February 2nd, 2014
Killing The Dream
"It's difficult to know, when you look at someone's life, what you should give the person
credit (or blame) for and what you should put down to luck." - Michael Frayn
I picked up the dream of being a full-time potter almost as soon as I'd learned to throw, then carried it around with me for almost a decade before trying it.
During that time, I acquired additional training from two summers at Clary Illian's pottery, solo work in various co-op studios, a brief stint in graduate school and then several years in my own studio. I stumbled into a job making and managing web sites, which turned a into provisional career. Over the next six years, it helped lay the foundation for my dream: paying down debt, buying a house in the country with space for a studio and showroom, and building my first kiln.
While working full-time at that job, I kept the pulse going in the studio -- evenings, weekends and vacations. I gradually built up a local customer base, got my pots into some shows and galleries, and taught some ceramics classes at the local college.
Then, in early 2006, I made the leap.
Things didn't go as planned. Almost immediately, I hurt my back, strained by overwork. Distractions and side projects crept in, stealing precious studio time and limiting my output. An attempt at renovating our old barn into expanded studio and showroom space was foiled by a tornado. Teaching opportunities, which I'd hoped would ease the transition away from paid employment, dried up. So I took a few freelance web jobs -- the guaranteed income was good, but further slowed my progress in the studio.
Sales improved, but not enough, and I started worrying about money in ways I never had before. My anxiety about how to pay the next month's bills became constant, and was more paralyzing than motivating. All in all, the x factor I'd been hoping for when I quit -- some sort of multiplier that would make the numbers add up to something sustainable -- never materialized.
Here's what I didn't know about being a full-time potter before I tried it: it's much harder than it looks.
I also hadn't planned on an offer to return to an improved version of my old job. Although it came just 18 months after the start of my experiment, I took it. It's hard to say exactly why. I gradually realized I'd been too impatient to get started. I should have saved more money, built a bigger kiln, made sure I was physically and mentally prepared to give it every waking moment. And perhaps those 18 months revealed what was really required to succeed: further sacrifices to my health and relationships; a tightened budget; compromising my love of making pots for the dull demands of the marketplace. The tradeoffs of a day job, as harsh as they can be, seemed preferable.
I clung to The Dream, as I'd come to think of it, for a few more years, hoping for another shot at it. But as my circumstances changed -- transitioning to a part-time job, parenthood, oncoming middle age -- I gradually realized that it wasn't doing me any good. In fact, it was weighing me down. Unfulfilled dreams fester into regrets. So on my 40th birthday, I decided to kill The Dream; to focus instead on what I can do with the life I've actually earned.
Here's what I didn't know about The Dream before I gave up on it: life without it isn't so bad.
In fact, it's pretty good. I only get to spend half my working life in the studio, but that time is much freer to be what I want. I get to make the pots I really want to make, in the ways I want to make them. I can slow down when I need to, and can take more chances while worrying less about their outcome. The money I earn from pots is still important, of course, but not desperately important. And there's a whole range of unpleasant things I don't have to do: wholesale, unappealing commissions, hauling pots across the state to weekends spent sitting at a booth, compulsively re-listing items on Etsy.
Having two jobs is complicated, but they reinforce one another, balancing out the competing demands of time and money, security and risk. I spend the first part of each week in a climate-controlled office at a computer; the rest in my studio, mostly at the treadle wheel.
In retrospect, my version of The Dream was more fantasy than plan, flawed by unrealistic ambition. Perhaps it was a youthful attempt to escape hard truths of time and money, labor and stamina, art and commerce. Some things can only be learned by running into them head first.
But I'm glad I did.
February 23rd, 2014
Dr. Strangethrow, Or: How I learned to stop sitting and love the Brent
"You have to love your tools." - Merlin Mann
For all my complaining about electric wheels and ranting about the superiority of my Leach wheel, I have to grudgingly admit that there are some things I really like about standing up and going electric. Some things that might even be -- gasp! -- better.
(That gasp because, in my (former?) role of converted, partisan, expected-to-be life-long unplugged treadler, this would be heresy of the highest order.)
Don't get me wrong -- lots of things about standing up at an electric wheel suck. But I've discovered that the thing that sucks the most is the simple fact that it's not the same as sitting at a Leach wheel; that it's not what I know. Old habits die hard, old expectations die harder.
And some of the differences aren't really better or worse, they're just interesting because they're different: the changed view out the window, using unfamiliar muscle groups, getting tired in new ways during a throwing session, how the pots in progress move around the studio.
But there are other differences that are just as good as the old way, or perhaps even better.
I like being able to just step away from the wheel as needed -- to retrieve a tool or set aside a freshly thrown pot or change the music or check the stove or wipe slip out of my eye -- without having to stop cranking and dismount it first.
I like how easy it is to adjust my posture on the fly, and how when I slip into a bad position it's more immediately noticeable. I like how there's less of a tendency to hunch over, especially as I get fatigued. That has to be a big part of the longer term wear and tear -- the way that I gradually slope over until my nose is mere inches from the wheelhead. It seems like avoiding that tendency could be good preventative medicine. Standing also encourages resetting my posture between pots: stepping away for half a minute, shaking out muscles that have been in a fixed position, stretching upwards and backwards before smacking down the next ball of clay.
And I've discovered that when I do need to get my nose close to the grain of the clay 1, I can momentarily kneel down to get my view at that level. Whether I'm shaping the underside of a flaring rim with a rib, adding a bevel at the foot before cutting off with the wire, or cutting the transition where a footring meets the outside profile of a bowl, it makes a lot more sense to do that work at eye level, where I can actually see that section of the pot, instead of from up above, where I'm basically just guessing. (No one ever admires a trimmed foot by placing the bowl on its rim and looking straight down at it, right? They pick it up and get it close to their face to see the details. Why shouldn't I do the same thing while I'm making those details?)
The same goes for seeing the full profile of a form, which usually requires the most killer of all throwing postures when in a sitting position -- that hard lean and twist to the right. (And it's even worse on a treadle, because if you want to both see from that angle and work on it at the same time, your left foot has to keep pumping while you're leaning in the opposite direction.) Conversely, when standing it's easy to just crouch down or step backwards to assess any part of the pot from a different perspective. It adds the option of sitting on a stool or stepping up on a riser as needed, to get down near a wide flaring plate or up at the rim of a tall sectional form. And an unexpected bonus is that with the increased freedom of movement, these things just happen fairly organically, without needing to be all that conscious about them. (If anything, it's my long years of habit of not being able to move around like this that prevents it; a mental limitation rather than a physical one. Once I rewire those habits, sitting at the Leach wheel will probably feel uncomfortably constrained.)
So with 60-70 pots made on the new wheel over the last six or eight weeks, I'm starting to feel these little things adding up. Collectively, it seems like they might make a big difference.
As much as I dislike a really fast wheel (a relative definition, of course; "really fast" means something different for every potter), I confess that it's pretty great how quick and effortless the preliminary stages of throwing can be, without changing the final result in any significant way. I've always been a very careful wedger, working each piece of clay on the butcher block before taking it to the wheel. In part that's a result of how I learned, but also in part because on the treadle the extra revolutions to wedge by coning take more effort than they're worth; it's more efficient to wedge on the table. But on the electric I can get those last few bits homogenized and coiled for action, letting the motor do most of the work. Given that I've probably already put too many reps on the particular muscles and tendons in my hands and wrists that take the brunt of hand wedging, this could be another pain-limiter/career-extender going forward.
Also with the fast wheelhead, centering and opening can happen almost before I know it, especially with the smaller forms I've been making. I hadn't anticipated how getting that preliminary stuff out of the way, almost without having to think about it, helps keep the flow of ideas and impressions going from one pot to the next. Just like with preparing all the clay for a series of pots before -- I was going to say "sitting down at the wheel" -- starting at the wheel, this facilitates getting into a throwing rhythm; sorting out the successes and failures from one pot to the next, focusing in on their details instead of just the broad gestures. It adds a few more percentage points to the odds of getting into a Flow state, which, if the magic ever happens, is where it happens. 2
I like refining a tricky detail or getting through the difficult part of a pull with my entire lower body in a fixed, strong position -- only my hands and arms moving. I like being able to lean in on the (horrible, wretched, tacky, 1970's Harvest Gold colored plastic) splash pan. I like just letting a pot spin in circles for the hell of it sometimes, while I step back for a sip of coffee or to shimmyto a good song for a second. Sometimes, to quote my clever wife, "waste is a luxury I need". And with electricity that's cheap enough I don't really have to think about it, it's also the rare kind of luxury I can actually afford right now.
I still hate these damn plastibats -- they're the only ones I have that fit the pegs on this Brent -- but I like how small they are -- how economically they use the always-scarce horizontal space for wet pots. My normal 12" bats, much as I love them otherwise, are pretty ridiculous with a single mug or skinny vase on them. (Yes, Carter, I still like to keep some smaller, liftable pots untouched when they're wet, so I don't lift them off the wheel onto a wareboard even though I could. Sometimes that's to leave a blank canvas for stamping or brushwork, other times it's to preserve that exact millimeter and microsecond of trailed throwing slip, or the mark of a tool, or the one fingerprint that I think I'll prefer over the ones that would record if I touched the pot again. I know: Crazytown. Anti-Meyersesque. I never said it was smart.)
Conversely to what I said about wheel speed above, I also like that the possibility of going too fast provides the opportunity to resist the temptation. I like being able to exercise that kind of restraint. I tuned the pedal downwards, so that it's a little closer to the slow treadle wheel speeds I'm accustomed to, but on full throttle it's still frantically, manically fast, especially with only a pound or two of clay on it. This is verging into true esoteric weirdness, but deliberately keeping the motor away from that high whining sound is something of an aesthetic decision. Part of the performance; a more beautiful work environment; a harmonious lack of bad noise... even though it I'm the only one there to witness it.
And I like the way that all those perfect, consistent, ceaselessly free revolutions of the wheelhead are, already, encouraging me to mess with the pots more: poking at them, tweaking them out of round, adding a little warp or torque on the last slow pass of the rib, leaving more variations in the wall thickness. As this new tool brings the possibility of that stale "perfection" closer -- reliable uniformity, bland symmetry, ill-considered details -- it also reminds me to look harder for ways to avoid it.
"Perhaps there are peaks above perfection that can be achieved only by accepting a certain amount of imperfection.” – Julian Baggini
"You have to function like perfect machines" - Ferran Adrià
"Your job is not to be perfect, your job is only to be human. And nothing important happens in life without a cost." - Jacqueline Novogratz
Huh. It would be pretty ironic if needing to switch to an electric wheel ended up making me a looser, zanier thrower. If it brought me closer to that Meyersesque approach, handling the pots to show proof that they were handled; messing them up a little bit just to add some chaos; seeking out more contrast to my intentions.
Anyways, yeah. So far, I like a lot more about it than I'd even imagined was possible a couple months ago. I could learn to love it. And that's still with this clunky old loaner. A Soldner Special might just blow my freaking mind.
1 Now in my early 40's, my closeup eyesight is fading fast. Stupid goddamn reading glasses. I put them on the other day while trimming -- for the first time ever -- and just as I discovered with reading and working at the computer late last year, I had to grudgingly -- very grudgingly -- admit that I could see what I was doing better. Gah. Getting old sucks.
2 I originally had something here about not "wasting" kicks on the bar to those less-important parts of the process, and how I imagine myself now like an aging pitcher, being on a lifetime "kick count": the number of reps left I have on the treadle before I've got to retire from it for good. Why use them up on something as mundane and basic as centering?
But that was from the perspective of assuming that I'd still be throwing on the treadle wheel -- a few weeks ago when I wrote that -- and now I'm not so sure that I ever will. It's hard to waste kicks if I never kick again, now isn't it?
Related, this whole idea of efficiency or conservation vs. waste while making pots is a strange philosophical minefield. It makes little sense almost any way you slice it. For example, thinking in terms of saving reps on the treadle bar or at the wedging block is pretty anti-Zen; it flies in the face of the "pottery is a meditation" approach. (With no disrespect to the amazing Will Ruggles, whose quote about this in an ancient issue of CM still rumbles through my mind on a regular basis.)
But it's starting to seem like that approach is a luxury I can no longer afford -- not if I want to keep doing this. Expedience rules the day. I guess I'd rather be somewhat more workman-like/efficient and keep making pots than stick to those abstract principles and in the process wear out my body to the point where I can't anymore. Something's gotta give, and I really don't want it to be my spine.
But of course, on the other hand, I'm well aware that this kind of thinking is a classic slippery slope. If it's "wasting" effort to hand wedge or center slowly, why not use a jigger and jolly instead? And if that's OK, then why bother throwing clay at all -- let's just jump ahead to the logical conclusion and make everything in molds. And once the pots are coming from molds, is it really all that important that _I'm_ the person handling the clay? I'm the brains of this operation -- the artistic voice! Let's hire some college students and ramp up production! Or better yet, fire the CADCAM files off to China and tool up for mass production! It's still "hand made", right? It's still "my work", right?
(Wrong and wrong.)
February 16th, 2014
progress is progress
"And now the Internet's media landscape is like a never-ending store, where everything is free.
No matter how hard you sprint for the horizon, it keeps receding.
There is always something more." - Alexis C. Madrigal
This week's obligatory studio photos
This week's recommended reading
2013: The Year 'the Stream' Crested
Apparently, I'm not the only one with Facebook Fatigue. I particularly like the "stock and flow" metaphor; an intriguing way to think about creating online content.
Tony Clennel's trip to Athens, GA
This is pretty much what blogging does best.
tn@se: Day 16, parts 1-3
Last year's heartbreak. Still pretty funny.
"I’m stubborn and dumb and just want my wishes to magically come true in fired earth. Is that so wrong?"
This week's recommended listening
Brian R. Jonescast: ep.#46: Jeff Oestreich
JO is one of my all-time favorite potters, so this was a treat. Great format, a good interview style, and fine audio quality -- other than the lack of pledge drive spots, you wouldn't know it's not NPR. Which, I mean, NPR for potters? Come on, how great is that! "All this and heaven, too?"
Tales of a Red Clay Rambler: Kline, Carpenter & Philbeck
This was the third episode of the RCR podcast that I've listened to, and they've all been very good. Looking forward to feasting on the rest. The one with Matt Long was so chock full of compelling ideas that I'll have to sample it again sometime.
Anyways, I know Michael and Kyle and Ron a bit, so it was a lot of fun to hear them interact here for an hour and a half; reminded me of an amazing evening I once spent in NC. They really get into the meat of making a living as potters, and are as open and sincere and insightful about it as you'd imagine.
February 9th, 2014
"I discovered my limitations and it seemed to me that the only sensible thing
was to aim at what excellence I could within them." - Somerset Maugham
It's starting to feel not completely wrong to make pots standing up at the electric wheel. I mean, I still kind of hate it, but maybe I hate the need to change more than the change itself. It seems pretty clear that it's a better posture for my fragile, screwed up back -- I could feel the difference almost immediately. And if it ends up that this is the only viable way forward, the only sustainable method of continuing to make pots on the wheel, then I should embrace it. I should be grateful, perhaps, that an alternative even exists.
After 3-4 months away from wet clay, it took about two dozen pots to knock the scaling rust from my hands and to rediscover those old, well-worn pathways in my brain; the ones that know how to do this autonomically. The best pots seem to come from that state where I'm not burning a million calories a minute on consciously thinking about each little step in the process. There's a mind-body connection that happens when you're into the flow of it, but it has to get warmed up, activated through use. You can't just think your way back into the process.
But it came back much faster than I'd expected -- especially considering how many of those old habits have to change to accomodate the standing posture. Getting back to that state feels like arriving home after a long, hard journey; regaining that feel for pulling and shaping, for the finest differences in pressure and direction, for that unique collection of gestures and postures and movements that push the clay into a desired form. And it's like the world and everything in it make more sense somehow, when I'm elbow-deep in slip, and tending the drying pots like babies, and swirling ideas for decoration and patterns and future slip and glaze hopes through my mind. It's really gratifying to be back in the hunt.
Some of my surprise at that quick return to form is probably due to drastically lowered expectations. I'm just relieved to be making stuff at all. There were times last fall, the darkest times, where I wondered if I might actually be finished as a potter. Burned out before my time. Overfired. That was, and is, a terrifying prospect. Terrifying enough that even those first few clunky hesitant bowls in January seemed to come off the wheel with a burst of light and celestial fanfare playing in the background.
Huh. So much for dreams, right? 'If you just keep lowering your expectations, someday you'll be happy.'
So now I've been using the electric and standing to throw -- with only occasionally sitting at the treadle to trim -- for about five weeks now. I'm squeezing as much work time into each studio day and week as I can without redlining my back. (Or, at least, not too much; I've cut it pretty close a few times). With the added overhead of warming up, paying careful attention to posture and position, taking frequent breaks and so forth, it hasn't resulted in as many pots as usual. (Or, perhaps I should say, as it used to.) Which is frustrating, but even so... they're slowly starting to fill up the table in the center of the studio. And that's tangible progress towards the next bisque, the next salt firing, the next sale. I live for those little scraps of progress these days.
Five weeks in and it's starting to feel normal. Normal enough that it's weird that it feels normal. I'm adapting to the changes, I guess; acclimating to the new reality. Taking ownership of both the new tool and the new method, instead of approaching it like some kind of punishment inflicted on me from the outside.
Which, come to think of it, is probably half the battle: approaching the work with genuine engagement and some amount of optimism, despite the obstacles. Accepting that it's always a gradual series of changes and adaptations, even in the best of times.
"A life, Jimmy. You know what that is? It's the shit that happens while you're waiting for moments that never come." - Bunk Moreland
And if I can't do it that way -- as a life, as part of what happens instead of as hoped for moments -- then why try to do it at all?
February 2nd, 2014
two for one
"Earth defined, I can't advise, I can't been sign in the begin;
Sitting time for the begin, a waste of time, sitting still."
- what I used to think Michael Stipe was singing
Here's the current version of my new wheel setup, a slight improvement over "the garbage version". I've used the Leach wheel a few times for trimming now -- without instantly turning my spine into kindling! -- which makes me think it may still have a limited future in my studio. So the catch now is making room for both wheels. The last time I did a major rearrangement of the studio, it was with the assumption that I'd always have just the treadle, and with it being in that particular, ideal spot. Aimed out the front windows, in close proximity to two work tables, wedging block, stereo, etc. Then I put a lot of that related furniture into what I thought would be permanent spots, so that most of them are either bolted onto the walls or buried in piles of pots, reclaim clay and junk.
So it will take some serious rethinking of the whole space to find an arrangement that allows for both wheels. And it will probably require a preliminary project of pruning away a lot of the "stuff I might need someday" that's accumulated in the studio in the last nine years. It'd make sense to finally move/sell/haul out to the barn my old Lockerbie kickwheel, which would probably be only marginally better for my back now than the treadle. It's a nice wheel as they go, and probably a good one for, say, an aspiring young potter to start on, but it's been unused and in a really inconvenient place for as long as I can remember. (For someone who deliberately "killed the dream", you'd think I could let go of a dumb old furniture arrangement more easily than this.)
Also, I should probably try the John Glick/Kristen Keiffer setup at some point, with the electric wheel backed up to a wall and with some sort of back support built onto the wall to allow for a semi-standing, leaning posture… I'm not sure how well that would work, exactly, or if it would be a real improvement over just standing in space as I am now. But because my studio is just one big, undivided room, there isn't really a good, free wall space to do that -- there are too many doors, windows, and fixtures like the wood stove, wall furnace, and water spigot to work around.
Which leads back around to another remodeling idea I've had, of subdividing the space into two or three smaller rooms. It'd be nice to have a designated area for bisqueware and raw materials storage that was away from the dust and activity of wet clay, and that didn't need to be heated (and cooled) as much as the main work area. And I'd love to section off a little tool room, if for no other reason than to just get them out of the way and out of sight. (It's kind of a bummer to spend all day with old paint cans and piles of random supplies in my peripheral vision, and I seem genetically incapable of organizing and decluttering it. Constantly working around it can't be helping my ability to focus on the pots.)
And then if I'm going to be framing up new walls, it would make a ton of sense to finally get around to improving the ceiling situation; that leaky, gradually failing patchwork of wallboard, foam panels and duct tape that currently seperates the inside from the outside. Funny how those larger projects always seem to link one to the next, so that they linger forever on the Someday, Maybe list.
For now -- to get it off my Now, Definitely list -- I've left the two wheels in roughly the same spot, and rotated the Leach wheel 90º, so that both wheels can share the little utility table where I put my bats, throwing tools, towel, etc. One nice aspect to this, provided that I only use the treadle for trimming, is that I can keep each wheel setup for a specific task. With only one wheel, that's a minor but very frequent mode switch that slows things down and gets rather tiresome.
Let's see… Somehow, despite January being just brutal on the weather front, I managed to make a few batches of pots last month. Simple stuff -- mugs and bowls -- but so far I have about three dozen that are probably worth firing, and my brain is gradually slipping into that intoxicating mid-throwing-session state. That's certainly more than I expected to accomplish by now.
The real drag about working with wet clay in the dead of winter is the threat of accidentally freezing pots in progress before they're bone dry. I've lost a few small batches of pots that way over the years, so I'm completely paranoid about it now. (After randomly dropping wareboards on the floor, that's probably my most despised way to lose pots. Such a waste. At least when they bite it in the firing, they had a chance.)
I bought a new wood stove last fall, in part with the idea of using it more often than the old clunker, to minimize the amount of time the propane furnace runs. But with consistent sub-freezing temps for several weeks -- and some crazy nights in the -20's -- I've been working overtime just to stay on top of the firewood supply and keep the stove going. It's like a(nother) part time job! It's one of those classic exchanges of labor for dollars and, as is usually the case with solid fuels versus gas, I think there's a significant savings to be had. But the labor gets pretty wearying at times. Some days (and nights) I just punt and let the thermostat take over. But most of the time I've kept at it, and it's getting to be a new habit. An unexpected fringe benefit is that tending the stove gets me out there at least a few -- and usually several -- times a day. (The studio is about 50 yards from the house.) That keeps me a little more mentally engaged in the studio even on days that I'm not working there; let's me see the recent pots in passing; forces me out of the envelope of the home momentarily and into the outside air, even on the coldest days; and seems to ease the weekly transition from office work to studio work a bit. It reminds me of Penland, too, going out there into the dark to put the studio to bed before I crash for the night.
And anything that reminds me of Penland has to be good.
January 27th, 2014
"…our hero is faced with an elemental choice: stay or go?" - Anthony Lane
A year ago today I started my Adventure, my journey away from the reliable comforts of The Shire, my potting sabbatical. Damn.
February at Penland. It was so ethereally great, like living inside a dream for thirty days straight. As this winter drags on, month after frozen month, I'm overwhelmed by the contrast between now and last year at this time. So much of the year since then has been more like a bad dream, a sequence of little nightmares. February was the amazing high point in an otherwise low, hard, disappointing 2013.
I'd practically kill to go back again. To pack up our stuff and just run away for another month inside the dream. I mean, it really was that great. (I've got the alterna-blog to prove it. And, I must say, as bittersweet as it is, I'm enjoing the hell out of reading it now, following along one day at a time with the posts from a year ago. "I feel like one third of a Brandon Phillips" still cracks me up.)
Looking at those pictures now, I'm foolishly nostalgic for even the little things. Like those bare wood floors and funky olive green shelves; the light through those windows in the afternoons; clacking away at that funky treadle wheel. Daily trips to the coffee shop; Jacob's magic hand gel; the ebb and flow of conversation in the studio; the ritual of swapping my hiking boots for sneakers each morning before starting another day of making.
Last year at this time, fueled by that sabbatical trip, it seemed like there was still a tiny little space left in which to dream. But so many things have broken badly since then that now it's like my cable keeps getting bound up in the damn track, yanking me out of even the faintest daydream. The sepia allure of the craftsman's life and the hope of escape from this indentured, everyday grind are mere illusions. Nobody's coming to set me free.
January 19th, 2014
I'm not going to take this sitting down
"Body's at home, but my heart's in the wind." - Tom Waits
I've heard it said that the kiln is the heart of the potter's studio. But for me the kiln is more like the intestines. The wheel is the heart.
And the studio -- by which I mean the ongoing activity of making pots there -- is the heart of almost everything to me. Almost. That is, it's not quite everything, but without it everything else feels like a whole lot of nothing. The wheel is the heart of the heart, if that makes any sense. It's the fundamental part; the most meaningful, the most rewarding.
So when I torched by back last fall, worse than I had in seven years, the most disturbing, problematic part was that it seemed strongly related to throwing. And not just to throwing, but to throwing on my treadle wheel in particular. When I demonstrated that posture and motion to my amazing physical therapist -- sitting, bent forward, arms extended, left leg pushing at the knee, right leg holding all my upper body weight, twisted to the right at the waist -- the look on his face said, "Yeah… maybe you shouldn't be doing that anymore."
Kind of a
"It hurts when I do this, Doc."
"Then don't do that."
scenario. In other words: Bad News.
After about two months of patiently letting things heal up and sort themselves out, plus a long, boring list of changes, new routines, attempted exercises and so forth to try to keep it from happening again, I probably could have climbed back on the treadle in mid-November -- cautiously -- and made a few pots. I don't think that would have failed completely. I might be able to make all those other changes and still get by with that as my wheel, at least for a while. But then again, I might not. If two more lost, painful months are what it costs to find out, I'd rather not find out that way.
In any case, it didn't really matter. The timing of my recovery, so to speak, was terrible, because by that point I needed to be well into the sale cycle. So I essentially cancelled my fall making session -- Hello, world! This is what I look like as a heartless zombie! -- and instead spent those spine-hours firing the kiln, setting up the showroom, and doing the 8,000 other little tasks involved in having a studio sale.
Then: a trip out of town, the holidays, blizzard hell, sickness, delays, dayjob, etc, etc. (In other words: January.) So it wasn't until a couple weeks ago that I could even start to approach this problem. All that time, waiting, I tried to cut myself some slack for the fact that I was walking around with no heart in my heart, and with no idea if and when I might get it back. Keeping it together. Faking it. But there's only so much you can do in the cutting yourself some slack department. Ice cream and video games, it turns out, aren't really a cure for anything. Hence: In The Suck.
I mean, god damn. If I had known that my mid-life crisis might include having to give up my treadle wheel, I'd have just bought a convertible and starting drinking to keep it at bay a while longer.
So here's my first shot at a provisional solution; "the garbage version that's so bad it will make everyone hate you", where, in this case, everyone is me. It's definitely the garbage version that's just good enough to hate:
That's a loaner Brent on a pile of cinder blocks, with my Leach wheel sadly jammed into the corner. Don't get me wrong: I'm very lucky to have this electric wheel, to try out the throwing while standing up thing. That's a huge plus. But it's just… it's just that almost everything is wrong about it. My workspace is extra cluttered and out of sorts; the wheel is beat up enough to add an extra layer of unneeded frustration; and this quick-and-dirty setup, which I put together one morning in a desperate attempt to stop delaying the inevitable, is wobbly and clunky and dumb. Add in the fact that, unlike most potters I know, I've thrown on an electric wheel, for all of about 1% of my potting life, and all of that sitting, and that I have strongly disliked almost every minute of it -- the motor noise, the gas pedal, the lack of reversibility, the harshness of stopping and starting, the disconnect between the speed of the wheel and what my hands are doing. Blah.
Also, after almost five full months with barely a lump of clay on the wheel, I'm more rusty than I've been in almost 20 years, and I hate being rusty. I'm completely incapable of being rational about it, to the point that it kills my already fragile confidence. Next to not making pots at all -- which is the absolute worst -- making pots those first few times after a long stretch away is the worst.
So there's all that to get past, too. And the standing thing is… just plain weird. Where do my arms go? How should I reach for my tools? What's this stupid splash pan doing in my way? Wow, that's a lot of slop water cascading onto the floor. Where should I put the pedal, and how do I go about adjusting the speed with a half-formed pot on the wheelhead? And on and on.
I mean, it works; as awkward and aggravating and bizarre as it seems, it works. Pots were made. And the posture was immediately, noticeably different and -- I have to admit -- better. Less strain in the wrong places, and obvious use of those core muscles that I've been trying to train up. But woof… I'm not sure if I'll ever get used to it. Even with a better wheel, a good setup, and a lot of practice. Maybe not being "used to it" is as good as it's gonna get.
So I've made a handful of pots the last couple weeks. So far, my back hasn't collapsed into kindling. I haven't quit in frustration. The pots are coming off the wheel round and not-terrible. (Certainly not good, either, but I can't expect them to possibly be good yet.) They're at least something -- some new objects, some wet clay in hand, some use of those mental routines and neural pathways that are just desperate to be activated. A bit of progress, a glimmer of hope.
But there are lots of questions ahead. Hard decisions. Do I buy a new electric wheel, and if so which one? How much to spend? (eg. Is this a long term, permanent investment; a tool I'll use every week? Or a short-term, occasional patch on the system?) If I go big -- say, a Soldner -- how do I pay for it? Raid my ever-shrinking war chest, the one was was supposed to go to the new salt kiln? Maybe. I guess. If that's what it takes.
I mean, what good is a new set of intestines if I'm walking around with no heart?
January 12th, 2014
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"It's good for us to think about why we get bored, why we need something
to be happening all the time. Or it's good for me, anyway." - Alex Pappademas
I've been away from Facebook for about a month, and while I'm sure I've missed some things during that time -- things it'd be nice to know, status updates from people I care about, links to interesting stuff -- I can't say I've missed it. If anything, I've anti-missed it. I was probably overdue for a break.
And now that I've been out of that loop for a while, I'm not feeling much attraction to going back in. I'm sure I will, eventually. But it's not like I'm champing at the bit.
It probably helped that I didn't plan it in advance. It wasn't some overwrought New Year's resolution, it just came about by circumstance. We went to my parents' in San Diego before Christmas, which made an obvious time to try out a different pattern. I didn't even track down the Wi-Fi password for a week, each day feeling less and less interested in finding out what was happening in my inbox and the rest of my online "life".
In part that was because Maggie never shifted her internal clock to Pacific time, so we were up each morning way before first light, and the last thing I want to see at 5am is the spam that somehow still gets through the filters and a bunch of invites to events I'd never dream of attending, even if they weren't seven states away. In part it was because I've been neglecting actual, paper books for so long it was starting to feel like a thought crime, and once I summoned the will to crack one open -- my first shot at a Neil Gaiman novel -- it pulled me in as easily and completely as The Feed ever does. Also in part because I've plugged a few good games into what seems to be a mandatory quota of weekly iPad time, in those interstitial moments of downtime where reading isn't practical or I'm just too tired to do it justice. And in part it was because I miss my old winter morning routine, pre-iPad, of drinking coffee and just staring out into the darkness until it stops being dark. California sunrises, after more time away from them now than I spent with them, back when they were the only kind I knew, are now foreign and kind of entrancing. At home, the sun bangs up over a flat, empty horizon, each day when it's not strangled by leaden clouds; blinding in it's sudden brilliance. At my folks' house, it creeps up behind the hills, on the backside of the house, the yellow gradually sliding down the valley to the west, all fake-winter sunshine and relief.
Anyways, kind of like with an accidental beard -- where I reach up one morning to discover that I'm two weeks in so why not give it a month? -- after a week away from FB, the most appealing course was to just keep staying away. And that's just snowballed (ha ha; hilarious) since we got home.
Somewhere in there, ironically delivered by the web hive mind from one source or another, I came across this post, The Builder's High, which is quite good and particularly resonated for me in the section "A Day Full of Moments":
"Why am I spending so much time consuming other people’s moments?”
I think that's a sneakily big question. And examined in that framework, where the individual bits of content that Facebook specializes in are shared and consumed moments, I get some insight into why that bedraggled feeling of Facebook fatigue feels like it does. Too much of The Feed too often and it starts to seem like I'm living inside two dozen other peoples' heads, all at the same time. I lost track of who I am, and what I'm doing; the thread of my personal narrative gets entangled with all those other virtual threads. Which, to some degree, is a good thing; these interactions are the foundational blocks of empathy. But too much and… sizzle. I walk into my studio, and can't remember where I am in my making or firing cycle, images of all those other kilns flickering through my short-term subconscious, thoughts of all those other pots that were being thrown, trimmed, decorated, glazed while I was off doing other things. It eats up tons of the available bandwidth in memory and attention, and there's not that much to go around these days as it is. As great as it can be to chat around the virtual water cooler, to check in with those dozen or so peers on a semi-daily basis, I'm starting to think it's just not worth it.
For as desperately as we seem to want to connect, I submit that we're not wired for this; not capable of making those connections in this particular way. (Or, that if we once were, back in the dim dawn, that we've evolved away from that capability.) The problem with an over-crowded cocktail party is that you can't hear a damn thing.
I've seen a few pop-science things lately that suggest whales and dolphins and elephants can probably do it, and certainly bees. They might spend good chunks of their awareness thinking as the network, the collective mind, rather than as just individual nodes on the network. But, with the usual notable exceptions, I suspect we humans only have room for one OS on our built in drive, and that attempts to partition or dual boot it will likely lead to quick and certain hardware failure. (For the two people out there who actually liked that analogy: you're welcome.)
So it occurs to me now, from this rarified, monk-like perspective on the thing, that the perpetual rush of waves and particles through the online fluid that we spend most of our days marinating in, or simply dog paddling through; it occurs to me that that rush is much more appealing when you're caught up inside of it than when you're looking at it from the outside in. For all the torrential power of the Now and the Instantaneous, it's all pretty shallow and transitory. It almost has to be, because there's so much coming through the dam behind it, one way or another.
My hope is that this is kind of an inter-generational phenomena; something that mostly afflicts those of us old enough to be tweeners of the digital age. We can remember adult thoughts and life patterns before the web, but were still malleable and daring enough to dive in feet first when it first washed up on our shores. My hope is that for Maggie's generation, these will be mostly non-issues; that it will just be like TV was to us. An addictive, narcotic distraction, but not something impossible to resist or turn off for most of the day, when it's time to get some crap done. Anyways, yeah. Hope.
The funny thing about actually reading a real, live, paper book is that, if it's even remotely good, it's pretty easy to dive into the next one. And easier still the third one, and so on. So after needing almost six months to plow my way through Middle Passage, I devoured American Gods, then the pamphlet-sized Quack Like This, and am now almost through the fun, breezy The Magicians, and I'm eyeing the stack of accumulated purchases on my bookshelf more with anticipation, for a change, than regret. Maybe Spook Country, or Life After God, or even, dare I dream, Infinite Jest will be next?
So I'm not necessarily recommending that you try this, if you don't or haven't already. For some people, I imagine taking away Twitter would be like turning off life support, and they'd have to send out regular updates just so people wouldn't worry that they'd died. I gradually, somewhat grudgingly returned to email -- the potentially least shallow of the online ponds to frolic in -- but I know (and can remember being one of those) people who couldn't afford to ignore their inbox(es) for a day, let alone ten. And I suspect this is completely YMMV territory; that what is recharging and beneficial to one person could have the exactly opposite effect for another. But I do recommend you at least think about trying it. Or post a status update about why you're not going to. Or something.
It does make me wonder again, for the thousandth time, what all this stuff is doing to our brains. And to marvel at how relatively new it all still is, and despite that newness how amazingly fast it's worked its way into our most ironclad routines and most intimate spaces. I don't want to be totally offline, but I don't want to be completely online either. And no; it's not lost on me that for me to write this and you to read it, we're both at least half plugged into the very thing I'm questioning.
Anyways; if you got through all of that, maybe you'll care to know that I've decided to stop linking to tw@se posts over there on my St. Earth FB page. I'm not that interested in promoting this anymore, and god help the poor soul who wanders into this in year seven and tries to find their footing. ("Not User Friendly" would be another pretty good tagline.) But also because I only started doing it halfheartedly in the first place; and I dislike the implied obligation to say "Thanks!" to the occasional well-meaning comment; and because it's never felt like the right fit, even as just a blurb and a link. Worlds collide. Also, I'm completely unmotivated to play the shell game of guessing where the potential audience is hanging out from season to season -- Twitter, Tumblr, G+, Pinterest, Future Thing 1, Future Thing 2, etc. And I'm morally opposed to those "tools" that spam every post out to a dozen aggregator/broadcaster services, most of which I've hardly even heard of, let alone used. Telling everybody in every possible way seems weirdly equivalent to telling nobody. No signal, all noise.
However! If you're still geeky enough (or technologically stuck in the mid-2000's enough) to use RSS feeds, I'll keep that updated; if for no other reason than it's still the most elegant option, easy to update, and a de facto standard at this point. And, I've recently started an email notification list, so if you'd like to get an email when there's a new post here, just and I'll be happy to add you to it.
So, uhm… yeah. Seeya on Facebook, I guess!
January 5th, 2014
the garbage version that's so bad it will make everyone hate you
"Doing nothing can be the wisest choice,
although strangely often the most difficult." - Arngeir
Aside from an extremely nice trip to balmy SoCal for the holidays, swapping the old calendar for the new hasn't changed much around here. Nothing changes -- at least, not for the better -- unless we change it.
Same old winter, same old snow; same old pile of random junk getting in between me and meaningful studio time; same old flakey back. I am a strange, downward loop.
So if you're looking for sunny pottery optimism in this new year, you've come to the wrong place. I'm sorry for that, but not necessarily apologetic about it, if you get the subtle distinction between the two.
This blogging thing -- and particularly my commitment to a weekly format -- raises the problem of what to do when things are going badly. It's quite the conundrum.
On the one hand, there's no shortage of doom and gloom in the news and everybody has their own problems, many far more dire and dramatic than mine. So I don't expect many people to tune in for more of that, and certainly not week after week, no matter how well they know me or might like what I do.
But on the other hand, the dual commitment to saying something every week and trying to make what I say as honest and sincere as I possible doesn't leave a lot of good alternatives when everything is seriously In The Suck. I could skip the honesty and just lie -- "Everything's great!" -- but to what end? And how would you trust me later when something genuinely good happens? And, for god's sake, to what end? Keeping a smile on my public persona so no one gets uncomfortable? Nah.
I could stick with my previous tactic, of mostly editing out the sad parts and then filling that void with something else. But the trick there is that's a lot like a job; just another obligation. Why write about something I'm not really engaged in or able to do justice to in the moment? Certainly not for the Likes.
I suppose I'm clinging to the belief that blogging still has the potential to round out our collective sense of what other people's lives are really like, and that that's somehow worth something. That this medium can convey not just the personal perspective, but that perspective with more than just the highlights kept in the final edit. I'm suspicious of the times the camera comes out to record a happy moment. I want to know what's outside the frame, what happened before and after, too.
Recording, parsing and sharing both the highs and the lows; the hope and the despair; the brilliant successes and the dismal failures -- that seems more worthwhile and meaningful to me. Why hide half the life that the blog is, at best, a reflection of?
I dunno... that's perhaps a too ambitious goal. It might take a thinker or writer more skilled than me to pull it off. And it just may be that I'm rationalizing my desire to moan and groan by dressing it up in some fancy idealism. Looking for a defensible way to keep blathering out my objections to life such as it is into the public space. It might also be that I've simply lost my mind, and am trying out any available route to finding it again.
In reponse to one of my downer posts last fall, my friend and fellow potter/blogger Carter said that not everything that goes on a blog needs to be a definitive statement, a polished conclusion. That it's OK to explore. That if I'm even just thinking about something, mulling it over, it's (potentially) worth noting and sharing. I think that's a good guideline for the perpetual "do I share this or not?" dilemma.
Lately, here in the deep snow, with a dozen new reasons for taking the fatalisic view, I've considered going all in on the despair this year. Making a theme of it. Grinding it to a fine philosophical powder. Getting deep into the angst, frustration and occasional agonies of trying to squeeze some pots out through this mortal coil… I even know what I'd call it: Alms for Oblivion. ("Good title.") Most likely, that would drive away all but the most hollow of souls in the process; all those except for my fellow perpetual rollers of stones up hills. One must imagine Sissyphus happy, I suppose, because imagination is for those things that aren't, in fact, real.
And, as I've confessed before, I'm drawn to the idea of finding an audience and then, actively or otherwise, finding a way to alienate it. Luring them in with sweets and then serving out ugly, boiled, tasteless vegetables night after night after night until they (you) just can't take it any more. In the same way that most good comedians have a dark past that helps fuel the jokes, I think many good writers secretly want to be despised. Read, and appreciated or admired. But not liked too much, or too easily. Only contrarians chain themselves to words and spend all that time alone, trying to figure out what they think.
"I hadn't learned yet that the most important thing about writing anything is just writing the garbage version of that thing, the one that's so bad it will make everyone hate you." - Alex Pappademas
That dovetails so nicely with my former epigram -- "A rough draft of the blog I hope to write someday" -- that I don't even feel the need to elaborate on it.
Anyways, the good news is that committing to a whole year of The Notebook of Doom theme would require more proactive motivation than I have just now, and probably more operational discipline than I could maintain for twelve whole months. (My kneejerk reflexes would probably undo the whole idea pretty quickly. Usually, as soon as I've declare my undying pessimism here, I start to feel better, and by the next week have found all sorts of sunshine and rainbows to chase down and wrangle into text.)
So I'll spare you all that, most likely, and instead just allow the bleakness to seep in when and where it wants to. Judging from the response I've had to it so far, that will be sufficiently offputting to trim the readership back to the All-22 that I'm comfortable with. (Each time I hear from or about someone new who reads/has read/is aware of the existence of tw@se, I get that wiggly, face grimacing, momentarily stomach churning sensation; the one that's more generally reserved for the gross out scene in a cheap horror flick. I won't even begin to pretend that I understand this reaction to what should presumably be good news.
(Also, given the general decline in people actually reading stuff online -- in favor of wallowing in endless tweets, updates and shapshots -- it's a problem that will likely take care of itself even if I do nothing -- the best kind!)
So it goes.
Last fall, a reader who shall go unnamed (let's just it rhymes with Cycle Twine), wrote to me:
"I sense that tw@se is heavy in your backpack. But I hope you will continue at some level."
I like that backpack metaphor, and it stuck with me. And after giving it probably too much thought, I guess it's true to a certain extent. Certainly when things get busy, like in the November rush to sale season, or too awful, like when there are just zero pots happening and a bunch of chaos in their place, it'd be easier to just skip it. To drop the backpack and run like hell. As you've probably noticed, I often end up doing some variation of this: putting out the bare minimum to fulfill my weekly quota. That's where my shift towards photo compositions came from; and the same goes for my increasing reliance on quotes by other people to say what I mean for me. Many weeks, especially when everything here is breaking bad, I can manage that more easily than writing.
But... I also have to wonder if it's true the other way around just as often: that "the life" is weighing down the blog's backpack? Know what I mean? Seen from a different set of starting assumptions, it's the blog that's getting loaded down. Hampered by back problems and illnesses and other work and poor planning and, too often, mere distraction and outright lazyness. It's not tw@se's fault that everything outside it's parameters is a complete mess! It could be so much more if those other things would just stay off it's back.
I dunno. Maybe this is just my idealistic part asserting itself again; the part that refuses to submit to the mountain of evidence against it. But I can't shake the sense that these personal, non-marketing, not-for-profit blogs -- as few good ones are there are left -- still have the potential to be so much more than a burden on their respective authors. Maybe like pottery, they just need space to roam without the weight of sustainable profitability and rational justification dragging them down.
I hope that I -- and those potter bloggers I just linked to, and anyone else who has the potential inclination to give it a shot -- do write more. I hope I can keep making it more, even if those words come out colored in the darkest shades, or more sporadically, or too weird for even my staunchest supporters to grok.
But of course, I also think it's completely reasonable if I, and they, don't. It's not like being a potter isn't hard enough already. Making time and energy to also write about it is asking a lot. It's not that surprising that so many people try it and let it fade out. Sad, but totally understandable.
Let me try to sum up with this:
"Writing about ceramics is a way to bridge what we make and the effect that making has on us." - Jack Troy
Now I hesitate to slurm Troy's intended meaning here, and I confess to having lost the context that this quote came from. But, in my interpretation, it's noteworthy that he didn't necessarily say writing about ceramics is a good way to communicate information about ceramics to others. Or to spread some good out into the world. Or to gain followers, get gigs, or increase your Q rating amongst whatever little segment of humanity you care about impressing. No. Instead, I read it as saying that the first reason to write about ceramics, perhaps even the best reason, is to gain understanding about what doing ceramics does to you, the maker; to explore the change it's made in yourself. That, to me, is a revelatory idea. Start by writing to understand; if you come up with something worth sharing, then fine, but even if you don't… also fine.
And this, I think, gets to the secret about blogging; at least, about the kind of blogging I described above: You have to do it for yourself. For what you, personally, get out of it. Because otherwise, it's just not worth it. The ancillary benefits are nice; the extrinsic rewards can be gratifying. But unless you're doing it mainly for you, it just takes too much effort and brain sweat and time that could -- and probably should -- be spent elsewhere.
Then again, what do I know? I'm just some guy on the Internet with a fancy text editor and 321 posts on my back.