo by Alex Sienkiewicz)  

traveled to California; the camps along the way made a visible event that drew attention by its sheer numbers. Though they could have been described as heroic survivors of an event of nature, they were scorned and often turned away. We only later learned that the collective effect of plowing vast areas of grassland contributed to the Dust Bowl, but a fair person would be loath to incriminate individual farmers caught up in what was the order of the day. 

At present, we seem to have a more occult homeless phenomenon, unseen by many. We don't have large caravans to observe. Instead it occurs in ones and twos, adding up to surprisingly large numbers.  It's commonly assumed that many homeless are somehow deserving or responsible for the situation they are in. Perhaps that's sometimes true. But do we feel qualified to decide which ones "chose" to live on the street?  And either way, are we right to turn to scorn? I've seen seemingly ordinary people down on their luck, trying to survive. They find a way to double up with family, or live in their car unobtrusively, keeping on the move. Staying 'under the radar.'  

I think we'd like not to think very hard about this, if only because we may be eerily reminded that our own path may only be steps away from a similar fate. We'd like to think our pure will and determination are a complete defense against ever becoming homeless. We're not at all like any of those who are homeless. Or, are we? 

If we're not called to bring every last one in out of the cold, something easier said than done, at least the graceful thing to do is to reserve judgement about their character and how they got there.