Crossing The Line

I mentioned the shortness of twilight in the tropics. In the northern and southern latitudes, we are used to extended twilights at sunrise and sunset while in the tropics, it is a rush job – suns up and suns down. The Cap’n mentioned that twilight was when a navigator would be shooting sights of the stars ( taking astronomical observations) in order to plot the ship’s position. From there, we discussed the Green Flash at sunset, phosphorescent seas at night, flying fish, and liberty ports. We were playing nice for the family gathering. We both knew it couldn’t last.

Then we came to what should have been a genuinely neutral topic: crossing the line ceremonies. When a ship crosses the equator, those who’ve never crossed are introduced to the Court of Neptunas Rex. This small point was the first disagreement. It was the Court of King Neptune plain and simple on his vessel. On my ship, us newbies were called “slimy Pollywogs” on his just pollywogs. We both agreed, however, that Davy Jones was there to greet us and guide us into initiation into the Royal Order of Shellbacks. On my ship, the belly of the royal baby was slimed with a disagreeable mass of grease and molasses. We had to joyously lick it ( I have to say though the bosun looked better than usual with his mop wig). On the Cap’ns ship, you merely kissed the royal baby’s belly. The final insult was that on my ship, we slid down the plank into an improvised tub for baptism in saltwater. Of course, the Cap’n did that one better too.
“Well,” says I, “we’re both shellbacks, and different ships different long splices.” The Cap’n paused reached for his pipe and then killed off the discussion with the show stopper ” Yes, but I crossed the line, and cut the International Date Line – I am a Golden Shellback.”

The Cap’n lit his pipe and walked away. I should have known.

Love and Hate

Warburton knew I would never be a great designer. So he tried fundamental things with me—white space to balance designs and rule of thirds. Being he was an ecclesiastical carver, he was very concerned that I understand the traps you fall into when your block limits you to a constrained and stiff composition. There is no rule that he taught me that I have not broken on my own until I, finally, said, “that’s what he meant.” Well, at least I learned the lesson. It is the curse of the self-taught that our learning process is irregular. Good designers know when and how to bend and break the rules. I think that’s one of the things that makes great art and craft. The rest of us stumble until we get it right.

Kingfisher II

The photo I am showing here is one of my favorites, despite its apparent flaws. It was a practice piece that I liked. After it kicked around the shop for a couple of years, I decided to frame it. Being that it was an odd size, I made the frame from scrap around the shop.
The frame overwhelms the carving in color and size; and the piece ( being meant for practice) never was designed to have a proper border around it. Every time I look at the carving, I get reminded of how pleased I was with the effects of carving in cherry, and how much I liked the steam fishing vessel it represents. I also get irritated by the lack of compositional balance caused by the lack of space around the ship.
Because of the good and bad of the design, it’s a piece I love and hate.

Shy, Never!

There was nothing shy about that grey tomcat of mine. If Clancy liked you, he’d let you know at once, and if he didn’t like you, he’d let you know at once. There’d be a slight variation in technique. For like he’d savor your blood like an excellent vintage, and lick you clean while rubbing against your legs. If he took a dislike to you, he’d ignore you until an opportunity presented itself to do some genuinely foul thing. He was neither bashful nor shy.
So how did you wind up on the side of the enemy? Let me count the ways: Ignore him, push him away with your foot or hand, disparagingly speak about him (he could tell), kick him, refuse to share your roast beef sandwich with him. I could go on. He rarely forgave, and he never forgot.

On returning to the Boston area after grad school, I took up with some sailing buddies as roommates. George and Andy. George was a hard-working type, while Andy never attended a party he didn’t like. After living with them for a while, I realized that George kept to himself to avoid Andy. They were roommates for economic convenience, not because they were friends. Things could get boisterous when Andy returned from a good carouse.
George got on Clancy’s right side early – he shared his roast beef. The cat loved roast beef subs, preferably with hot pepper on it. So George was on Clancy’s right side. Clancy had never liked drunks, and Andy was one. So Andy started with a handicap. Then one night, he made the mistake of using his shoe to shove Clancy aside. A bean bag chair followed the shoe. I heard about it after I came home from work. Clancy sulked and bided his time. With him, the longer he sulked, the worse the revenge would be.

Andy used black trash bags for almost everything, from trash to housing clothes to storing valuables. One day when George and I were taking the garbage out, we put a big part of Andy’s wardrobe on the street. When he bought replacements, he kept them in a black trash bag. Clancy took the opportunity to sneak up to Andy’s room, pee on the bag, and join George and me in front of the TV. Have I told you that the cat had a perfect poker face?
Clancy was robbed of the ultimate pleasure. Andy did not blow up or stomp downstairs, screaming. It turned out that Andy had almost no practical sense of smell. The next morning he came downstairs and said he had to do some laundry because his clothing smelled a bit mildewed. George and I looked at him; Clancy looked at him. As soon as Andy left, the cat made a beeline upstairs. I did not attempt to check on what was going on. George found it hilarious and bought a roast beef sub, with hots for Clancy. I sped up my preparations for moving into an apartment of my own.
Andy moved out first. He insisted that he could never rid his room of the mildew odor. Our next roommate liked turkey club sandwiches. The new roommate shared. Clancy, being neither bashful nor shy, decided that turkey was good stuff and that Steve was an alright guy.


I almost put on my hakama* without putting on my obi. The arthritis is bad enough to force me to do standing kata, but after two months, it feels great to be practicing – remember the Katana is long, but the ceiling low. Sword cuts in the ceiling are not allowed. Must not upset she who is not to be trifled with.

Covid-19 knocked me out for only a week. I had a mild case. But the recovery has been long, very long – weeks of low energy levels and fatigue.

Today though, I cleared the living room and slowly moved through three sets of standing seitei Iaido. I was tired, but not entirely out of breath. Eventually, the dojo will reopen, and I don’t want to be the one in the corner panting because the long layoff from practice has sapped my strength, although it has. 

The problem with long periods of no practice is that you think you are doing great, but then realize that your technique has atrophied. Like other forms of art, there is a fugitive component that you struggle to keep at bay through regular practice. I’ve had similar issues when I’ve stopped carving for periods. “how the heck did I do that?” Because so much of both those arts are tied to muscle memory, you can lose it if you don’t use it. 

Sometimes it’s interesting as you work back into things. You get little bursts of “beginners mind,” and you can use those to restore freshness to your work. You have an opportunity to avoid old harmful patterns – if you are careful.

Notes for those who don’t do Iai:

The hakama is a sort of divided pantaloon that was a typical style of dress in feudal Japan- being that Iaido is Japanese swordsmanship we dress in that style.

An Obi is a broad, very long belt that we wrap around our waist beneath our hakama ( but over our short jacket called a Keikogi).

Kata is a pattern of practice. In the case of Iaido, a pattern of sword cuts and movements that mirror a combat situation. Iaido gets practiced solo.

The Katana is the long Japanese sword used by the Samurai. It takes years of dedicated practice to master its use.

Seitei Iaido is one form of Iaido. In my dojo, we also practice a type called Muso Jikiden Iaido – another school of training. 

dojo is a place where you learn and practice Japanese martial arts.

Contact me is you want to know more.

Seeing Is Believing

I made some very sweet eagle-headed canes in the nineties. At one show, I sold the very best one to someone who was sightless. The details that people without visual impairment take for granted this young woman was able to take in by using her hands. I was immensely pleased, not at the sale, but to have my work so appreciated. The only other people who felt my work were children. I was continually telling parents that it was OK for kids to handle the carving. That is one of the beautiful things about carving wood- its tactile nature. I find myself hoping that people don’t just stop when they see my carving, but also touch it.
There are some things that people do automatically start stroking: spoons. I work very hard to avoid making an exact repeat. There are some lovely spoons out there that look handmade but are not. Take a look at the “family resemblance.” All the spoons and spatulas look graceful, smooth, and well designed, but there is very little individuality. Of course, I am not in the spoon business. I don’t have to turn out thousands a year to keep my enterprise solvent. I may make a few hundred if I’m doing shows. That quantity allows me to play around. I am looking for designs with excellent utility, well balanced, looks attractive, and feels nice.

To see and to feel are complementary senses. As a society, we tend to emphasize the visual at the cost of feel. That can be a mistake.
Boatbuilder Ralph Johnson drove this home to me years ago. We were planking a small boat. He asked me if the plank I had just finished shaping was fair. Based on my vision, I replied that it was. He just smiled and asked me to close my eyes and walk down the plank while I ran my thumb against the edge. As I progressed, I felt every rough bump, dip, and ding. In boatbuilders’ jargon, it was not genuinely fair.

Seeing may be believing, but feel will give you a less biased second opinion.

I Can’t Get Started

The Gershwin classic ” I can’t get started” was finishing as I was clearing my last table. The Poland Springs Hotel bandleader was a bit of a musical snob and preferred the classic 1936 take on it by Bunny Berigan. He had held off playing it for me until the end.
It was the closing number of the night and the close of the final season at Poland Springs Hotel. In the morning, the last guests would depart, and over the next couple of days, the staff would disperse. Many of my friends were heading to winter jobs in the Carolina’s, Florida, and the Caribbean. I was heading on one final frolicking detour before enlisting.
Beginnings sometimes feel like endings. I’d never see Doris with the gorgeous red hair, and her boyfriend, Tom. Never listen to their stories of life in the big bands, listen to Tom play the trumpet, or listen to Doris sing Cole Porter. I’d never see Gerry, the barber, talk about cutting F.D.R’s hair, and all the other famous people, and what they’d say sitting in the chair.
They half expected that I’d join them, rather than enlist as a self-punishment for losing Betty Ann. And I was tempted. They were an entry into a whole different world than the Folkie existence I had lived these last years.
But beginnings , like endings, have consequence

On The Road

What’s the old saying? If wishes were horses, beggars would ride? Well if you were hitching around in the 1960’s you wished a lot and sometimes rode. We know that magical thinking can be dangerous. But sometimes it’s irresistible; for example, when you are stuck on a rural road at midnight, the local cop has already given you the fish eye twice. Wish, wish, wish harder! The next ride arrives, and it’s a drunk who wants someone to keep him awake on his way home. Let’s talk loud, and watch for an all-night diner. Wish, wish, wish harder.
No sooner than you pull into the diner, the drunk falls asleep. It’s four in the morning, and I have just enough for coffee and pie. I’m tired of wishing and spend the two hours until dawn talking to a lonely cook who misses his days on the road. He tells me that it was lots different in his day. Truckers regularly picked you up for long haul rides, and there wasn’t a town on America where you couldn’t get two eggs, hash browns, toast, and bacon for ninety-nine cents!
As it lightens up, I get back on the road. Cookie hooks me up with a local heading towards the interstate and tells me that he wishes he was going with me. I smile. I’m eager to get off the road but wonder if I’ll be glorifying the old days in ten years too. Sleeping with ticks and skeeters, mud, and rain. But oh the songs about being on the road. Maybe I’ll write one someday.

Mothers Food For Thought

My mother was a good one for sayings and quotes. She probably managed to create many of her favorites. She also explored the creation of her own story. Light replaced shadow.

The truth was a challenge, and we now think that she preferred silence or a carefully edited dance around the shadow of what might have happened. She made smooth the rough, created a happy time, or luck, as if by chance.
Even a short passage of years early in your life, one downpour too many, affects how the flower grows; how you celebrate. She always felt that life was like a book we were writing in, letter by letter. “don’t be in such a hurry, be patient.” “don’t hold that frown, the line on your brow will become permanent.”
It was part of her way of providing support to her family, of transmitting wisdom by sign and saying.
But, “Always remember, Louis. Nothing is free.”

Tying Knots In The Devil’s Tail

“Rules and models destroy genius and art.” – William Hazlitt

I don’t know about you, but I’m not too fond of those motivational posters that people hang in conference rooms, halls, and offices. Unless I needed work badly, I’d think twice before accepting a position where corridor decor depicts scenes of eagles flying against mountain scenery, with tired slogans.

Slogans in use since Aristotle show up often: ” quality is not an act; it is a habit.” ” At Portzibie Corp, quality is job numero uno.” Copies of these are at Pompei; I’d bet.

I’ve worked at places like that, and I feel that the corridor dressing shows a desperate attempt to motivate workers and influence customers. It’s like the bridge crew on the Titanic checking navigational fixes for the next days sailing as the ship went down. By the time you line your corridors with motivational art, your organization is already in trouble. The only people doing well on this are the PR folks who are selling you the posters and framing.

At the last several corporate and governmental institutions I worked at, my goal was to tie knots in the devil’s tail. It’s a challenge. But so is the ongoing demand in organizations that we are creative, but stay within the choreographed lines. In short, deliver the image of wow, without the substance. Subvert it.

Here’s my advice: bend, twist, spindle, and mutilate. Put up your motivational poster: Graphic – turkeys in the barnyard -” It’s hard to soar with eagles when you’re flying with turkeys.”


My mentors were just that, mentors. Several couldn’t afford the expense that having an actual apprentice would cost; others were not interested. But then by the 1960s, the old apprenticeship programs in crafts like carving were gone.
Then there was that little problem of my lack of maturity. When the opportunity to work with them presented itself, I was interested but not prepared. I think that was why several of them guided me in the direction of good authors and their books. Literacy and short-term courses at centers for specialized learning ( like WoodenBoat School) would replace the old system of craft shops and apprenticeships.
Even today, with the internet, there is no replacement for the book. I am working on a portrait of an early 20th-century Steam Yacht. The available information on the internet was useful, but I hardly all I needed to complete my research. Steam Yachts were a type of vessel that I had barely known existed. Using book dealers, I was able to find some titles that filled in the holes in my library. I am reasonably confident that this sort of need is true for boatbuilders, printmakers, musicians, and other professionals as well.
A funny thing happens as you develop a collection of books on your interests: your browsing habits change, and you begin looking to fill holes in your collection. Some of the side effects are less than pleasing. Bookshelves seem to appear randomly around the house; your selection must be housed. Friends with similar interests ask to borrow titles, and you clutch books to your chest, muttering about “…my precious…”
But the worst is the competition of your beloved spouse. My wife has a cookbook collection that seeks to rival my collection of maritime and woodworking titles. Sometimes she doesn’t see the natural superiority of the nautical. I stake out my claims very carefully. Eventually, someone will have to go.

%d bloggers like this: