Being a folksinger was not easy. You had to practice your material, be unafraid of deadly silence from displeased audiences, and come up with clever patter between songs. You wanted to avoid embarrassing silences between songs that might invite your audience to depart midway in your set. Moreover, being eighteen meant that you could not wow them with tales of your daring rides across the country in the dust bowl riding the rails. You had to be subtle.
I used to love to perform after wannabe Joan Baez’s chirping about how the laird did not love her and how her bodkin would soon pierce her white lily breast. After a dozen or so Scottish and English ballads full of sleekit and selkies, the audience was ready for something a bit suggestive, like “wild about my loving.”
The basket houses, called that because we passed the basket to the audience for tips, were full of young folkies warbling the same material in different ways.
The Child Ballad crew got their take on life from listening to old records full of English and Scottish ballads and Joan Baez records.
On the other side was the group who cloistered themselves around the record player listening to old blues performers from the ’30s. They warbled about how their woman had been false and how they would take out their big 38 specials and end it all. They were all very white, quite suburban and, also eighteen.

Of course, I was eighteen but not from the suburbs. I was a Washington Heights boy who, typical of inner-city types in New York, affected a worldly-wise “I’d seen it all by sixteen” slouch. We carried knives that flicked open. Unlike the suburban folkies, we always looked like we knew where we were going, even if we were walking into walls. We sang about the cruelty of fate and leaving the cruel city. Most of us had some experience with sharp objects or guns by sixteen, and the romantic appeal of including them in our songs had waned.

Bodkins, 38 specials, unrequited love, getting cheated on, being eighteen, and cruel fate. What a combination. After a while, if you made it through the crunch of the first six months, you began to pick up different rhythms, ways to express yourself and depend less on a single genre. You matured. Your audience guided the process, but if you were smart, you joined the society of peers and critiqued, traded, and shared.

Then would come the night when you grew indignant at a new wannabe just in from the ‘burbs warbling out the same material you had used a year ago. But now you were a worldly-wise nineteen-year-old habitue of the folk world. It was ages ago that you were eighteen and so innocent.


The Washington Post had a reader submission request out. What was the best last-minute Christmas gift you ever gave? But initially, I read it wrong and took it to mean presents I had received. OK, selfish me. But some impelling experiences came to me.

I was penniless and frequently on the road in the 1960s. There were times when getting enough to eat and a couch to surf upon were the overriding concerns on my mind. So I reflect on some of the things that meant so much at the time:

  • An animal hospital forgiving the cost of vet care on the Grey Menace one Christmas – needless to say, I’ve repaid that many times in annual gifts since, happily.
  • The gift of a set of guitar strings; the ones on my guitar were dying or dead, and I had a gig to perform.
  • A Christmas evening dinner when the Gray Menace and I were too poor to buy groceries that week;
  • My first real girlfriend gave me a set of earmuffs because I was on the road in lightweight clothing.

The best things do not have to be the most expensive, nor the ones you asked for. Instead, they are the ones you need and never thought to ask for.


Like me, you dream of things that we can’t have. Recalling a few snug shops I’ve worked in for boatbuilders or lobstermen, I’d love a shop large enough for a small woodstove. A place large enough to warm up by on a January morning while I plan out what I am making for a March show. To me, that would be palatial, which shows that one person’s palace is another’s hovel. But, don’t worry; I know that my shop is unlovely.

No, don’t be reticent about it. I know you’d prefer a kitchen, a new Macmansion, or a total re-do on the master bath.

I sometimes snicker about that truism that says, “Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get.” Like a lot of Dale Carnegie quotes, it’s a bit sappy. If I want sappy, I can spend the rest of this morning listening to commercial jingles on Youtube. No, I prefer something a bit less intense on the “I’ll be happy with what I’ve got” end of things. Say Sydney Harris’ take on it: “Happiness is a direction, not a place.”

I like the emphasis of this quote – off of the material and onto the aspirational. It says that I am on a journey, not sitting in a place. It keeps us from worry. Worry about the leaks in the new bath, the lousy foundation of the Macmansion, or the lousy draft of my new wood stove.

But that little heater in the shop doesn’t do it. I sure wish I could have that woodstove.

Good Tech/Bad Tech

Wild revelry is out for me. Although I’ve been told that I still have some great dance moves, I won’t be showing them off on New Year’s Eve. Instead, I’ve tendered my resignation from the Jet Set and am resolved to lead a life of reflection. Who am I kidding?

While reflection is excellent, and I have nothing against contemplation, I tend to be of the “just get out there and so something” school. Just get out to the shop and carve, get up in the morning and write, or go to the station and get way in over your head in fixing a server just because the alternative is stasis. And I hate working on computer servers.

I had an upgrade on a server go very wrong the other day. And that prompted me to holler out, ” I’m too old for this shit!!!!” But, of course, I shut right up and regretted saying it immediately. Last year, the subject came up in a conversation with a friend: when do we say no to learning new technology?

My father’s answer had been never. He’d been a marine engineer, and technology had been his toy. My mother said no early on and could barely operate a tape player. My wife says she is no good at computers but is a resource person on the systems at her workplace. She may be a reluctant tech user, but not one who has thrown in the towel and refuses to learn.

It’s possible to quite the pedant about this and starts looking up learned articles on when mental acuity lags. According to one friend giving up on tech is the equivalent of sitting in front of the screen and watching Netflix. There you sit all day while meldrops of mucus from on the tip of your nose, and you make odd noises.

I’ve chosen an in-between path. I’ve started triage on my tech. Some readers may know that I’m no fan of Marie Kondo, but I’ve found the philosophy of evaluating tech by sparks of joy useful: 

  • does this tech do something useful or essential for me?
  • Does it amuse me?
  • Is it well designed and has the necessary features I need without feature bloat?

This past year for my business, I’ve had to master several new technologies and their attendant software. Triage has been helpful. If it fails, I don’t adopt it, throw it away, or ignore it.

If you feel overwhelmed by what technology offers, it may not be you. Instead, it may be the technology. Years ago, I was told that the sign of a mature well-developed technology was elegant design, ease of use, and simplicity.

If you want to get out there and do something, your technological aids should not be burdensome impediments. Triage.


Not a lot of us like radical change. It’s a sort of plunge that takes you from a nice comfortable chair at harborside, watching the sunset, and dumps you into the cold ocean. One second you’re enjoying a beer, and the next, you are gasping as you surface. Not a pleasant sensation.

Of course, the idiot friend that “accidentally” pushed you in is standing there smiling. The grin says it all: “I’ve had too many drinks.”

I learned all about the idiot friend while working as a program officer at a federal agency. I was charged with creating cultural and educational programs for the public. Right up my alley as a practicing anthropologist, one would think. Well, about fifty percent of my staff’s, and my, brightest ideas never made it outside of the office. Why? Because of the idiot friend.

Fantastic ideas for programs would get generated and preliminary planning and budgeting completed. Then I’d go to my legal and procurement specialist, who’d start reviewing the program for liability.

Liability. Ah yes, it’s the idiot friend who decides to trip on the float’s cleat, hit their head on the bollard, and drown in the harbor. After a while, I became an expert in foreseeing the liability objections to specific programs and implemented prudential precautions to prevent them.

There we go, prudential precautions; the idiot friends enemy. Those are the signs that get put up saying that you should not run, jump, operate under the influence, or otherwise do idiot things. But, of course, prudential caution might also be outright canceling something because it’s too dangerous for the public. And that was when I moved from being a field anthropologist creating programs to being an administrator acting as an interface between my staff, their beautiful ideas, and the idiot friend.

The idiot will always be with us:

  • The boat operator that decides to drink and operate a boat at high speeds goes together.
  • The family refuses that to have children immunized for mumps, measles, or tetanus,
  • The two cooing turtledove lovers share an STd that one doesn’t mind sharing with the other.

You get the idea.

It’s one thing when they endanger themselves, but complications always happen, like that time when an idiot rammed into my chair and sent me into the harbor.

You can always watch out for yourself, but the idiot is always waiting to complicate things.


My friend John O’Toole ( formerly of the US Navy – Petty Officer First Class) used to say, ” having an extensive vocabulary means never searching hard for something that will confuse an officer.” He explained that rather than admitting to ignorance, the typical lieutenant, j.g., will merely act as though they understood and leave you to get on with your work. I found this to be just as accurate among the civilian tribe. Substitute cabaret for lounge, and they get a very different impression of the basement gin mill to which you are taking them.

A farmer’s porch, Stoop, veranda, lanai, or even a texas -that’s an open deck area around a steamboat’s pilothouse- are all kind of the same sort of thing. A place outside for sitting, socializing, and just watching the world go past. But New Englander’s have substituted the term piazza for those. Supposedly this imbues the place where the broken lawnmower sits, with some ricketty furniture into a place of old-world grace.
If untrimmed bushes border your property, you call it a hedge. To those who have never visited your house, you have quickly bolstered the impression from a tawdry row house to a comfortable estate.

My first father-in-law, the Cap’n, laid out for me the distinctions between the sort of courtesy captains that lined the bar at the “yacht club” and actual mariners. To him, it was more than the ability to stay off a reef at low tide in your converted “lobster yacht” and more about the full encompassment of seamanship.

Words are important. But it would be best if you didn’t take them at face value.

The Committee

This time of year always takes me back to my first professional job after grad school. I worked in a city near Boston known for its intellectual, cultural, and ethnic diversity. The city library system was enlightened enough to have an anthropologist on staff, me. But while I was on staff, the boss, nicknamed Joltin’ Joe, limited my role to one square mile-sized neighborhood; Eastie.

To be fair to Joltin’ Joe, I was not the only one singled out for lockdown. The entire staff was locked down in their branch libraries and departments. But it’s lonely at the top. And it’s especially so when your immediate cronies are known as such and not trusted. So much time got expended on periodic exercises in control and terror. The problem with such a leadership style is that it became as predictable as wanton; wherever the cronies weren’t looking, individuals would pop up some innovative program or initiative almost to spite Joltin’ Joe. His anger was truly wrothful within his organization, but politically, it was ineffective. The city council members considered themselves sponsors of their local libraries, and Joe’s fear of their reprisals could keep him in check.

My job was to run a special collections library and create regular programming featuring the cultures of my neighborhood’s ethnic groups. Irish, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, and Portuguese, were within the square mile. Being that Joe did not get along well with the inhabitants, I think he suspected that I’d chewed up and spat out in concise order. He assumed that I’d be seen as encroaching on perceived inter-ethnic prerogatives, and my presence would not be abiding. ” It’s a tough neighborhood Louie, they’ll chew you up and eat you alive.” was the warning.

Lucky for me my first visitor was Mrs. Gelowtsky. In a three-hour late afternoon meeting, she laid out the geography and history of the neighborhood. It wasn’t five separate groups. All the groups had intermarried over several generations, and there were only a few small areas with significant concentrations of one group. After that, the conversation turned to food.

Over the following days, I was visited by a number of the communities spark plugs, the people who ran local organizations, sponsored events, and were generally influential. They suggested others that I should call or visit. As they shared with me, I shared with them. They were interested in my being an anthropologist but amazed that I wasn’t someone’s relative. City Hall relatives frequently got these sorts of jobs. An analysis by the local Franciscan Priest suggested that in a showdown between two favored candidates, they got forced to pick someone qualified for the job.

Over a few months, a group merged to form what I called the Brain Trust, but they called it the committee. I’d love to say that every committee meeting was full of trust, cooperation, and beautiful ideas. Not so. Not too many Kumbayaw moments. But many naive ideas got hammered into doable form. For example, programs that later expanded into a new life at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife ( 1988) got banged into shape in the heat of committee meetings.

Early on, a pair of themes emerged: 

  • First, while the city beyond the borders of their little neighborhood saw them as distinct ethnic entities, they viewed themselves as one community with varied traditions. A few generations of co-inhabitation and intermarriage had helped this along.
  • Second, despite internal divisions, they perceived that they were at the bottom of the city’s hierarchy for services and status. There was a perception that our activities could raise the esteem and status of their community.

As an anthropologist, I feverishly took notes, made recordings, and was excited at the possibilities.

Meanwhile, at the other side of town lurked Joltin’ Joe, who decided to jerk the chain and cut off my funds for programming. I was scared. The committee got pissed and began to call in favors. The First Annual Harvest Festival was wholly funded and supported by community members. The committee made sure to invite Joltin Joe to the festivities and broadly smile as he ground out praise for the Eastie community from between clenched jaws.

Like most of the programs, articles, lectures, celebrations, videos, and more that followed, the committee adhered to one principle – as much as possible, it was about the community as a whole, even when one element took the lead in a particular event or the content of the program. For example, have an evening of Portuguese songs and dance. Many folks in the audience were Italian and Polish. They were there for a good time, supporting friends, or watching a grandchild dance.

Joltin Joe never figured it out. He, like many people, expect failure based upon the things that split people into competing groups. They don’t understand that cooperation is a fearsome way to unite despite competition.

Allowing outsiders to divide you will not ultimately improve your community; it’ll just marginalize you further. The committee understood this.

December and January

Well, it’s December, the shop is a mess. No pictures are allowed. Let’s say that the carving shop in the greenhouse is full of projects getting the oil varnish rub treatment, spoons getting treated with mineral oil, and stuff that has to wait in line for finishing.
The basement shop has cutting boards waiting for sanding and carving, and the bandsaw area needs a good cleaning. While silent now, this afternoon, it’ll be noisy as I prep final items for a show.

In the office, the idea book gets filled with ideas for January. January is prototype month around here. So I spend most of my time doing bad sketches of what I hope will be good projects that will quell the need to pay bills and increase profits. Both months are full of enthusiasm that belies the nature of the winter season. It helps me progress towards spring.

While plans fail, all the planning is sort of fun. It’s interesting when a year later you look at the bad drawings, all the notes, and the first carved prototype, then place it next to the finished product.

Then you grab a coffee, while the snow covers the greenhouse, and say, ” yeah that’s OK, but what if I did this instead?”

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.

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