Star Crossed

OK, it’s confessional time. The stars and I don’t see exactly eye to eye. I’ve put some time into learning coastal piloting and dead reckoning for basic seamanship and enjoyed the sport of seeing how accurate you can get with experience. But celestial navigation was my true, shall we say, star-crossed experience.
Let’s add that among the things I learned in the Navy was that I have terrible night vision; stumbling around my bedroom in the dark is my speed. Stumbling around the deck of a heaving vessel or a boat is a scary proposition for me any night.

But my father-in-law, the Cap’n, was determined that my navigational skills should be polished enough that I should be able to take sights on objects in the skies to assess our position. So should we ever go outside soundings in our 34-foot ketch, Pysche, there would be a second navigator aboard. But, of course, the thought of going that far out scared my mother-in-law, Cora, to death and made my wife green to the gills.

For once, the Cap’n had a willing student. I did not neglect my studies. I even did well with the sextant and quickly mastered the noon sight and use of reduction tables. Because of my night vision, I had more trouble with the semi-diameters of the moon. But I eventually learned that as well.

No, the Rude Star Finder and its planographic discs tripped me up. First, looking at the flat circle of plastic in the dark was hard enough. Then transferring that to an actual star in the sky did not work well. Finally, if by luck I found the correct star, I still had to take a sight and use the tables. It was hopeless. After a few weeks, the Cap’n gave up; Cora and my wife breathed sighs of relief, and I used my navigational textbook to prop open the shop door.

I can look up at the stars at night and still wish that it had been otherwise, but if you stumble in the dark navigating by the lightof the stars may not be for you.

Note: all this happened many years before we had modern-day electronic aids to navigation and satellite navigational systems.

Soundtrack

Happenstance. That’s the source of my mental playlist. The soundtrack runs through my mind as I write, drive or carve. Start talking about running, and it might prompt ten minutes of Jackson Brown. One lonely middle-of-the-night drive from New York through Connecticut Phillip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach was the featured soundtrack. Strange night.

I have little control of it. But related themes do stimulate like music. Like the day the neighbors got treated to three hours of sea songs and chanteys as I was carving a portrait of a schooner.

Aaaaah, my boots and clothes are all in pawn! Go down, you blood Red Roses – Go Down!!!

Now you sing along too mate

Solitude

Solitude is a tricky subject for creators. Some want a cup of coffee and an old-fashioned typewriter with the cat perched on the shelf and nothing else. Others need an isolated spot where you might be prone to smash the cell phone if it rings. So there are ranges of needs from just merely having some privacy to needing total sensory deprivation.
I like a rich environment. My eight-foot by twelve carving shop/ greenhouse has my tools, smells of linseed oil, varnish, and wood chips. It has everything I need for carving. I am taken back to shops all over New England that I’ve worked in over the decades. It gives me a mainline connection to my creative roots, and I connect with my masters – the 18th through early 20th century carvers who inspire me and in whose traditions I’ve worked.

As I look over a native pine or cherry piece, I reflect on the job to come. In the case of an eagle, I may think of how my masters approached their work. I am not sure where I got the idea, perhaps from one of them, but after roughing out the shape of the eagle, the first detailed section I do is the eye so the eagle can watch me as I work.

Sometimes I think that I don’t have much isolation at all. It can be noisy with Bellamy telling McIntyre how to carve while Skillin talks to William Rush. It’s why I don’t keep a coffee pot in the shop. I’d never get anything done with the damn racket.

At the Job Interview

In interviews, a trap question can be, “what are your most admirable traits?” I’ve always desired to respond with, “Putting up with twits like you.”
Well, OK, what about admirable traits? I think it’s not a trait. It’s probably more like a cluster of characteristics that pull together in concert- ” all right, you seadogs row!” Much like sailing, it is not one thing. The old definition of Able Body Seaman was a person who could hand, reef, and steer. Not just work the sails. You needed multiple skills to be rated able. Otherwise, you were an ordinary seaman or a green hand.

Next time some officious turd dares ask you what your most admirable characteristic is, beguile them. Tell them how your diplomatic abilities coupled with your fine-tuned restraint and sense of justice act in harmony to resolve doughty issues. Smile broadly enough, and they may not sense the laughter bubbling inside of you for having a good one over on them.

Then take a moment to reflect on yourself. You have admirable characteristics. They are not the narrowly defined things that make an HR person’s heart strings twang. Like the Able Body Seaman, you have multiple traits that work together in concert. They make you resilient, confident, and capable. But remember, most HR types and head hunters want simple answers.

Have fun!

Providence

I have not one, but a raft of favorite quotes. But when asked to settle on one, I come back to time, and time again, it’s this one, “Luck is what you stumble upon in life. Providence is what God plans for you, and planning is how you thread your way between the two without getting crushed.” 

I often heard this bit of wisdom from first-class petty officer John O’Toole, Bosuns-mate USN. John worked hard to avoid becoming a chief petty officer and, in retirement, enjoyed telling tales of some sixteen years of a misspent Naval career. I first met John while I was in the Navy, and we became reacquainted in the years following. 

From John, I learned:

  •  the nuances of “gun decking” a report ( fixing them), 
  • how to successfully play Cheaters Monopoly, 
  • how to properly wear my sailor’s gob hat, 
  • and how to sew the thirteen buttons of my uniform pants so they could be rapidly undone if needed.

God bless you, John, where ever you may be.

Top Job

One of the “Big Mysteries of Life” at the Folkie Palace was how we came up with the rent every month. We were a slothful lot and devout attendees at the local bar; hard work was against our constitution. So it was a true miracle that somehow, a check was waiting for the landlord when he came around.

Sometimes this involved taking short-term and unsavory jobs. For example, I did a month running a steam cleaner hosing out garbage cans at a local hospital. And a friend worked in a large institutional laundry. But the only genuinely regular income came from the Teahead of the August Moon’s job at a public relations firm. We ate well because one of our roommates, the Monk, was an urban forager, and his hunting ground was the Haymarket and the pushcarts that inhabited it. The Monk was a failed monastic. The vendors all thought he had taken vows of poverty, but he now sought enlightenment in lifestyles other than the monastery and was our general provisioner.

Our lifestyle was chaotic but straightforward. Most of us rose late in the morning, went out to the Tarry and Taste Donut shop on Charles Street, had coffee and donuts, and read the Boston Globe. Then, we’d idle over to the Boston Common and watch the working world go by. From there, I’d often head back towards Cambridge Street and visit the branch library. Then, around two pm, I’d head back to Grove Street to practice guitar for two hours. Finally, most of us wound up back at the Palace around six pm to eat, and then it was off to the Harvard Gardens to drink, talk about the day, and lay plans. Slothful, you say? Well, I did warn you at the outset that we were not 9-5 go-getters.

Sometime around the middle of the month, we’d awaken to the need to stop picking the flowers and make some cash. There were rules to this: no begging, no theft, no drug dealing, and indeed no dependence on girlfriends for the rent money. We had scruples. The morning read of the Globe took on a particular frenetic nature as we’d tear apart the Help Wanted pages, ask friends who was hiring, and in general, desperately sought funding for our otherwise lazy lifestyle.

We visited the laundromat to spruce up our working wardrobe, visited personnel hiring firms, and tried to look like the eager beavers that we weren’t.

We had to get creative about our address after a while. Even with a robust economy, we received many fewer calls for interviews. We had to start our business. Thus was born Top Job Janitorial – no job too filthy. And we certainly got filthy jobs, but we were paying the rent every month and only working about three hours a day.

We were strictly cash upfront. Our friend and roommate, the Canary, estimated the jobs, and we’d show up and remove the rubbish and sweep and mop. We got fifty percent upfront and the balance on completion. We split everything evenly but threw in a bit extra for the Canary for finding and estimating the jobs.

We might have kept up with this for years, but we were using the payphone at the Harvard Gardens as our business phone, and our waitresses tired of taking messages for us. Finally, we got told that we either quit or be expelled from the Gardens. Knowing that no other barroom in the area would put up with us, we reluctantly closed the business.

The following month we were busily back to seeking solutions to the mystery of how we would raise the needed money for the rent. 

But the idea of Top Job Janitorial came back to me years later when I ran across this quote by Agatha Christie, “I don’t think necessity is the mother of invention. Invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness—to save oneself trouble.” Yup that strikes close to home for the minions of the Folkie Palace.

Books For January

The dead zone of winter, that’s what I term the first six weeks of the new year. It’s too snowy, too dark, too wet, and absolutely too cold for many of the activities I enjoy. The basement shop is a cheery forty (Fahrenheit), and the greenhouse carving shop barely hovers at 34 most days. So not much carving is done unless there is an order to be finished ASAP.

So these are the weeks that I plan prototypes of carvings and read. I try to focus on something new to me or a potentially helpful tangent. So this month’s reading list includes a book by a friend of mine, Barbara Merry of the Marlinspike Artist, and The Pocket Universal Principles of Design.

Barbara’s book is full of knots and projects for knot tying. I have no intention of becoming a marlinespike artist, but I’ve found that little knowledge goes to waste, and the best time to acquire it is before you have an immediate need for it.

The book on design principles covers things you may never have thought about – apparent motion, the 80/20 rule, and the IKEA Effect. 

It’s essential to get a bit out of your field every once in a while. And an otherwise slow period is an excellent time to do it; there are no excuses you can offer for not exploring a bit.

Assumptions

Have you ever been asked, What do people incorrectly assume about you?” in a job interview? I have fought back the urge to admit that they have wrongly assumed I am a demi-god while the gods merely bless me.

What the hell do they expect you to say? Dig your foot into the carpet, look bashful and say, “well, they assume just because I have am a genius, Phi Beta Kappa, a tenth degree black belt, Ph.D, and published more times than I can count, that I’m an egotist?”

 Questions like this are almost always one of those double trap questions. They get made up by people for whom the Myer-Briggs tests are not sinister enough. Somewhere there is a headshrinker smiling manically and rubbing hands together, pleased that there is no correct answer. The answer key will always indicate some character disorder, underlying sociopathy, or at a minimum, a highly neurotic personality.

But take heart if you create or choose absurd answers; you might get hired anyway. 

You then need to ask yourself if you need this job enough to work for a bunch of whack jobs who’d ask this type of question in a job interview. But if you do decide to accept their offer, even if the questions indicate that you are a psychopath, remember the words of Peter Drucker, “So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.” 

If you work for an organization like that, you’ll need to recall that quote often.

Toby

Toby was a large shepherd collie cross who had perfected looking innocent while doing many things he should not. At seven years of age, he had come to us from a local animal shelter where he was a known recidivist.
He had been surrendered from his original home for reasons unknown and had lasted only a few days at his second. A violent encounter with a peacock saw him return to his cage, from which he promptly escaped.

The day the Carreras kids walked in was his lucky day. They found out that the big dog loved little as much as a hug, and four kids who admired him. Tobey’s record said he loved cats, having been raised by one. It also mentioned that he should never be allowed near a peacock. So he came home to get paraded in front of our black cat Smidgen, who decided that he’d do. No barking, no lunging, just a big doggy smile, a mutual nose sniffing, and he was home.

Over the following weeks, we discovered that he was a masterful food thief. A bagel was in your hand one second and the dog’s stomach almost by teleportation in the next. Escape artist? You bet! Toby discovered a lovely lady elkhound down the block who became his inamorata. He could shimmy that large frame through minor cracks in a fence, and latches were no challenge to his skills. After visiting his girlfriend, Toby would bark loudly at the front door to be allowed in.

Like many dogs, he reveled in going on trips. However, one day, we were at a local farm market that also had an attached zoo. He took great interest in the sheep, looked penetratingly at the bison, and then went berserk when the peacock came around. It took three of us to get him back in that car. The peacock decided to investigate which further upset Toby. Finally, we got asked to leave.

Toby lived to the ripe old age of fifteen years, helped the family raise a pair of kittens, supervised the garden, and terrorized neighborhood rodents. But it was his “secret” trips to be with his girlfriend always made us laugh the most. His barking to be let in the front door signaled he had pulled another one over on the humans.

Advice

Sometimes the question of who inspires you and why gets tricky. Some people are so negative that they encourage the opposite in you. And that can be an excellent thing.
I had several bosses who drove me in that direction. They fell into a category of individuals that I refer to as those who “kiss up and kick down.” They kiss the nether regions of those superior to them and kick anyone they perceive to be lower than them. Peers are treated depending on whether you are perceived as an asset or a competitor. Everything is transactional to them, and all transactions get weighed for value. Nothing is for free.

My friend Bill was the opposite. I wrote about Bill in my blog posts over the past several years. Bill was no saint, but he had a practical and ethical bent that he freely shared in the form of bits of advice. He offered me my introduction to the road and guided me between the reefs and shallows of the 1960’s lifestyle we led. So much of his advice was practical; while on the road, do this, and avoid that. This substance is safe to try in moderation but never try this other. Bill provided these lessons as whimsy, humor, and only for the most necessary blunt seriousness. To this day, I still hear his terse advice on the people I mentioned in the first paragraph. Unfortunately, this is a family-oriented post, and I hesitate to use that sort of language.

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