Forward, Through The Muck

A couple months ago, I decided to hang up my hat. Next fall, I’m not coming back to the classroom after fifteen years of educating, entertaining, managing, having my ego lovingly skewered by, and occasionally being driven to the precipice of insanity by young people in America. 

It’s been a really hard decision. It’s also one I discerned—as with many really hard decisions I’ve made in the last few years—in the woodshop. The hard-nosed operations of sawing, planing, scribing, and truing have offered me a space to figure what’s really going on in my life, what’s important to me, and how to be a better dad and husband. To open up some distance on things before discerning what to do next.

In fact, is there any other part of life outside of woodworking and carpentry and tire maintenance that uses 'truing' as a verb? That alone ought to tell you something. I supposed I could start a high school English assignment by telling kids we were going to “true” a draft of an essay, but you can imagine how that exercise would go, compared to taking a tape measure to a piece of dead tree or sighting a straightedge across a board.

There’s no arguing with the cold, reassuringly objective fact of what meets your eye, encountering unimpeachable reality as you learn to do things for yourself and develop a sense of agency and competency, an argument Matthew Crawford made well in Shop Class as Soulcraft, and which Mike reinforced in a recent blog post.

That is, except, when I pick up this one tool. Ohhhhhhh boy. It’s my round-bottomed spokeshave, manufactured by the Cincinnati Tool Company in the 1910s or 20s.  I alternate between wanting to kiss and chuck it in the fireplace. It inevitably throws a Molotov cocktail into the rhythm I can—on a good day—achieve at the bench with some sharpened irons and a few years of practice. It’s also a tool I’ve been using a lot lately, since I’m working on a table apron with a bunch of interior curves.

I know it’s obnoxious, but I hope you’ll forgive me if, as a veteran English teacher, I tend to turn everything into metaphor—including and especially hand tools like that spokeshave, which I’ll return to in a minute. Making everything figurative is a hazard of the profession. I have a hard time with things simply being themselves, especially when we choose to write about them. It’s a tendency that has particularly irritated those painfully-literate-future-BS-in-Engineering-students whenever we’ve discussed things that poets do in poems. Or those kids who don’t want to get into the deeper symbolism of what details really mean in a short story, play, film, or novel. Don’t get me wrong. There’s some truth to the stereotype. During my experience getting my MA, I took any number of graduate classes from professors whose attempts to plumb the deeper architecture of a work made me think of an overcaffeinated FBI analyst tying pieces of string between pushpins on maps and photographs, gesturing wildly towards a suspect.

Good art, though, I’ve realized, isn’t a puzzle for smart people to be solved and lord over the plebes. Good art is an experience, not an anaesthetized end product, a realization John Dewey reached about a hundred years ago, but that’s a whole different story. Sometimes things ought to be merely themselves without poking around for a deeper architecture.

Good woodworking, too, is an experience. One that shouldn’t always be smooth, bereft of difficulties.

Which brings me back to that damned spokeshave. It is without a doubt the best tool I’ve got for hogging off material on inside curves. It also is… not great at that particular operation. Its set screws slip. The mouth jams. The varying radius on the oval table apron that I’m fairing means that I’ve got to constantly adjust my angle of attack as I work. It sometimes chatters like hypothermic teeth, even when the iron’s freshly sharpened. It digs out gnarly divots the second it goes against the grain.

But it also redirects my attention to the task at hand.

It keeps me from naval-gazing, or succumbing too deeply to nostalgia, or to dividing my life neatly and artificially into chapters based upon my resume, or to misconstruing what I’m doing the wood shop as escapism. It reminds me that the work I do at a desk or in the classroom or parenting my kindergartener or cooking something in the kitchen or—yes—making a table is all of a piece. It’s all dignified labor. It’s all opportunities for engagement and—if approached mindfully—can create the flow state Csikszentmihalyi describes.

It’s a paradox, I know. The bench gives me a space to both better understand my life from a distance, and it also serves to remind me that that distance might be an illusion. But it’s why I continue to return to it: by carving out space for time at the bench, I see that there isn’t much difference between what I do in and out of the shop, and that what I’m ultimately creating with saws and chisels is an attention for what is directly in front of me. And I don’t need to tell you that our attention isn’t just a hot commodity in today’s economy that is trying to cleave it from us. It’s also what gives us a sense of autonomy and satisfaction when we direct it towards a meaningful end.

So while I’m no longer teaching next year, I’m thankful for the thousands of hours in the classroom—and those working at the bench on nights and weekends—both of which have reconfirmed for me Marge Piercy’s observation in her poem “To Be of Use”—one of those poems everyone should read—that “The people that I love best jump into work headfirst… pull like water buffalo… strain in the muck and mud to move things forward.”

-Cameron Turner


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