The Woodcarver and the Sunk Cost Fallacy

If you studied economics, process engineering or are an enthusiast of popular psychology, you might have heard of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. It’s alive and well in woodcarving too. Sunk costs are costs you have paid and can’t get back. 

That’s fine if everything works out. But if the project just hasn’t been the success you wished for, the temptation is to keep trying to fix it. Sometimes it can’t be fixed. And that’s the sunk cost fallacy: The belief that just one more project revision will allow the Goony Bird Mk 29 to fly.

I knew the fallacy well. I called it “just one more cut.” The piece will work with one more cut to clean up that angle. Five cuts later, the chip carving is worse off than when I started. I was most familiar with it from chip carving because some of the balance and symmetry of a piece come from all cuts sharing similar geometry; if one facet is out of balance, the carving looks odd.

I saw it a lot more when I started teaching. I start my courses with chip carving to teach tool control and the importance of sharp tools. An occasional student could not stop cutting and adjusting. Rarely did any of this result in a saved piece of work. I described it to my students at WoodenBoat School as “just one more cut.”

Later, over dinner, an engineer in my class told me about the sunk cost fallacy. As I write this, I can think of an eagle I’ve carved that I’d love to take one more cut on. See, it’s pervasive.

Here’s some advice I’ve offered that applies well here:

  •  First, turn the carving bottom for the top; how bad is the perceived defect? 
  • Second, using a hand mirror, view the work from various perspectives; once again, how bad is the defect? 
  • Third, put down the tools and work on something else for the rest of the day. Come back later. 
  • Fourth, study the effect of the corrective cut before you do it. What are the chances of that cut fixing the problem? 
  • Fifth, when realizing you’ve wasted hours mulling over ten minutes of carving, throw the junk into the kindling bucket and do it right. It’s harder to do the further along the piece is; I’m not telling you that I have no struggles with this.

So, Robert Elliot, a colleague of mine who produces gorgeous Windsor chairs, once scolded me that we can’t just throw everything that had a mistake away. We have to learn how to fix errors. That’s the value of the first steps, knowing what we did wrong, thinking about how it can be fixed, and evaluating if it’s worth fixing. Hopefully, we will learn enough to avoid repeat errors and the frustration of endlessly falling into the sunk cost fallacy. 

Zaida “sits” for her portrait

Although the steam yacht Zaida sits within the frame on the wall, it is not quite complete. More steel wool rubbing is needed on the oil-varnish finish, and the sails’ detailing needs recutting where final sanding is removed it. I also may gold leaf the filigree at the bow. But I needed a break from work and wanted to see how it looked hung the wall.

This is my second run at the Steam Yacht Zaida. I’ve used different techniques and am more satisfied with the outcome.
To be clear, I do not do scale models. This is neither flat art nor scale modeling. It’s very much in line with the 19th century Dioramas that sailors made of the vessels they served on.

Zaida was built in 1910 at the J.S. White yard In Cowes, England. I’ve shown her here as she appears in the builders drawing. The drawing suggested a seriously overrigged arrangement which included a square yard forward and the possibility of a large staysail amidships. I doubt she ever flew that much canvas since she is described as a twin-screw auxiliary schooner.
For this portrait, I’ve reduced the sail plan to something more modest for the deck division to handle. However, at 149 feet in length, she must have had a relatively large crew.

In 1916 Zaida became an auxiliary Patrol vessel in the Royal Navy, armed with six-pound guns. Unfortunately, she was sunk while on patrol near Alexandria that August.

What’s involved in making one of these portraits? First, research, then selective compression of what you will include, and then carving. Research may be as easy as using a builders illustration to figure out the lines for a small sailboat like a small sloop or catboat. But on a larger vessel, especially an older one, research may never yield the sort of completion you wish. For every ship for which a plan exists in a research library or online database, thousands exist only in grainy photos and magazine articles. Sometimes these are the most interesting.

After research, you must create a plan for the hull, sail, stacks, and other parts. Sometimes commercial parts exist, but other times it all must be fabricated. Then you can start carving, and in many ways, that is the easy part. The total number of hours? For Zaida, about five hours of research, five of design, and fourteen for carving. Finishing is about four hours. So Zaida required about twenty-eight to thirty hours total. Of course, all this varies depending upon the size, research required, and amount of carving and finishing.

A small sloop is relatively quick to do. And small sloops, catboats, and schooners make up most of the portraits. Something like Zaida is for stretching your skills.

Paper and Scissors

I found the wood sitting in the shorts at my favorite hardwood dealer. It was very dark, heavy, and dense. It was mahogany but so dark and heavy that I felt it was a wayward piece of Dominican, not Honduran. It was just what I wanted.
I wanted to create a banner with a distinctive font, Barnhard Modern. I also wanted to give the banner a center and ends that undulate. The result was pleasing. At shows, people run their hands over the banner as a sensual experience, precisely what I wanted.

How do you do this? You must carve banner ends to appear delicate when viewed from a distance. But up close, there needs to be enough heft that they’ll stand up to the abuse they’ll get on a boat’s transom. For a show display, you have to compromise. People are way closer to the carving than they would be in another boat.

Many banners have curvature, but in most, the area which is lettered is flat. On MANDALAY, the field of the lettering undulates. So, the lettering does not stay in the same plane while laying it out or carving it. To experiment with this, I advise using wood no less than 8/4 in thickness. Any less will be too thin for the effect to work.

First, I carved the banner with all its curves and undulations. It’s essential to control your pleasure in removing wood. Easy. Remember that the effect comes from the smoothness of the curves and contours. Abrupt changes will ruin the look. Periodically take a break to place it in natural light. Turn it upside down and see if the movement of the wood flows.
For lettering, you have several options: Old School layout by hand; or New School computer layout in vinyl or paper. I chose a compromise between hand layout and computer layout on paper. The key to the paper template here is that the paper is flat, and the surface is not – hence the title: Paper & Scissors because cutting the paper will allow you to follow the undulating surface.
To follow the undulations, you slice the areas between the letters to get them to lay in the correct planes. As you layout, you also need to adjust the kerning ( distance between the letters). When completed, take the design into natural light, turn it upside down, and check to see if it still looks proportionate and balanced. I left this for a day and returned to it fresh the next morning; rested eyes see mistakes. I also find that taking photos on my phone reveals things my eyes sometimes miss.

After the layout was complete, the letter carving was like any other letter carving project. The finish is about eleven coats of Captain’s Z-Spar rubbed out after the first three priming coats and each succeeding one. The lettering I painted with One-Shot yellow sign paint. Two thin coats are better than a single thick covering.

Although gold leafing is an entirely separate topic, I advise that you do yourself an enormous favor and allow the varnish to cure before gold leafing. Remember that’s cure, not dry. Varnish manufacturers will tell you that varnish dries in twenty-four hours. But that is not the same as curing.

Gold leaf has a nasty tendency to stick to anything. But especially uncured varnish. I frequently allow a week or more for the varnish to cure; move on to another project, and come back later to apply gold leaf.

Acorns to Oaks*

We all want to be instant experts. One of my sensei describes this in terms of the training montages that are standard fare in martial arts movies; the neophyte progresses from clumsy beginner to skilled pro in thirty seconds of cinematic snapshots. The rest of us suffer from dissatisfaction and disappointment from being less than optimal for much longer.
Not every time, but more frequently than I’d like, I get confronted with the unique. And, all of a sudden I am a neophyte once more. Incorporating new materials, using new types of paints, complex constructions, and most especially very small parts that need fabrication all create confrontations with the problematic.

When I was doing banners, quarter boards, transoms, and the odd eagle, the problems were mostly mechanical – design layout, curvature to fit, and calculating shadows in carved lettering.

Boat and ship portraits offer many more issues. I am presenting a practice piece of the very first boat portrait I ever did. Remember, practice pieces are exactly like the rough sketches you do of a subject before you paint – the practice is to work out the approach, shapes, and rendering before you start the actual work. Being that carving is subtractive, this saves you from ruining expensive wood and wasting time.

Over the years, I’ve done many portraits. I’ve borrowed techniques from model makers, painters, and illustrators. I’ve also had to develop some tricks of my own. The single most important thing will seem trite: challenge is what differentiates those who are growing from those who are standing still intellectually and as artists.

Principal carving is complete, finishing the coaming and adding some details are all that's left before fitting into the hoop
Principal carving is complete, finishing the coaming and adding some details are all that’s left before fitting into the hoop.

There are about two years between my first practice piece and my rendering of a cat boat for a mast hoop portrait. Principal carving is complete, finishing the coaming and adding some details are all that’s left before fitting into the hoop.

Easy Pieces

I admit that the sort of non complex carving that happens when I carve a small bowl is pretty alluring. No antsy detail. No pattern that needs to be followed. Just follow the will of the wood.

today I put up a new page on the site for hand carved bowls, but thought that I’d spend a bit of time taking about my favorites . I am kind of hoping that these do not sell at next weeks show. I’ve made the mistake of getting attached to them.

Only a few inches around, the banding on the sides and interior, and the rough lip make this one a favorite just to hold and look at. Made from a piece of cherry firewood.

This second one was also from firewood. I love the subtle grain pattern and the rough lip.

This third bowl was from a slightly larger piece of cherry firewood. I had enough wood to form a bit of a handle. I went experimental and charred the interior with a torch. Before finishing you scrape off most to the char, leaving just blackened wood. There are slight defects in the wood that in my mind make the piece even more interesting.

I’ve done a number of others, and like them, but these are my favorites.

New and Old

We can easily get lost in the weeds talking about tradition in crafts. It’s just hard to avoid observing that technology casts long shadows when you make something and call it traditional. The majority of shops that work with wood use bandsaws, table saws, and jointers. These tools have been around long enough not to ignite a vendetta among purists looking for “traditionally crafted goods.” But the technological landscape is always changing for the craftsperson.
Recently I have been nosing about on the borders. A few years ago, a series of eye surgeries compromised my ability to do certain types of woodcarving, mostly lettering. After surgery, I began to explore what I could and couldn’t conveniently do. The vision changes prompted the carving shop’s move from the old basement workshop into the greenhouse – I needed lots of light. Last year I also began to play around incorporating laser engraving and cutting as an adjunct to my carving.
Some things worked well, and others fell flat. Frankly, it’s all a work in progress. The small sign shown above is one of the projects that worked. Some of the others wound up feeding the woodstove.
Is it traditional? Well, was it traditional when craftspeople and artists began using acrylic paints or using computers to assist them in design?

Years ago, when I worked as an anthropologist, I knew a woman who crafted the most incredible Ukrainian Easter eggs. One afternoon over coffee Elizabeth introduced me to the history of technological innovation in the world of decorated Easter eggs. Over the centuries, dies and methods of preparation changed. But the community accepted the eggs because of the continuity of design and meaning in the community.
Back in the ’80’s colleagues were musing about Cambodian kite makers shifting from traditional fabrics used in Cambodia to the ripstop nylon available to them here in the United States. The maker of traditional Cambodian dance costumes received mention also. One of them had adopted the hot glue gun and factory-made jewelry findings to construct elaborate headdresses and other costume bits. They looked like the old style, but the components and techniques had evolved.

On one project I worked on years ago with boatbuilders, I asked builders what they thought was the central concept that defined the traditional boat. I had expected them to talk about materials, construction techniques, and design. I wasn’t disappointed because they all mentioned those things to one degree or another, but as a group, they said the value placed on the boat by the community that used them was central. One well-known figure I interviewed ( Lance Lee) suggested the term “cherish” as the central concept – the boats were cherished and valued by the community. It was the community of users that made something traditional.

The laser engraver that sits in the basement, and my visual handicap, got me thinking about these things. The concept of craft, especially when labeled traditional, has some minefields laid in it for the artisan. Look beyond technology to intent, the community’s acceptance of the product, and the continuation of design tradition. Sometimes we might be daunted by what we see, but the first carver who moved from a stone or bone tipped tool to one of metal started us on the moving process of technology in arts and craft.

New York Pilot Boat 5

This chest was not in stock long enough for me to do a proper set of photos. It sold at it’s first appearance at the Maine Boatbuilder’s Show to a pair of Boston Harbor pilots who were going to give it as a retirement gift to a colleague. The chest itself was of fairly common pine with teak keys for strength and decorative effect.
The top though, that’s some pine of a different pedigree. The pine tree was felled by the great hurricane of 1938. At the time it came down, it had been the tallest tree in the town of Shirley, Massachusetts. Very probably old growth, the entire top was just a segment of the plank I purchased from the retired dairy farmer, who, in true Yankee fashion, refused to let such a good tree go to waste and made it into planks.

The pilot boat itself was pilot number 5 from New York Harbor. Pilot boats had to be extremely fast and able, and this design shows a flexible sail plan and sweet lines. Somewhere I have a slew of pilot boat designs but have not had an opportunity to carve another. Beautiful boats like this are hard to resist.

for a more recent look into New York Harbor pilotage take a look at Tugsters post of a pilot boat mothership:


Wood occupies a central part of our lives. We love our cherry spoons, Mahogany cabinets, and teak deck chairs. As consumers, there is much that you don’t know about your favorite woods.


Ash has a sweetish odor, that is uniquely distinctive when you saw it or burn it. Fresh red birch has a scent that takes you back to the best root beers you’ve ever had. Cherry bark smells like tasty cough syrup. And oak has an earthy odor to it. If you work with fresh-cut timber, these are some of the sensations that the tree shares with you, and which the uninitiated remain unaware.


Love the look of mahogany, the beautiful color of cherry, or walnut? The tree didn’t add them for you. Trees live in a highly competitive environment where organisms are always attacking the tree, looking for a meal. To deter the attacks, trees deposit chemicals into their wood that inhibit insects, bacteria, and fungi. After we cut the timber, those chemicals give us the coloration and some of the wood’s durability.


Some woods are toxic to us. A wood called Pink Ivory is lovely to look at but is dangerous because of the chemicals in the wood. In use, it needs sealing before it’s safe for us to use. 

Woodworkers need to be especially aware that the dust caused by sanding some species is irritating. Mahogany and teak fall into that category. Not everyone is sensitive, but wearing protective gear is an excellent way of avoiding dermatitis or respiratory issues.

Food Safety:

Normally most of what I’ve mentioned is not too important to the average consumer. There is one area to aware of, and that is treen. Treen ( derived from the word tree) are objects like spoons, spatulas, bowls, and the like. Being that we handle food with them, the potential toxicity should be considered. In North America, woods normally considered food safe are woods like maple, fruitwoods (cherry, plum, pear, and apple) birch, and poplar. I’ve used ash for cutting boards, but not for spoons because it has alternating summer and winter woods ( ring porosity) and might absorb odors and flavors when immersed. Oak, while not toxic, is ring-porous, and can impart it’s earthy taste to foods, so I do not use it.

You might notice that I have not included walnut on my list. I am rather certain that it is food safe, but I rarely use it because there are a good number of people with walnut allergies.

Spalted wood is wood with the patterns of decay caused by fungus visible on the wood. It’s beautiful to look at, but there is a significant debate as to whether or not it is food safe. I do not work with it, in part, because there is a respiratory risk to the woodworker from the spores of the fungus. Yes, many woodworkers claim that the spores can be killed by microwaving or heating the wood. It’s just not a risk I take.

Exotic woods. I stay away from them. For many, there are question marks regarding their food safety, and being that I used to sell commercially, I had product liability to worry about.

If you have questions about any of this, write me, and I’ll try to formulate an intelligent response.


My father’s favorite ship was the S.S. President Tyler. He sailed aboard it whenever possible from his first voyage around 1932 till he came ashore in 1946, the year I was born. Several World and Asian cruises made him a genuine China Sailor.
Sailors, merchant or naval, can have deep relationships with their ships. Call it loyalty, affection, longing, or call it what it really can be – romance. I know, I have an ache for a certain ketch I’ll never see again. Women are known to jealous of ships and boats. My first mother in law was jealous of the Cap’ns Psyche. For the sake of peace, she hid it well. My mother was not so diplomatic about my father’s love of the sea, and “that ship.” She had been a sea widow throughout their marriage and two pregnancies. Like many sea widow’s, there came a time when the husband was expected to “swallow the anchor.” More than a few arguments ended with my father threatening to go to the hiring hall and “look for a ship.”
So growing up, the Tyler was a sensitive issue. We’d regularly drive along the Hudson River to where the reserve fleet was anchored. He was looking for the Tyler. My mother was never on any of these excursions.

I had seen my father’s pictures onboard the Tyler, But I had never seen a photo of the ship itself. My mother was famous for editing her life, so it’s more than likely that she disposed of those photos when she threw out dad’s cruise scrapbooks. For her, those were not good times.

Many years later, I was teaching marine carving at the WoodenBoat School in Maine. Teaching at WoodenBoat is not just an opportunity to learn. It’s an opportunity to grow as a person through the freindhips formed with the individuals you meet there. One year one of my students was a former Master Mariner who worked for the American Bureau of Shipping. We talked about ships one night, and I told him all that I knew of the Tyler and my father’s affection for the ship. I mentioned that I’d love to carve a portrait of the Tyler but could not find enough data to start the project. I thought no more about the conversation, and at the end of the course, said goodbye to my students and returned to Massachusetts.

About three weeks later, a large envelope arrived from the ABS (American Bureau of Shipping). In it was were copies of plans and articles relating to the class of vessel to which the Tyler had belonged; enough to start the portrait. My student had searched the ABS library for the documentation that I needed.

The Tyler was my first large portrait. I can now look at it and see a dozen things that I would and could do differently with twenty years of experience carving portraits. But when you finish a project it’s best to move on, or you’ll never finish.

It sails on my wall with a cherry ocean and sky heading east from Japan or China towards Los Angelos. I think my father is pleased that his ship is restored to an essential place in our lives, through the unexpected kindness of a fellow seaman.

Eagle Eyes

While teaching, I always like to decorate the workshop with carving examples for students to use as a reference. Week-long excursions to teach away from home mean emptying the house of many of my carvings. But samples in three dimensions often are better than pictures or demonstration, and the extra work was worth it.
During one summer course, A student was working on an eagle and suddenly stopped, got up, and went over to an eagle billet head. He picked it up and turned the head away from him. Noticing me watching, he shrugged his shoulders and said: “it was watching me.”
Smiling, I pointed out that he was perfecting the eagle’s body plan and feathers without working on the head, most notably the eye. He asked me why it mattered, and I told him that it was essential to fair the contours of the head and neck into the body, so the eagle looked all of one piece when finished. The head is temporarily attached to the body with a screw while you carve the neck fair to the body.
” But why was it watching me?”
Well, I explained, years ago, while I was first carving eagles, a talented carver from Boothbay Harbor advised me to always start the head before detailing and finish the eye first. There was a practical reason for this. The eye was a delicate piece of work, and if not done right could ruin the whole birdie. He then added that he had been taught to do the eye first so the eagle could oversee the carving’s remainder. ” As I was taught, so am I teaching you.” I then turned the eagle about so it’s beady eyes were on the student. ” Being that you haven’t done the eye first, this birdie’s cousin in watching you.” I can be a first-class pain sometimes.

I carved the eyes on that particular eagle with a “tunnel” eye effect. With that manner of carving, you could get the impression that the eye watches you and moves with you. To someone easily spooked, like my student, it could be an unpleasant sensation.
There are several ways to carve eagle eyes for traditional marine eagles. Please note that if you carve more realistic styles, these will not appeal to you. I’m a nineteenth-century carver stuck in the twenty-first century. Be all modern if you like. Another ships carver reminded me that most people do not get close eough to smell the eagle; all these things in full size are meant to be viewed from a distance. Here are some examples of eyes:


“The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The problem with imagination is that it’s boundless. On the wall is a poster telling you that you can do it if you can imagine it. Don’t take it too literally.

Aspirations aside, there are some things only possible with loads of tricks, like telling fortunes. My friend Bill had picked up some tricks of the psychic trade from working with a con artist we knew as John. Bill had a natural talent for reading people, and with the card and vocal tricks he had picked up from John, he was soon a favorite among the weekend influx of suburban kids that regularly hit the Folkie Palace. 

From fortune-telling with the kids to doing it at the Harvard Gardens for beer was a natural progression. “Imagine.” he told me- “I’m doing well while doing good.” At first, he restricted himself to doing readings for friends, but as he grew more confident, he branched out. Lovelorn young ladies came to be a specialty. One attractive woman decided that she wanted Bill’s services exclusively. He demurred politely. She grew insistent. He explained that he was married. She slapped him and walked out.

Not too much later in walked police Sargent Cappucci with the young woman behind him. We all stood up to give Bill the needed cover to run out past the men’s room and the back door into the alleyway. Knowing that Bill and I were best friends, I got collared. “Tell your little buddy that I ‘m looking for him. Playing with the affections of my niece is something I won’t tolerate.” He shoved me into the booth, and away they walked. Him fuming her crying softly. “His niece.” Said the Teahead of the August Moon. ” Sweet. Bill can always find some way to get us into trouble.”

For the next couple of weeks, we were not in good favor with the residents of Grove Street. It seemed that the entire street attracted more casual police attention than usual. Squad cars were cruising by. Officers were poking around. It curtailed summer parties and other activities. It became common knowledge that we were the cause of this attention. As a group, and as individuals, we got uninvited from everything happening in the neighborhood. People avoided sitting near us in the Harvard Gardens. 

Bill suffered from none of this. He had departed for Baltimore right after the trouble at the Gardens.

As is often the case, we don’t learn from our mistakes unless we suffer from their consequences. In this incident, only Bill’s friends have. So it came as no surprise that no one at the Folkie Palace was willing to contribute to paying the fine to get Bill out of jail in Baltimore.

He had been cutting into the action of the”legitimate” psychics in Downtown Baltimore, and they had tipped off the police. I hitched down, solicited as many of our friends as possible, and got him out.

He was a repentant, Bill. a Bill who promised never to tell a fortune again. Besides, while in the joint, he’d met this great guy who’d taught him how to count cards in Blackjack.

” Wes, have you ever been to Vegas?”

Shots – also Last on the card, September

In my area, the small-town governments are constantly generating a flurry of articles in favor of or opposing development, schools, or issues that have people up in arms. It can make driving down the local roads enjoyable, seeing what political action signs are posted on the banks of the roadside.

This sign and the one in the back of it appeared last week. I usually pay only passing attention to the signs; they come and go, but these caused me to slow down and eventually pull up for a photo. The “I support the most recent thing” sign appeared to be a sarcastic commentary. But in combination with the sign behind it, I realized the comment was reactionary against masking, immunizations, LGBTQ, and Black Lives Matter. I thought I wouldn’t want to knock on their door looking for directions.

As I drove along, I began to take severe umbrage toward the sign and the thought behind it due to an immediate and personal event. Last week I was bitten by someone’s cat in my backyard. After I had shooed my dog, Max, away, the bastard jumped at me and bit me hard. It had tags on so it was someone’s pet, but who’s? No one acknowledged owning it.

My healthcare provider decided that I needed to be seen in the Emergency Room, and the ER provider agreed that I needed a tetanus booster, immune globulin, and a rabies vaccine series. The reason? Many people have become “vaccine adverse.” They have shared this feeling to include being adverse to having pets immunized. Instead of just running away, the cat had attacked, which was atypical. So, without being able to confirm that the cat had been vaccinated, I was committed to a string of ER visits to get shots. Sweet.

Without the series of shots, I might just have filed this photo in among my collection of odd pictures that I had found interesting. But because of the shots, this shot of the signs boils my blood. I think of the people committed to this course of action, not as political protestors or being foolish. I see them as dangerous scoundrels because they and others like them have put my life in danger.

I don’t think that people like this can be reasoned with, and I’m reminded of the quote, “We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged” (Heinrich Hein)

someone else’s psychotic break

Daily writing prompt
What’s the trait you value most about yourself?

If you’ve played in the waves, you’ll remember how, as the waves rush out, the sand is sucked from beneath your feet, your steps drag slowly, and you can barely make headway against the pull. If the tide is strong enough, it can wrench us off our feet and ensnare us. One second, we are blithely playing at the beach, and the next, we are panicking and struggling. If we are unfortunate enough to get swept out by a current, it can seem as though the color is drained from the scene, and all we are left with are sepia-toned views of disaster. It only takes one such adventure to make a permanent impression on you.

Let’s call it “getting in over our heads.” We’ve all done it. Like our adventure in the tide, it starts innocently enough but then seems to grow beyond our initial commitment. Perhaps it’s a job or helping a friend in a bad situation. But most often, it’s a relationship. We wake to find out the person we’ve committed to is not as we were led to believe. There is a crazy strip as wide as the moon, and we have accepted responsibility for extracting them from a nutsy interlude at a party or in a bar. 

We quietly acknowledge that it is incredible what drugs and alcohol can do to a person, just as the crazy jerk enraged by our charge tries the dumb stunt of hitting the bar with a beer bottle. As the blood flows across his lacerated wrist, you cooly evaluate the need for surgical intervention, and as you bundle your date or friend out of the bar, quietly say, “Hey! I’d get that looked at if I were you.”

The following day is full of promises or accusations. It will never happen again; I don’t know what got into me, that was not me, or wow, that was some crazy shit last night! You quietly ply them with fluids, and if you are wise, advise them that this is not the sort of stuff you signed up for.

What’s the trait you value most about yourself? The ability to retreat in good order and keep a healthy distance between yourself and getting killed in someone else’s psychotic break.

Cash and Value

Daily writing prompt
List three jobs you’d consider pursuing if money didn’t matter.

There is a vast difference between jobs that are just that and an occupation that has real value . And money or social status has little to do with it. Done right, what many consider low-status jobs are valuable and critically important. Some are idiot enough to put down childcare. What could be more important than establishing a firm foundation for your child’s development?

The sparkle of gelt, gold, all that glitters, and wealth deceives many into thinking that their position in life is superior to that of, say, a milkman. Perspective is critical here. At some point, many of purported high status feel a void and eagerly seek a weekend experience working on a dairy farm – “reconnecting with the earth.” Or flock to a school to learn carving, boatbuilding, shamanism, or cooking skills. This is in response to a realization that status is not everything. 

Students have told me that they envy the creative and pure nature of carving and that it has value beyond simple cash remuneration. I agree with them; each piece is subtly different, even from the same pattern. The wood is different; you’re in a different mood that day, and the light on the work varies. 

This search for value in work is an old one. It predates me. But I ran into it first when I was a folksinger and discovered that the people who shoved dollars into my basket at second and third-tier coffeehouses envied my sofa-surfing, guitar-playing existence. They’d say, “If only I could afford to live like you.” To me, they might as well have been baying at the moon. Live like me? Afford to wonder where your next meal came from or whose living room you were in tonight? To them, my lifestyle was carefree and creative.

The simple truth is that work is not life. Suppose you allow your job description to define you. In that case, you are in enough trouble that a week-long immersive residential class in carving, boatbuilding, embroidery, or French cooking will not save you. If, on the other hand, you say, “Well, I work in arbitrage, but my true passion is making craft beer.” you’ve made a qualitative change in your life. 

You may never become a professional brewmaster, but your aspirational life has improved, and you’ve made progress toward understanding that cash does not imply value or worth.


Daily writing prompt
What aspects of your cultural heritage are you most proud of or interested in?

It can be tough and exhilarating not to be tethered to one tradition. On the one hand, you do not really belong in any place, but on the other, you are free to feel ownership of many traditions and backgrounds. I knew this while growing up. The Carreras family is from the environs of Girona and the Costa Brava in Catalonia, and my paternal grandmother is Hungarian/ German from a tiny corner of the Autrio-Hungarian Empire. My mother was from a remote Island on the western edge of the Caribbean that had changed hands multiple times between the British and the Spanish. There is more. The DNA test lays it out with digital accuracy, but this is the gist.

The question of who you are could only elicit a long and varied tale because I was a person of snippets. I early on learned that my girlfriend’s parents were interested in the short story, not the long one. A bit from here and another from there can get too complicated for casual storytelling. In addition, geographical moves over the generations complicated the story. But it all came together in New York City in time for me to be born and raised a New Yorker. In many circles, that is enough to nail it down with digital precision – “Oh, he’s from New York” – it explains it all.

Maybe I should have left it at that. Nice and simple. But I don’t like nice and simple, so I messed it up by moving to New England. There, I learned very non-New Yorker ways. 

One day, it all came to a head when I flew to New York for a consulting job. I grabbed a cab and gave the cabbie directions. After talking for a while, he asked me where I was from, and I told him, ” Washington Heights, in Manhattan.” He laughed, “That’s funny. No, where are you really from?” I couldn’t convince him I was a New Yorker.

I had a bit of an existential crisis that day.

The Low Down On Logos

Daily writing prompt
What brands do you associate with?

I feel that people who walk around with little logos on their clothes or huge swatches on their t-shirts must be lacking in commercial acumen or stylistic panache. They may also be groggy from too little sleep and leave home with mismatched socks.

First, you are a giant walking billboard. Don’t you have misgivings about being an advertisement, especially one who paid for the privilege rather than being paid? Second, I feel there is an implication that you have little sense of style and must borrow it from some supposedly elite brand. Maybe try a pony or a wineglass logo rather than that cute crocodile. Explore a bit.

There is more to this you might wish to think about.

Buying my first wreck of a car coincided with a hotly contested election. I eagerly slapped the bumper sticker of my favorite candidate onto the rear bumper and thought little of it until the police stopped me; after giving me a warning rather than a citation, the officer felt free to lecture me on politics and provide some free advice. It ran like this: not everyone agreed with my political stance; some might be aggrieved and even choose to do more than disagree with me. He mentioned that on his police force, a few officers hated my candidate and thought that anyone who agreed with him must be an idiot. They might not just give me a warning but a citation. He said this was free advice; I could take it or leave it. After witnessing a bit wider taste of how people behave when politics becomes a combat sport, I decided to take it.

Brands and branding say a lot about us. I tend to avoid wearing brands. I have a few WoodenBoat hats and a Town Class Sloop hat. They are well-thought-out exceptions to my general rule; I’ve worked for WoodenBoat and Pert Lowell Company( makers of the Town Class sloop) and have a genuine affection for the companies because of personal connection. Otherwise, I avoid being a billboard.

People may evaluate you on your branding. Make it something you feel passionate about rather than placeholders for opinions or other people’s logos.*

*OK, OK, I’ll carve out an exception for Band T-shirts. Sheesh!


Daily writing prompt
What could you do more of?

How much shelter do we need?

We all are looking for that safe place; get fancy and describe it as a latibule, more basic as a hideaway, securitize it as a safe room, or go western gangster and want a Hole In The Wall. It will all be the same, someplace where we can’t be gotten at by whatever is trying to give us injury. It can be as simple as a comfy spot under a quilt. Or, if you are a paranoid billionaire, a custom-built subterranean shelter for yourself, your family, selected domestics, and security staff. You and I just want to be safe from injury. But the ultra-wealthy want to pull a substantial part of the world in with them, too.

Perhaps you think I am joking, but I am very serious. I searched online after reading a newspaper article about it a few months ago. I found sources that extolled the designs and construction details of doomsday constructions for the filthy rich. You and I may cower in our basement with water jugs and canned beans, but the well-to-do will still have pate, wine, and clean sheets.

But the article I read pointed out a big hole in the mega-shelter idea. Pay. The staff might start being grateful for the reprieve from armageddon for a few weeks. But working only for sustenance gets a bit old after a while. After a time, they might think that they don’t need you screaming for a fresh bottle of sherry at midnight. And what’s the likelihood of the security staff getting ideas and holding a coup? Think of it: the airlock opens, and you and yours get evicted from your dear shelter into the toxic outdoors.

So, with all the banks closed and you being frightened by your staff, they have a problem that the rest of us peons don’t. 

It’s such a first-world problem.


Daily writing prompt
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I was, and if you listen to some people, still am more than a bit willful. I was pretty much out of the house and on my own at sixteen, and being a bit shrewd and willful in that magnetic New York City manner made it possible for me to survive.

What I lacked was education. I was booted out of high school for spending more time at a Washington Heights pool hall than in class. I got very little out of it; I’m still lousy at pool. But it did terminate a truly atrocious time interned at George Washington High School. And I use that term advisedly. All this happened in 1963.

I didn’t need the high school diploma for my next act. I merely got on the IRT subway and traipsed down to Greenwich Village. Once there, in the center of Beat and Bohemian traditions in the City, I crafted a living as a folksinger. I played at lower-tier coffeehouses and bars; soon, I matriculated in advanced studies in sofa surfing and finding cheap eats.

It wasn’t until 1970, After time in the Navy, shifting about the US and Canada, and playing random numbers on the jukebox of life, that someone tried to put paid to me with their .38 caliber. This had an amazing and sobering effect on me. After consulting with the folks at the Veterans Administration, I found that my G.I.Bill veteran’s coverage would pay for me to return to high school without counting towards what would be available for a potential gig at college.

Soon, I was enrolled at Shaw Prep, taking English, Geometry, and History. Once again, I never completed it. But rather than my walking out, my English teacher, George McDonough, pulled me aside and told me there was a better way forward. He referred me to a counselor at Boston University named Richard Kimball. Kimball arranged for me to take night courses at Boston University Metropolitan College. What was on offer was a deal: do well enough and eventually be able to enroll as a degree candidate.

Eventually, I graduated with honors from Boston University’s College of Liberal Arts, Cum Laude, with honors in anthropology (class of 1975). Just before graduating, I was called to the Dean’s office. It seems that I failed to take a High School Equivalence test or provide proof of completing high school as required. We just sat there for a while, and then the Dean misfiled the paperwork, smiled at me, and wished me luck in grad school.

The best advice I’ve received was George McDonough, advising me to see Richard Kimbal. This story is true.

The Garden Rebels

Daily writing prompt
What things give you energy?

Yesterday was the first day of Autumn. The overgrown section of the garden calls out to me. It’s time to reconquer the wild. There is an impenetrable dome of vegetation in the front side garden that even the dog refuses to venture into. I also have an enormous amount of pruning to do. Apple trees gone rogue, a pear tree that has resisted control. And squash vines that stubbornly refused to set fruit in the damp wetness of summer but have grown vast and lanky. I have had it with the grapes; the bird’s protests shall go unheard. I’m cutting them down!

I’ve posted a few times this summer about my new plans for the garden: elevated beds, very strictly limited. I want an easy-to-control garden with no annual struggle with breakaway sections declaring outlaw rule. The initial beds I have constructed seem to fit the bill. Two more will be constructed in the spring, and I shall resist the temptation to throw in a few more plants at random; that never seems to end well.

It is always the same. Great energy and commitment in April, a busy May, and then a relaxing June enjoying the garden’s beauty. Then comes July and August with competing commitments for family trips, work, and too-hot-to-weed days. But inevitably, come September; I wake up to the loss of control, the needed weeding, and the rebellious front side garden that always simmers with rebellion. This year, though, I have taken heed from previous years and developed a plan to reduce garden size and strictly control the wilder tendencies.

Now! Do I have the energy for all this?

And a one, and a two

Daily writing prompt
What’s your all-time favorite album?

Labels can define you. They are not you, but they can place you in time and space, give people inaccurate hunches about who you are, and put actual thought on a snooze alert. So be careful with giving away information about yourself that sticks you in a niche. Admitting that you liked your grandmother’s collection of Lawrence Welk records from the 1960s will have them continually making reference to “Champagne Music,” giggling and asking if you took accordion lessons. Even worse would be revealing the info online – you’ll be showered in junk email offering you intimate bios of Welk, deals on concert videos, and the like.

We all know that such unscientific efforts to plumb the depths of a person are doomed to failure. I prefer graphology myself. A simple sample of your writing will reveal all the characteristics needed to pigeonhole, I mean to reveal a person’s most intimate traits.

Here, let’s try an experiment. Just sign on this line and here where it needs a date. No, no need to fill in the amount line. Of course not! What sort of cad do you think I am…I wouldn’t dream of cashing your blank check. It’s just an experiment in graphology!

And don’t worry; your secret is safe with me. No one shall ever know of your questionable taste in music. Trust me.

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