Sunday, March 31, 2013

1000 page views!

None of us contributors really contribute.  No one really reads the blogs but today, we reached the historic moment, where we have had 1000 page views. 

Friday, March 29, 2013

Ham Sandwich

I have lived in a land foreign to that of my birth for 2 weeks short of a year. A land that has the highest burnout rate of western expats and I have asked for more. I take some pride in that fact, a healthy dose of humility, and an equal measure of thanksgiving. The last year has taken its tole. There have been casualties and lessons learned. I am a bit more weary, scarred, and suspicious then when I set foot in this land. I can appreciate color and vibrancy in a way I never thought possible. I have re-affirmed that my spirit withers when it is too long kept from the piney woods. I will even go so far to say that though I abused it as not a proper substitute for the Sierra Nevadas of my youth; I authentically miss the ability to camp and out of doors oneself that I had in Ohio, which is really saying something.

I have learned nothing I expected to learn about another culture and a library worth of information I never desired to know about myself. I have a strong tendency to be a workaholic. I like my family better than anyone else. I have trouble trusting other people to do things if my name is on them and have a higher capacity for stress than I would have initially suspected. I have learned what happens to me physically and emotionally when I surpass that capacity. I have broader shoulders than I imagined. I can take the blame and not throw my colleagues under the bus. I can hold my temper, but only so long. I am abhorrently lazy at studying another language. I love tons of sugar with enough cardamom added. I detest chocolate that has tons of sugar. I know less about India then when I arrived. I have never felt the constant presence of humanity that exists here, even after living in downtown Chicago. I have never felt so lonely as I do now.

Friendship is a funny subject with me. I consider myself, at least in an American context, as someone who is very willing to throw myself into relationships and be honest and transparent with those around me. That is very likely not actually true. I have been continually and repeatedly blessed with deep and fulfilling friendships. Some who love the same things that I do. Some who are allergic to grease and pine needles. At the end of the day I have loved and have been loved. I am a self-avowed horrid long distance friend but am perfectly willing to pick up where we left off when I see you again. I probably won't call but will not be bothered if you don't either. I will, however, be bothered if you avoid me because I didn't call.

I often am evangelical in my relationships. It will not be long after we begin socializing that you will sample a few of my many manias. Pipe smoking, artisan beer, motorcycles, or camping will come up in conversations and we would have discussions while reducing a Latakia flake to its lowest denomination, sipping a fine porter, getting our hands dirty or at least talking about getting our hands dirty. I am quick to get in a debate but quicker to laugh. I would not be surprised if I offended you but will be surprised when I learned that I have.

I now live in a land without briar, with 5 brands of beer, 100cc motorcycles, and the act of camping requires an indomitable will and significantly more time and money then I posses. I do love the motorcycles but have no time to tinker. I have been cloistered by my work schedule and ostracized by a culture I do not understand. Not since I met my savior have I been encountered loneliness but my childhood companion has returned with crushing enthusiasm.

The pathetically ironic truth is that I am surrounded by excessively lonely people. Some have their party face on, some sit alone on the weekends but they all feel exactly the way that I do. Unfortunately once you get used to not being connected it is extraordinarily difficult to be so. Conversations about truth and justice, passion and fire seem difficult and exhausting. The couch has an insatiable appetite for time and television, leaving us empty eyed and empty hearted for all our efforts. Truth is the answer is a simple one. Truth is if the answer was so simple we'd all be doing it.

Some of the same arguments from my encyclopedia days begin to ring in my empty skull. I'm strong enough on my own. Friends hurt and disappoint.

But the arguments carry even less weight then they did then. I have known what it is like to walk amongst brothers. I have known the refreshing terror of bearing my soul for public inspection and I miss it. I miss being vulnerable and seeing other people's vulnerability. I miss being refreshed by a congregation of souls. I have had such a surplus of wholesome friendships that I thought all I really needed was my family. But now I stand in the somewhat awkward position that there is something lacking. To be surrounded by the ugliness of urbanity and its filth and to bear with it isolation has been intolerable. It is not the restful cleansing isolation of some mountain hermitage. It is a lonesomeness as dirty as the urine splattered walls around me and half as comforting. I feel the city and the air that has been breathed by a million other lonely people before it enters my lungs. The pollution seeps into my soul as it seeps into my pores and I have let it. I have allowed myself be a victim of circumstance and lethargic acculturation. I have surrendered before the battle began, not showing my struggles but given into my ever-present weaknesses. And maybe that is what I have learned most about myself, how far I have yet to go.

Saturday, March 9, 2013


I think I'm not alone that when I hear the word "craft" I think of, well,  disgusting yellow squares marketed as cheese.  But when I read the word "craft" my mind fills with hot glue guns, pipe cleaners, Elmer's glue rolled up as black maggots all over my hands, and those brightly colored puffy balls.  Punching holes in paper plates and an incident of my giving a hot iron a high five when I was 6 also make strong appearances.  Not that I dislike craftiness, I honestly love it.  Even the less prepubescent manifestations of craftiness I am downright enthusiastic about.  I have taught myself knitting & crochet.  I have tried my hand at calligraphy and embroidery, and window shop on Etsy quite frequently.  In my mind craft has always been  hand making something  with an attempt at it being aesthetically appealing.  I have come to realize that I still completely agree with that definition but the subtle sway and emotional reaction to that definition has become entirely altered.

For a few weeks now I have been jonesing for a hobby.  I have come down with a severe case of RHS (restless hands syndrome).  Which is surprising because growing up I always assumed I would be the soft handed, intellectual variety of man.  The one who has memorized lengths of poetry, fumigates  a pipe, and sits by a warm fire in a smoking jacket sitting in an overstuffed leather chair.  I can very quickly memorize things and in an even more time efficient manner forget them.  I have become an avid pipe enthusiast but shockingly have enjoyed making them as much or more than smoking them.  Deep within my fleshy, university  designed exterior is a rough handed man.  I think many children growing up are romantic about the ability to create.  Kids draw and paint, color and mold much more intentionally than most adults do.  They are still willing to risk failure to generate something that they have created and it is only after years of other people not caring about what one has produced that many of us have stopped creating.  We as a culture have lost the ability to craft.  I have two Grandfathers that I always considered two sides of the masculine continuum but as I am realizing now were really just different personalities creating idiomatically.  My Maternal Grandfather (MG) was an engineer with Lockheed.  Worked in a top secret facility and was a very intellectual man (though on meeting him not of the poetry/smoking variety).  As a side note he did share 1 poem with me that he had written while he was alive and I did discover a pack of old cigarette papers in his workshop but he did not have a fireplace in his house whatsoever so the stereotype quickly falls apart.  But this workshop in which I found said cigarette papers after his passing was always, to me, a magical place. It was not pixie filled and I don't think I ever saw the slightest hint of glitter but it had a very alchemical feel.  Everything had a place.  There was a wall with his paintbrushes meticulously hung by the door.  1/2 of the garage was filled with piles of junk and boxes.  Always like a buried treasure that I was too afraid to  dig through.  The other half was where this engineer crafted.  A 6' cast iron metal lathe and standing drill press dominated the space with many other tool boxes to compliment the limited available space.  As a child I always pictured my MG in his office with his mechanical sketches and slide-rule.  I did not really associate his inside personality with the magical workshop out back.  Only once did he use those tools with me and we turned a bit of something on his metal lathe.  I think I actually made something of wood, I don't remember, but the memory of us actually using the delicate instruments of his secret laboratory together in one of the few powerful childhood memories I hold onto.

One of the strongest childhood memories of my Paternal Grandfather (PG) is also based around a lathe.  This time a wood lathe.  I remember horribly creating something chewed up and dismal looking but I remember making something with a power tool.  Holding the gauge in my hand and the terrifying exhileration of that moment.  The metal lathe and the wood lathe are interesting metaphors into the personalities of these two great men, which I will not bore you with, but the fact that they were both craftsmen was totally lost on me growing up.  My PG was much more of what struck me as a craftsperson.  He tended his garden, caught and skinned skunks who invaded it, made things out of wood, and had a laundry room filled with stuffed water fowl.  He had the rough hands of a craftsman and one can still vividly see the series of lines that mark the back of his neck after years working and living outside in the sun.  I would stare at those neck creases as a child and still I want to someday be a man with those copper lines marking me.  He tattooed himself and sewed up his own split lip. It was easy for me as a corpulent bibliophilic youngster to see myself growing into my MG, sitting on the couch with his lap blanket watching a dodgers game.  But a part deep in my soul always stirred in me to somehow metamorph into the utilitarian outdoorsman that I saw my PG as.

Growing up, however, I had a mother who had a full room of craft supplies but my father was much more of the computer wiz.  I would watch him on our greenscreen computer as he showed me the miracles of the BBS forums, which eventually became the internet.  He and I would put the innards of computers together and I loved those times.  I loved doing something with my dad, I loved the fact that it was nerdy, but I really enjoyed having the screwdriver in my hand, the satisfying click of electrical connectors going together, properly seating the data ribbon.  I don't want to downplay my dad's other gifts, he is a great computer guy.  He is loving and compassionate.  He is quick to laugh, and laugh loudly.  My dad invigorates me when I am around him I feel like he is one of those people that takes a deeper draft of life than I do.  In spite of those things he is not a mechanical thinker.  Growing up I would hear the same "Point the flashlight where I'm working" spout out in frustration over the oily complexities of the family's mode de jour of transport but my dad didn't have the knack.  I just assumed that I also didn't have the knack and so settled myself firmly in the intellectual artistic camp.   I operated under that assumption all of my developing years.  The one change was when I took Intro to Woodworking in 7th grade.  I loved it.  The smell of the wood shop   The shavings on the floor, the feel of the sharp plane cutting ribbons of wood to make the napkin holder.  Again I felt that same thrill as I did with the lathes growing up and the computer building experiences.  I was starting to suspect that these hands were made to hold tools.

But like many flashes of personal discovery during those development years, I rightfully suppressed it to conform to the status quo that I had somehow assigned to myself. The big change happened when I started making pipes in college.  I acquired more tools and made some pens as well.  With only a lathe and a band saw  and a plethora of hand tools and various other bits I was able to create things that I felt were somewhat beautiful that that people could use.  A bit of confession here.  Though I always aspired to be a great pianist author/sketcher, in reality I was not.  I have the less than exiting ability to be above average at most things and excellent at very few.  I think the highest compliment I received in my artistic pursuits was that I was the greatest waste of natural talent my piano teacher had ever encountered.  So although I was not very capable in the most traditional forms of high art I started to see myself as a bit of an artisan, something I now would call a craftsman (I apologize for the implied, but unintended, sexism. Although I am a person I am also a man and feel like I can use this term without guilt).   So I woodworked away for about a year until the major revolution happened in my life.  I'm not sure if the XS850 came first or the reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance but they were about the same time period of my life and when their forces combined I was a changed man.  Now before any fans get upset I understand that ZATAOMM is not primarily about motorcycle maintenance but the description of the systems of the motorcycle and his love of maintaining it through the dialogue help me to see the art of mechanics.  His discussions on quality and the art of building a BBQ opened my eyes to something that I had, to a degree, always felt:  That I had a passion for fixing things and that to fix things well was art.

Why did I give this lengthy biographical sketch you may ask?  Recently, in the midst of my desire to have some free time to use towards my various interests, I unintentionally stumbled across a BBC series called MasterCrafts.  It is basically survivor for Makers toned down for British audiences.  I loved it.  They take interested people and have them learn the basics of Crafts like woodworking, stone masonry, and weaving to compete for a spot as an apprentice in the craft.  It was great to watch people's almost spiritual connection with the act of creating something with their hands.  It has been very interesting to watch people from our modern age learn the joy of creating, becoming connected with the process of something, to be forced into the discipline of learning basic skill sets.  All things that are somewhat foreign in our western cultures.  And it reminded me of that soulful spark that I had the first time I touched a gouge to wood.  The first time my motorcycle piston ignited, the first time I put the final buff on one of my briar pipes.  It reminded me that what I was really missing was not just something to do, I have almost no free time as it is.  The reason I am going through hobby withdrawal is there is a piece of me that needs to create, to art if you will.  I read a quote that says we do not go into the wilderness to rough it, we go to smooth ourselves.  I craft not because I want to create something but because I am someone who creates things.