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?”


Daily writing prompt
What is one thing you would change about yourself?

Ever want to be a blonde with a bit of curl to your hair? One of the most attractive women I ever knew wished fervently that she could be a natural blonde. She was a gorgeous brunette. We bonded over that because one evening, I confessed that I’d willingly give up my dark curls and waves for straight blonde hair. We’d even done that same childhood experiment. A snip of our dark hair and some peroxide from the bathroom and what our hair would look like blonde in a while. A graphic demonstration of who we might otherwise be.

We both were looking for ways out of social dilemmas. All her friends were blondes. And I wanted out of the prejudice of being a Latino boy in a prejudiced city. We both falsely thought one fast change would offset more abiding social problems.

She might have visited a beauty parlor for temporary hair color adjustments. I accepted the curls, waves, and dark-colored hair. When I was on the road as a folksinger, I realized that my natural condition had advantages.

About two years ago, with the hair getting whiter by the month, I began joking that I had tired of coloring my hair dark. I decided to go back to my natural platinum color. 

Well, as I was told many years ago, to make the best of what nature gives you.


There’s a big difference between confidence and crazed. One is self-assured, reasonable behavior. It is based on self-knowledge and trust in one’s abilities. The other is a sort of loco animation, a jerky cocksure and strident strut designed to convince us that you are much more than the sum of all your parts. It’s loud, audacious, and calculated to win our attention. Crazed is good at distracting us from critical examination.

Crazed also has difficulty accepting responsibility for failure. A significant feature of a person showing this sort of dementia is the ability to defer blame to others. When things start heading south, crazed resorts to threats, verbal abuse, and innuendo.

We find crazed successfully ensconced in positions in politics, at the head of corporate hierarchies, and in tin horn dictatorships.

Most sane and confident people avoid crazed like the plague.

Bright Eyed?

Daily writing prompt
Are you more of a night or morning person?

I am not a morning sort of person. Here’s the lowdown.

Waking at 4:30 AM was a sort of exquisite torture. But if I awoke much later, I wouldn’t make the 5:30 train I needed to catch. Miss that train, and I’d miss the 6:30 arrival time at the operating room where I was working. Every morning was a trial by fire.

Before working in operating rooms, I’d been a folksinger. Coffeehouses and bars use different schedules than operating rooms. Getting home after a night in New York’s Greenwich Village meant walking into the house in the morning close to when I’d be leaving if I worked in the OR.

Having worked late nights as an entertainer, you’d think that working a night shift would be no trouble, but the 11 to 7 routine at a hospital was one I could never fit into. Somewhere between two and four, the red-eyed zombie would appear. Nurses I worked with said I could be frightening at four in the morning. I had a fevered glare, a walk that looked like I was stalking you, and a twist to my diction that made it seem that someone had not secured the locked ward that night.

One night, I was on call for the operating room but wound up assisting in a surgical procedure in the emergency room. At about 1 AM, I went to the operating room suite to prepare surgical packs and instruments for the morning. At about four, the need for sleep overwhelmed me. I shut off the lights, stretched out on an operating table, and pulled a sheet entirely over my head. I was asleep in seconds.

Hours later, I groggily awoke to noises in the room. With a roar, I sat up, arms outstretched, and heard a scream as one of the nurse anesthetists fled the room in fright. She left a trail of spilled instruments behind her. After that, I was under strict orders to doze only in the staff lounge. Everyone took care to flash the lights before entering. My new nickname in that OR? Zombie. Luckily, as I migrated from hospital to hospital, this nickname did not follow me.

So yeah, I’m not much of an early-morning person. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed is not a good description.


Red Meat!

A deputation from the union confronted me the other night as I prepared their dinner. The dog was the ringleader, and the kittens glared at me. It was about how much turkey I gave them at Thanksgiving.

“Too little!!! Organized labor demands fair treatment!!!” The kittens were fiery in their delivery but stumbled over the sentiments. After all, they aren’t even six months old. The dog, who looked distinctly pudgy from “helping” the kittens finish their food, growled. There would be severe consequences if I failed to meet their just demands. A chorus of “Table scraps! When do we want them? Now!” followed.

I continued dishing out their dinner. Soon, they’d demand an express line for snacks or something else. Since Max, my cattle dog, had taken over as shop steward, there were flurries of small protests over meat at dinner. To be clear, they get a diet of canned and dried food; table scraps are a rare addition. The dog takes issue with this policy.

The problem is that less meat has been eaten at our table this past year, which means fewer opportunities for theft, secret little bits slipped under the table, and the holiday distribution of turkey, roast, and ham.

Anyway, as I put down the bowls, there was a chant from the kittens, “Obligate carnivores demand red meat!” The dog looked satisfied.

Butterwort Flower -last on the card November 2023

Over the years, I’ve discovered that carnivorous plants can surprise you with lovely flowers. I’ve had this butterwort for about a year. And never thought about its flower. It sat on a lower shelf near the kitchen sink under grow lights, and was happy enough to send up this lovely little flower. It is the last on the card for November.


Somewhere in the back of a rack of clothes is a suit. Sport jackets, pants, dress shirts; ditto. I donated most of the stuff years ago. As an anthropologist, I was not what you’d call a high-impact dresser. Once my government job disappeared, my next act was working part-time at UPS while running a small videography business and as a marine woodcarver. I didn’t need sartorial excellence in any of these occupations.

Visiting a sawmill to watch timber become slabs and boards did not require a suit. Likewise, as a small business owner, I wasn’t planning on dressing for promotion. I’d have to plan on laughing at myself; I do that anyway.

So the sartorial accent, so to speak, around my shop is very basic. My uniform of the day consists of lightweight dock pants and a dark-colored, long-sleeved T-shirt or Henley. These items become adorned with woodchips or shavings. Coffee stains and varnish provide accents.

This mode of attire is so persistent that when my oldest son married, he and his fiancee required me to submit what I’d be wearing for the service in advance. Otherwise, they were confident I’d absentmindedly show up fresh from the shop.

Ok, I sometimes dress for success with brightly patterned Hawaiian shirts or bold Indonesian prints. After all, a bit of variety is nice.


Sabrina: Shut up and pretend to be asleep!
Marcus: but why? I want to play with the plants in the window.
Sabrina: He won’t know that we knocked those boxes off the shelf in the pantry. Fool! He’ll think it was the dog!

Dad: Max! Did you knock these boxes of cat food over? Bad dog!

Max:! @#$$%%, Damned $$%^%%^& kittens. When I get hold of them, I’ll @(&^^&&* and then #$##@$$^%& them!!!!

Tech Run Wild!

There is a mantra, or maybe a meme, going around that states tech is not your friend. Whoever coined the meme wants you to be wary of the misuse technology is prone to. And it’s hard not to find an uproar online daily as some new warning comes out.

My favorite parable of Tech Run Wild is a scene from the animated feature Fantasia. The sorcerer’s apprentice animates brooms to sweep and wash the sorcerer’s workshop, but they soon are out of control. The apprentice does not have the magic to either control them or stop them. The Disney animators derived the sequence from an 18th-century poem by Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Goethe probably derived his central idea from much older versions of similar stories. Hidden behind Goethe’s artistry is an older tale that we still cannot seem to pay attention to.

AI is probably the most recent apprentice we expect to run wild. Depending on who you listen to, the inventors should either be locked up, thrown in the calaboose, jail, prison, the black hole, or we should appoint them president for life. The old saying neatly sums up the problem that we have a hard time predicting the size of the oak from the acorn we plant.

The problem isn’t technology – it has been us over the ages. We don’t have sane institutionalized discourses about the effect of new and old technology; we proclaim new eras of plenty or generations of biblical famine. Perhaps we need a collegium in the ancient Roman sense – a group of concerned and interested individuals who consider, debate, and work on practical solutions to developing issues. 

Modern governments have institutions dedicated to agriculture, defense, health, and other critical affairs. Why not technology?

Past, Present and Future

In tales, we read about the hero’s quest—the grand adventure. Ultimately, the hero makes adult decisions and begins a mature and rewarding life.

Having been through one of these, I fervently wish you could avoid it. Fiction does not do the authentic, real-life experience justice. The movie’s enriching and gratifying series of short segments ends with the wiser hero glancing seaward into the bright sunrise. Inspiring. But not true.

Briefly, there was a situation with a woman whose boyfriend ( I did not know about him) took violent exception to my existence. He attempted to terminate me, and I spent several weeks on the run. Afterward, I came to the blunt realization that my life needed some fundamental changes. I’ve deliberately avoided telling the story in detail Here. Why? In this type of story, we frequently focus on the life-changing event instead of how we change life afterward. And it’s the not-so-pretty details of how we change that are important. Anyone can get shot at with a gun.

In my case, the high school dropout went back to school. And began a years-long effort to quit addictive behaviors- it took a long time and was full of Pyrrhic battles, losses, setbacks, and disasters.

Did I backslide along the way? Oh, yes. But in general, I did such an excellent job of burying the old me that I forgot along the path that the rogue was interesting and fun and had talents the new me lacked. A lot of time went by – almost two decades.

Then something happened. One afternoon along the National Mall in Washington, DC, I played some blues with a Mississippi blues musician. Friends thrust the guitar into my arms as a joke. But soon, I was doing a credible “Jelly Roll Baker,” and the years washed away. The rest of that week, I wrestled with two me’s.

In the years that followed, I gradually realized that In saving myself, I had condemned part of myself to the lockup. I had to blend the two back into one. There were and are mismatches. There is no eloquent way to say it. I was surprised when I began this blog because it explores the old, new, and future.

I am still a work in progress.

(the image is public art in Burlington, Vermont)

Lost at Sea

The Saturday after Thanksgiving ( here stateside) marks the anniversary of the sinking of the sidewheel steamer Portland during the Gale of 1898. This year, we observed the 125th. Some 198 passengers and crew lost their lives when a gale with winds of up to a hundred miles an hour overwhelmed the Portland. It’s sometimes called New England’s Titanic.

On Sunday, I read an article about the sinking. Tears came to my eyes even though no one in my family was aboard. I am, however, the son, nephew, and descendant on both sides of my family, for unknown generations, of seaman. As a seaman and sailor, I’ve seen gales, hurricanes, and foul weather. I’ve listened to my father tell about how he survived the torpedo sinking of a tanker. And in my library is a little book issued to merchant seamen titled How To Abandon Ship. I take lives lost at sea personally and seriously.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes on the sea:

“People are always comparing the sea to a woman. That’s a mistake. Even a woman you’ve cheated on and abandoned is more forgiving than high seas and a bad storm.” -Petty Officer John O’Toole, USN.

“Whenever your preparations for the sea are poor, the sea worms its way in and find the problems.” ~ Francis Stokes

“He that will learn to pray, let him go to sea.” ~ George Herbert.

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