In his excellent book of small essays, The Book of Delights, the poet Ross Gay writes that “Webster’s definition of loiter reads thus: ‘to stand or wait around idly without apparent purpose,’ and ‘to travel indolently with frequent pauses.’ Among the synonyms for this behavior are linger, loaf, laze, lounge, lollygag, dawdle, amble, saunter, meander, putter, dillydally, and mosey…. All of these words to me imply having a nice day. They imply having the best day. They also imply being unproductive. Which leads to being, even if only temporarily, nonconsumptive, and this is a crime in America.”
He adds that another synonym “for loitering [is] taking one’s time. For while the previous list of synonyms allude to time, taking one’s time makes it kind of plain, for the crime of loitering, the idea of it, is about ownership of one’s own time, which must be, sometimes, wrested from the assumed owners of it, who are not you, back to the rightful, who is. My work is studying this kind of glee, being on the lookout for it, and aspiring to it, floating away from the factory.”
After reading that last bit of Ross’ commentary, I have an urge to hang a sign outside my shop (or even in my classroom) that reads “Loitering Welcome.”
To be clear, I’m not in favor of abject laziness. Or trespassing on private property. Or graffitiing the side of a 7-11. I am, however, in favor of a certain attitude towards creative work that (sometimes) frontloads futzing around: absent-mindedly setting down tools that I’ll spent fifteen minutes looking for later under a pile of shavings, staring blankly at a knot in a board that looks like Danny DeVito in profile, or squinting at a workpiece on the bench while I refill my coffee cup for the third time. I’m aware that none of these seem all that productive, per say. Then again, I didn’t exactly get into hand tool woodworking to redline my furniture-making productivity. (Otherwise I’d just buy an industrial CNC router and program it to produce Windsor chair spindles. Or, better yet, I’d just mosey down to IKEA and buy a chair from which to day trade cryptocurrencies, accumulating capital with the aim of ultimately buying my own global megacorp furniture company.)
And while I have nothing but awe and respect for those industrious preindustrial cabinet makers, the human caffeine who produced shockingly ornate work by hand while toiling at an efficient clip six days a week from the time they were apprenticed as preteens, I personally have no desire to recreate that tempo in my own shop.
What I want is a different, more languid pace.
Why else work by hand except to “float away from the factories,” both literal and figurative? What I’m after is both human excellence and—yes—fun. (Aren’t hobbies supposed to be fun?) And I guess what I’m after, too, is a different relationship with work and labor than the one that marks my often very stressful day job. Or, better yet, the possibility that engaging in a different kind of work in my shop might also transform and recalibrate my work as a parent, teacher, son, and partner.
Giving ourselves permission to “work” in such a way isn’t always easy. It’s a commonplace saying that hand tool work “values process over—or at least as much as—product.” One pernicious side effect of social media, in particular, has been to transform that process itself into a sort of product. Our prevailing winds value the grind, the hustle, and the anxious business of “self-branding” to the point where the notion of creating something without a digital audience or the possibility of monetization feels like anathema.
In his recent Netflix special Inside—shot in a single room over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic—the comedian Bo Burnham satirically notes that he’s “learned that real-world human-to-human tactile contact will kill you, and that all human interaction, whether it be social, political, spiritual, sexual, or interpersonal should be contained in the much more safe, much more real interior digital space. The outside world, the non-digital world, is merely a theatrical space in which one stages and records content for the much more real, much more vital digital space. One should only engage with the outside world as one engages with a coal mine. Suit up, gather what is needed, and return to the surface.” Burnham’s joking—or is he? Amy Umbel recently elaborated on the negative ramifications of this tendency to value the appearance of creative work over its messy, joyful, often unremunerative reality in a couple different searingly honest posts on Instagram. And, in the last M&T podcast, Mike and Joshua batted around Albert Borgmann’s notion of “counterpractices” that “challenge the rule of technology” via the habitual, patterned practice of engagement.
All of which is to say: I’m not going to let it bug me that it took most of the morning to chop out and hand rout a 1/4" groove that will (hopefully) seat a tambour door on the little plane till I’m building. Yeah, it took forever. Yeah, I maybe could’ve done it faster with a plunge router and a template. And, yeah, the groove I cut is imperfect, bedraggled in some of its edges as it rounds the 3-3/4" radius from front to back.
However, the fact that I even have these June mornings off from the stress of my teaching job to mess around trying to make dead treestuff pretty is, in itself, a luxury and a privilege, as is the fact that I have a shop space to begin with. And so I want to work slowly, to sink deeply into the moment of engagement with the material and to carefully consider my next move before I make it.
And, yes, to take my time.