What The Dog Did

At some point, even dedicated city dwellers can get tired of the traffic, crowds, and noises of urban life. My friends Bob and Chis decided that they had enough when their second child came along. So to the countryside outside of Baltimore, they went. Their tribe of peripatetic visitors followed. For us, the attraction was idle afternoons down past the meadow with a case of beer cooling in the stream and watching the cows…city boys don’t see too many cows. I’d take along my guitar and serenade the “girls”; they were a fantastic audience and not too critical.

All was not cold beer and appreciative audiences for Bob and Chris. The neighbor in the house next door had rented there for long years and assumed that the property was theirs to use as they pleased. The most annoying part of this was their pack of roaming hounds that dropped their waste wherever and whenever. The result was children in messes that the parents did not appreciate.
Being the sort of avant-guard Folkies we were, we figured out a unique way of getting the solid waste back where it belonged. After some discussion, the best engineer among us constructed a device we called the “crapapult.”
There was a lot of ammunition, and much practice went into boresighting, targeting, forward observation, and training. Finally, it got so the best of us could accurately drop an appropriate bolide upon an unsuspecting hound seven out of ten shots. Those trigonometry classes finally paid off. The neighbors never seemed to notice, but then there was already so much poo in their yard that it hardly seemed to matter.

Things heated up after they went after our household hound. Dammit dared to wander into their yard. They chased him out with sticks. We protested. Not being strictly Biblical Folkies, we decide that the “Revenge is mine sayeth the Lord” stuff meant that we could help the Lord in this department. We awaited our opportunity.
It came on the Fourth of July weekend. The neighbors had cleaned up their yard for their guests and laid on an excellent bar-B-que. The patriarch of the family was busy at the grill. Then there came a moment when his attention wandered, and he became involved in a long argument with one of the guests.
The grill, hot dogs, burgers, and sausages were unattended. This was the moment. Our friend Roger brought forth the crapapult, and sighted it in on the grill. We loaded it with special ammunition. Roger pulled the release cord, and the payload lofted towards its target. Roger could have gone for the easy target of the bald head of the neighbor, but the grill was inspirational. With a brief sizzle, the payload landed on the charcoal grill. We snuck away, putting the crapapult in the barn and out of sight. From the kitchen window, we watched events unfold. First one, and then another of the guests sniffed the air. Their host turned to flip burgers and saw the oddly shaped one on the grill. Then the smoke started, and the scent became overwhelming. A guest reached for a water bucket and tossed it onto the grill, and dark smoke covered that area of the yard. There was a mass exodus into the house accompanied by shrieks and curses. The argument that followed seemed to be about which practical joker had done it. The dispute went on into the night.

Not too long after this, Bob and Chris moved back into the city. We left the crapapult in the barn for the following residents, and I hadn’t thought of it till the other day when my neighbor’s dog dropped a hot one at the foot of my porch stairs. We’ll see if this becomes habitual.

Opportunity Too

It was one of those “Don’t you dare, come any closer” situations. It was an after-the-show dinner at a restaurant set on a pier. I had a coffee cup in my hand, and the one breathing beery fumes at me was inhaling the sixth beer. I was being told in no uncertain terms that the new robot-carver his company was selling would cause an upheaval in the industry. I couldn’t essay a single observation into this one-way conversation. To the salesman, it was profits. To me, as a nautical carver, it foretold the end of a good part of my business. Their carving device was just a router on guides. While the quarterboard carved by this Frankenstein Monster was not as pretty as one of mine, it was good enough to steal a significant amount of business.
The non-stop blather began to rankle, and soon I forcibly pushed into the conversation. Finally, when the salesman realized that I was a carver, he hollered, “perfect! buy a unit, finish the lettering by hand and have the best of both worlds.” I really should not have been shocked. Other carvers routed lettering and finished by hand.
I maintained that I could be halfway done with the carving by the time the router was set up. You tend to get fast at what you do a lot of, and in those days, I did a lot of lettering. It wasn’t that I opposed using industrial tools in my trade. I used bandsaws, table saws, jointers, and planers every week. I prepped stock with them, but I didn’t use them to make my product.
Within a handful of years, the salesman proved to have been accurate in his forecast; computer-driven production was like an octopus driving tentacles into almost every area of my business. As a result, I transformed my business, and I am still at work on that transformation. For example, I’m working on combining traditional carving with work done by the laser that I couldn’t do before.

When something transformative happens in your trade, craft, or industry, you have choices: retire, join the new wave, or be adaptive. For example, boatyards no longer use pitsaws to cut planking from logs, but quality boats still get built. Likewise, few shops hand saw, joint and plane every bit of wood, but quality cabinet work is still done. I’ve written about this before. The challenge is to look at the tool as a tool, not as an end in itself.
Carving has been a niche trade for many years now. The changes in it are only shadows of the changes happening elsewhere. It seems that every industry, business, and craft is being challenged by technological change.

Craftspeople and artists have an advantage in that they tend to be sole proprietors. Thus, they are not subject to the whims of a group of investors who may decide tomorrow to automate the entire operation. In addition, they have learned to pivot as the market desires for products change, something at which their cousins in the corporate world frequently fail. This ability to pivot, not to be comfortable with any status quo, makes the small operator light on their feet. A new tool is not a business killer; it’s an opportunity.
As William Butler Yates said: “Do not wait to strike until the iron is hot but make it hot by striking.”


Most of what I do is obsolete; historical affectations. Wooden spoons and bowls? Quarterboards for sloops and schooners? Carved eagles for transoms? All joyously obsolete. And that’s the point.
As a craftsman, I am not part of the daily deluge of ticky-tack produced frenetically and repeatedly by injection molding machines, CNC routers, and the near slave labor of an Asian factory. What I do is not artwork. It’s just real craft.
Someone I know took a set of cherry spoons and spatulas I made for her and mounted them in her kitchen as a sort of art installation. I was flattered but insisted that the point of treen ( wooden spoons, bowls, and such) was to be used. A machine’s purpose is to batch out as many identical items as possible. That’s not what craft is all about. There may be a tradition within which you work that dictates some design constraints, but each piece stands on its own.

Unfortunately, if you come to me and want a dozen of the same, you are out of luck. So instead, I’ll go to the cherry woodpile, pick out some likely wood, and create some spoons. Of course, there will be a family resemblance, I like certain types of curves and undulations, but I have no urge to make repeats.

I’m prejudiced. I think everyone should own some item of true craft as a reminder that not all things are manufactured or can be. We already live in a world where the pressure of conformity guarantees that we buy the same fabricated goods to furnish nearly identical houses.
So take a crafted spoon or bowl into your hands as a reminder that the unique is not gone. You have to search for it and value it when you find it.


Like most carvers of my age, I laid out and drew lettering by hand when I started. I despised manual layout. As soon as computer-aided typography became available, I embraced it. I put the cussed layout tools in a box that I buried in the back of the shop. I never lamented their absence from the bench and reveled in the time savings. Manual layout was a prolonged process for me.
My first type layout program cost me all of twenty-two dollars. It had no bells and whistles, but I loved it. Unfortunately, it went out of production about three years later, and I replaced it with a graphics program that cost about a hundred dollars. It had too many features, but the ones I needed were easy to use. Eventually, it went out of production also.
Since then, I’ve used a sequence of increasingly obtuse programs that have too many features. For example, there are multiple menus stacked, hidden on sliders, and dropdowns. I can’t turn off what I don’t want or need, and every week it seems new features get added.
I have learned that there is a term for this; it’s called feature bloat. It reminds me of an apocryphal quote from some mythic software engineer that “if a program isn’t broken, it doesn’t have enough features.”
And that reminds me of the wood planer that sits in the shed waiting for my gadget-loving friend to come to get it. It, too, was jammed with features. So full of them that it wasn’t a very good planer. I replaced it this winter with a simple, no-nonsense machine that only does one thing – plane wood.
Some people want all those features, and they sell the product. I have a business, and I understand consumer demand. I also understand the frustration with products with buttons that don’t work unless dials are first set, levers pushed, and a valve gear calibrated.
There has been enough frustration that some companies have released new products promising to be basic with no frills. I was inveigled into this and bought a few. Then I noticed the upgrades and the creeping bloat of features as the simple became the more complex.
While I am not planning a reunion with the old layout tools soon, I am trying to remember which storage box I may have placed them in.

Fall Line

Some things are noticeable only when you look at the big picture. For example, driving along the east coast of the United States from south to north, visiting beaches, you’ll notice that they fall off around Portland, Maine. No more beautiful long sandy beachscapes. You are in the territory of sharp exposed rocky heads, small scallop-shaped beaches of shingle. There is a “fall line” separating the coastal terrains at this point. The disunity is more than symbolic it’s the boundary between two geological zones.
It was also sometimes described tome as the boundary between southern Maine and that mystical realm known as “Down East.” Being “From Away,” I have no ownership of these terms. Instead, I’m relating what was told to me. South of Portland was a zone that had once been Down East but had been infiltrated by New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. They originally came to “Summer” in Maine, decided that they loved the life, and came back after Labor Day to settle permanently. But, in a frantic rush north, they failed to leave behind what they were escaping and brought it with them.
On hearing this sort of description, I was always a bit uncomfortable. I was originally from New York City – home of the most miscreant invaders. Having studied history and being an anthropologist, I wondered if the Britons said similar things about Saxons, Angles and at last about Normans. Yup, there goes the neighborhood.
In the larger scheme of things, our whole lot blend when viewed by people with whom we have more significant cultural differences. Say someone from Greece, Fiji, or even close at hand in the States – Idaho.
My view of this “Down East” discontinuity rested at this point for years. Then a few years ago, I was showing my carvings at a boat show that was very far Down East. On a slow afternoon, my neighbor in the booth next to me started describing how the Down East concept was shifting. In his opinion, to be Down East, you had to get east and north of Acadia National Park. This was way deeper a bite into Maine’s territory than Portland. If it shifted much further, it would be out of state and country.

Geological boundaries, or the venation patterns of leaves – palmate versus linear- don’t usually change. But, human culture can be resilient, or it can change in a generation. It probably does change in every generation, but time moves forward a second at a time and carries us along with it – only when we look back do we notice the change.

Flash Back Friday – July 2, 2020 – Free

The old saying goes that free advice is worth what you pay for it. Well, I’d advise that more attention be paid to free advice because sometimes it can be the best money can’t buy.

In the early ’80s, I began a career as a consultant. Besides the typical struggles of learning the trade, pricing my services accurately, and getting paid, I was concerned with giving my clients the best and most accurate suggestions. I had a sailing buddy who had just retired from a successful career consulting for manufacturers. Will’s specialty was solving complex issues in process engineering. He’d sort out snarls in production lines. Clean up schedules and generally leave clients smiling when he presented the bill.

One day after sailing in Boston Harbor, I asked him what his favorite work methodology was.

Here’s what he told me: ” The first thing I do is establish my credentials with management. Then, I listen to their concerns; after all, they are going to pay the bill. Then I analyze all their metrics – statistics, cost analysis, and such. After that, I am done with the administrative offices. From there on, I’m on the floor watching the organization. I always make a point of being friendly but not familiar with the line workers. I spend a lot of time watching, not saying much, and not getting in the way. I don’t spend a lot of time with forepersons or line supervisors. After a while, I get an idea of the actual workflow, not what management says or thinks. Eventually, I’ll have built some relationships with the people who are getting the work done. In conversations, they tell me what their perceptions of the workplace are. In my opinion, they frequently have a more realistic view of how to improve things than management. Quite often, I take those suggestions and incorporate them into my report and recommendations.

I asked if management listened. Will replied: ” My advice and recommendations cost them a sizeable sum. They paid attention because they had invested in what I said. They could have gotten the same information for free if they’d listened to their employees.”

All That Glitters

Not all that glitters is gold. I’d get excited over something my mother considered too good to be true, and out of her mouth, would tumble this favorite warning. As a child, I felt she was overreacting; the world was a good place, wasn’t it? My father, a former merchant seaman, also had his take on his son’s overactive optimism. To him, I was “heading for a fall.”
Having lived through the nation’s Great Depression, they believed optimism needed to be alloyed with pragmatism. The place for prayer was separate from hard work- or in the words of another aphorism, “In God we trust, all others pay cash.”
The boiling cauldron awaited those who ignored these bits of wisdom – my arguments could not allay their years of experience. New York City may have been a cosmopolitan place to live, but it had traps laid out for the unwary.
Not so visible was a deep streak of optimism that ran through my parent’s thoughts and behaviors. You could improve your lot through education and hard work. It was a challenging game, but you could play the odds successfully.
So, I came to adulthood with a mixture of optimism and pragmatic pessimism. Like my parents, I tend to express one, the pessimism, verbally while carefully exercising the optimism through my actions. It’s worked out.

Ring-Tail Tom

The Grey Menace remained a proud, loud, and strutting tomcat well into his ninth year. With the dark grey rings in his fur, he was the Ring-Tail Tom of the old folksong. But, while, to the best of my knowledge, I sowed no wild oats, the same cannot be said for him.
His erogenous activities were limited to our physical locations. So the genetic composition of cats in Massachusetts, parts of Coastal Maine, and Philadelphia probably owe much to his efforts.
The owners of several female cats visited me over the years to complain about the activities of the Grey Menace. In one case, the owner of a pregnant tabby attempted to impose the near-term darling onto the household of the putative father. So we pretended not to be home. Fortunately, I was never requested to furnish fiscal support for his efforts at diversifying the gene pool.
He was particular in his choice and often repetitive in his selection of mates. On Beacon Hill, the bodacious Samantha had several litters of lovely kittens with him. But, at last, at age nine, I felt that his efforts to outbreed Genghis Khan were going too far and had him nipped. Nipping seemed to stop him in his tracks for several months. But then, as if he were benefiting from consequence-free sex, His visits to his girlfriends renewed. And we heard the cries of feline copulation once again behind our house.
I regularly played the song Ring Tailed Tom, and while I can’t be sure I do think that when I played the song he thought I was singing about him:

I got an old tomcat
When he steps out
All the pussycats in the neighborhood
They begin to shout

“Here comes Ring Tail Tom
He’s boss around the town
And if you got your heat turned up
You better turn your damper down.”

Ring Tail Tom on a fence
The old pussy cat on the ground
Ring Tail Tom, come off that fence
And they went ’round and ’round

Lord, he’s quick on the trigger.
He’s a natural-born crack shot
He got a new target every night
And he sure does practice a lot

He makes them roustabout.
He makes them roll their eyes
They can’t resist my Ring Tail Tom
No matter how hard they try

You better watch old Ring Tail Tom.
He’s running around the town
He won’t have no pussy cats
Come a-tomcattin’ around

Ring Tail Tom is the stuff.
He’s always running around
All the pussy cats in the neighborhood
Can’t get old Ring Tail Tom down

He’s always running around.
Just can’t be satisfied.
He goes out every night
With a new one by his side


The gallery was not the best. But they had offered an “opening.” A little wine, sherry, cheese, and crackers. The guests had included a who is who of the art set in Baltimore. But none of those were expected to come. Who did come was every Folkie in the Baltimore area Truscott was well known and liked in those circles. So, somewhere into the second hour, I was detached from security duties to buy more crackers, cheese, and inexpensive wine. With this crowd, the wine was going fast.

When I returned, I noticed a knot of the well-dressed art crowd gathered around one of the pieces in the show. It was a muscular, large-handed figure fashioned from puddingstone- an ancient conglomerate of mud and stones frozen into unity by geological ages. Its varied colors and textures perfectly complemented the muscular figure holding a cup. It was titled “Concinnity,” – suggesting a certain elegance or neatness of artistic style. The descriptive placard mentioned that Truscott had been under the influence of Arp and Henry Moore while carving its smooth curves and hollows. The leader of the well-dressed pack, Leo Tozer, smirked and noted that it was more likely that the influence had been something like the cheap wine the gallery was serving. 

The Gallery manager asked Tozer to leave the gallery. Unfortunately, the visitors seemed impervious to polite suggestions. Finally, I signaled to Arty; he was a known figure in our circles. His typical assignment was as the bouncer at our favorite bar. 

As Arty approached the loud group, Tozer began pointing out the similarities between Arty and the sculpture. “Look! Here comes the model now! Can you see the resemblance? It even looks like a large pudding!” My best friend once described Artie as having ” the patience of stones.” Artie would patiently and gently escort you to the sidewalk. Just don’t raise your hands. That ended his patience. 

Artie’s nickname was the crusher. It wasn’t a randomly assigned name to make a bouncer appear more formidable. Artie would sit at the bar idly, crushing hard items in his oversized hands. Finally, Tozer thrust his forefinger at the face in front of him. A smiling Artie reached out as though to shake his hand, but the crackling and popping of bones and joints told the story of crepitation taking place.

There was silence in the gallery. The smile on Tozer’s face shifted to a grimace. Artie gently took him by the elbow and marched him out the door. His followers quietly followed. Truscott, meanwhile, grabbed a fresh piece of illustration board, a Magic Marker, and created a new title for the sculpture. In moments the piece called “Concinnity” became “Artie .” Or, as my best friend stated, art imitating Art.

Who’s Got The Remote?

Xenia, Empress of all she surveys, has joined me as I prepare my blog posts in the morning. At first, I assumed she was waiting for me to head to the kitchen and give her a treat. But, no, it turned out she was eager to watch cat television on the big monitor – the iPad seems a poor substitute, I guess. So as soon as I finish with WordPress, I dutifully put a cat YouTube video on.
Now it appears that this is not good enough. Could it be that Xenia has watched my wife handling the remote while watching Netflix? Is this why she paws the keyboard?
What have I done! Soon she’ll want her very own playlist, a sixty-inch monitor, and I’ll get left with the iPad.

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