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2013 Archive

December 15th, 2013

same time next year

"We're out of time; we'll try and do better next time." - Tony Kornheiser

"If you need me I'll be out in the deep snow." - Maggie Pixel

<loop>

If you've been around these parts for a while, you know that one of my recurring, pretentious, opaque references is the <loop>: the way that things in a life, and particularly a potter's life, cycle around in repetitive patterns. When I first used it -- I think it was here, talking about prefectionism, but it might have been here, when Maggie missed six; it had definitely taken over some core part of my brain by this one, I Am a Strange Loop, (probably my favorite tw@se post ever, and also probably insufferable to anyone who's not me | that video just puts it way over the top, and gets better as time goes by | she's the young me and I'm the old her and if I could communicate as well as she did at two there'd be no need to write so much here) --

Anyways, when I first used it I didn't necessarily mean it as a bad thing. More an observation of the cyclical nature of things: throwing, firing, selling. In other formulations, I meant it as a shorthand for the frustrations of stasis: finding myself stuck at a point beyond which further progress seemed stalled, and so just looping back through the same patterns. But now, a few years later, things seem to be going backwards. Progress seems virtually impossible, a quaint relic of a former life and a foolish dream. So I write <loop> now thinking that what previously seemed like a frustrating stall might actually have been a plateau. Managing to just hold steady now seems not only desirable but wildly ambitious.

<loop>

The most devastating thing about the downward spiral is looking back up at where you just were with each passing cycle.

The mounting evidence, at 42, says that my best days are already behind me. I've worked hard at my craft for 20 years, but I see now that far too many of those best days were squandered; whittled away on inconsequential stuff. Which is how it goes, I guess, but that probably leaves way too much time for backwards-looking regret. Certainly more time for it than I'd like.

[Jesus, all that probably makes it sound like I'm dying or something, which (as far as I know) I'm not. Sorry for the histrionics -- it's nothing as dramatic or serious as that. Perhaps my attempt at optimism last week triggered my kneejerk fatalism, but I feel like wallowing in the despair for a while, despite knowing it's not a proper perspective. Because twenty-thirteen, man… 2013 was one sucktastic year. Pretty much everything that happened after we got in the car to come home from Penland was just -- blah.]

So back to the <loop>. My hope is that it's former meaning still exists, is still possible, and that it's just gotten weird around here the last few years. It would be nice to discover that my orbit is just wildly eccentric and out of plane; that what seems like an accelerating trip to nowhere might just be the far end of the circuit before the rebound. Darkest before the dawn and all that. "Pluto's not a planet anymore, but it's still there, right Dada?" I hope my loop is an orbit, not a downturning gyre. Sometimes I think I can still hear the falconer. But more often, I can't even remember if there was one.

Anyways -- yeah. poetry. Flower is scorched, film is on, it's crazy what you could have had ::: M. Stipe, mumble mumble.

I've got some vacation days saved up, from all that blogging overtime I logged last February, and the boss won't let me roll them over into next year. (Spiteful bastard.) So I'm taking the rest of the year off here, coasting through the holidays, and aiming to return early next year. We're heading into tw@se year eight, and it's starting to seem closer to the ending than to the beginning. Maybe there's still time to turn this thing around.

Until then, if you need me, I'll be out in the deep snow. Let's try and do better next time.

Seeya.

December 8th, 2013

sale matters

"You think correctly and you do the right things." - Maggie Pixel

I made a point, both pre- and post-sale, of reading what I wrote after last year's Holiday sale again. That post was about trying to recalibrate my reaction to my studio sales. My ongoing goal is to focus less on the crass statistical results -- customers, pots, dollars -- and more on the qualitative, more nebulous results. The things that might matter more than money and that can't be shown on a graph.

This might be a good bi-annual ritual, getting reminded of the bigger picture and more generous view from a wiser version of myself. Kind of like getting innoculated against another seasonal batch of viruses and malware.

Because it's tremendously easy to fall into the trap of disappointment -- even despair -- after a sale. The 6-8 week crush to meet the deadline is exhausting. So there's a natural lull, a void, that comes afterwards. My body needs rest, but in that lull, my mind just keeps going; grinding away like I've trained it to.

When the turnout and sales are lower than average, as they have been the last few years, all that work feels… I don't know -- tarnished? Somewhat wasted, perhaps, or foolish? Like I gave too much, or placed my bets on the wrong spots, or that my efforts weren't sufficiently recognized by "the world". (NEWS FLASH: Art v. Commerce usually ends in a rout.)

And even when those metrics are good -- lots of people in the showroom, pots out the door, money in the bank -- they rarely hit historical highs. And in the lead up to each sale, it's hard to not aim (even secretly, subconsciously) for those highs. Expectations creep in through the smallest cracks. The desire for tangible progress is relentless. Some disappointment is to be expected.

But I'm not in the trap this time. (At least, not yet.) Body is tired, brain is frazzled, but emotions are… OK. Lots of yellow lights on the control panel, for sure, but none in the red. Perhaps because of that innoculation, because I've deliberately reminded myself of that alternate perspective? The failures tend to stack up over time, but they can also harden your armor and sharpen your resolve, if you're primed for them.

Here are some of those things that should be given a chance to matter more:

• My small band of loyal customers who come at 10am on Saturday every time. It's great to start off every sale with a reliable bang.

• I rolled the dice on the weather -- the end of the first week of December is definitely in the danger zone for central Indiana -- and got lucky. It wasn't perfect, or even good, but certainly better than the disaster of 2010.

• Plus, the fact that people come out on a snowy, below-freezing, howling wind winter day at all. In weather like that, there are a lot of things that I, personally, would not have left the house for.

• The snow plow guy showed up when he said he would, understood that our long, sloping driveway needs some salt to be passable, and charged a fair price for his work. These things are rare enough that they should be appreciated when they happen.

• People who keep looking and eventually find us, even when the robot in their phones sends them the wrong way down our middle-of-nowhere country road.

• People who make the circuit around the display two or even three times, looking at and handling almost every pot. Almost regardless of what they buy, this speaks to a deep interest and engagement with what I've made.

• The story of a three year old who insists on using one of my mugs -- his mug -- every day, and gets mad when it's still dirty from the day before. Pots are for people, including kids!

• I changed the display, and it got better. I added two new tables to the showroom this time, a small triangular one in a corner and my antique drafting table right in the center. I bought the drafting table at an auction years ago, and it's been my home office desk since then. But as I increasingly spend more of my computer time on the iPad (instead of sitting at the old desktop machine), that table has largely become a dumping ground for piles or paper and random junk. A waste of a really nice piece of furniture!

And I have been mulling over this idea of showing some of the pots like a table setting: plates, bowls, cups, serving dishes. Hopefully to reinforce the idea that they're all meant to be used, and that they can be "everyday" dishes, not just reserved special or ceremonial occasions.

While this didn't seem to sell more of those pots than usual (plates almost always sell out anyways), I think it's a nice addition. Several people commented favorably about it, and it can't hurt to give the long-term diehards a new little twist when they come in the door.

• Selling pots to young people: college students, high school kids, sometimes even younger. A little hope for the future; signs that the virtual has not yet killed off the handmade. (Related: selling pots to old people -- a rarity, and a priviledge, that after a lifetime of seeing and accumulating stuff, they still find something in my work that is worth bringing into their lives.

• Selling a big batch of pots to one of my oldest friends and, in fact, the person most responsible for me starting in clay. And it doesn't get any better than an open-ended, mix-and-match order: 'pick the best four of these and those and those and send them to me'.

• Getting to explain these saggar fired shino teabowls three different times, and getting excited all over again to go back to that high risk/high reward process. Also, it didn't hurt that I sold 6/8 of them, after hoarding them in the studio for five years, thinking I'd never be able to get the price for them that I thought they were worth. People practically flocked to them, even at $30-40 for a smallish teabowl. I'd never have predicted that in a million years. I mean, these things are super cool but funky; defintely an advanced or acquired taste. I must have some really savvy customers.

Unfortunately, pulling them out of storage was a last minute idea, and I didn't think ahead of time to photograph them better than this… Ah well. They were great in ways that wouldn't show up in a photo anyways.

• The occasional person who is intensely curious about what I do, and asks me a million questions: about the studio and kilns and how I make things and what they're for and why the glazes do what they do, etc. It's nice to feel like a rock star for a few minutes.

• Taking a shot at some new promotional tactic -- like sending a press release to the local paper -- and seeing it actually work. They ran it almost verbatim, and a couple new customers said they heard about it there.

• Any chance to explain Teadust crystals or the organic, semi-random nature of salt glazing.

• "I have one of these in a grittier clay, no offense.." "None taken!"

• "I got a green jar like this last time." "I love my bowl like this…" "I have one of these with the cane handle on top…" "I gave one of those to my friend and she loved it."

• The family that comes together and every person, kids included, picks out a pot to take home.

• When people make reference back to something I wrote in the newsletter, or here on the blog; connecting my online output to real world input.

• That the most common reaction to pots on the seconds shelf is: "Oh, that? I wouldn't have even noticed it if you hadn't pointed it out!"

• Selling that super-reduced, dark, crusty domino mug from the Penland salt kiln, even if mostly because it was the only one of it's kind left.

• How well my back held up through the entire cycle. Two rather rushed firings, all the moving and hauling and such; two days on my feet. Given how bad it was in September, that's all pretty surprising. I've done a sale with it completely messed up before, and it's miserable; not an experience I wanted to repeat. So yay for caution, and gradual healing and, hopefully, improvement ahead.

• Like last spring, the silver lining of selling less than usual means there's less that I have to make between now and early May. That will add some much needed breathing space and, potentially, flexibility.

• The fact that, while we could certainly use more money, the sale was financially good enough. Good enough to get me to spring; good enough that I don't have to resort to a desperation move like tacking on another weekend or taking a flyer on a local craft fair. Good enough that I don't have to immediately leap to the heroic task of listing every unsold pot on Etsy in hopes of making next month's mortgage or propane bill. Good enough that, for all the compromises and conflicts of the working life that I've assembled thus far, it still kind of works and works out. That's a lot.

• 4pm Sunday, as the winter night comes down, turning off the lights, bringing in the signs, packing up the sale table.

That feeling of finality; of closing another <loop>; the accomplishment of having pulled the whole thing off yet again, almost regardless of how "successful" it was. The knowledge of a job well done; proof of the discipline and dedication to do it all the right way; being able to look back and see all the obstacles I climbed over and chaos I waded through to get to that end point yet again. Pots made, kilns fired, promotions broadcast, customers met, pots sent out into the world.

cf. Why recognition or ‘success’ is sometimes humbling - Carter Gillies

cf. Thoughts on the creative career - Ze Frank

December 1st, 2013

distinct and credible

"Don’t try to be everyman. Don’t pretend you’re a member of every community you visit. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible. People will come."
- David Brooks

So just in case that gigantic promo image wasn't abundantly clear: It's sale time!

My 14th Annual Holiday Sale (fourteenth!) is this weekend - here's all the relevant info. If you're within, say, 12 hours driving distance or a plane ride with only one layover, I fully expect you to drop everything, cancel your plans, and get here to buy an armload of pots. Let's go, people! I don't write this blog for a bunch of freeloaders.

Yeah, OK. Not really.

So against the odds I squeezed salt/soda firing #56 in after Thanksgiving, and against even greater odds it turned out excellent: good weather, a predictable firing schedule, nice sodium distribution, some reduction flashing in the soda glaze, glazes fluxed perfectly, good colors, fortuitous drips and a couple promising new glaze tests. It really doesn't get much better than that. And, of course, it helps that I always save the best pots on the shelf for the last firing of the cycle. Good pots in = good pots out.

The funny thing with this one is that -- with so much was stacked against it happening at all -- when I saw the opening to actually fit it in, some part of my brain's normal caution routine just broke, and I did all the tweaks and rolls of the dice that had been pending in my notes and the back of my mind for a long time at once. (Perfect execution of the scientific method there by me; why change one variable at a time when you can change them all?)

Like stacking the kiln tighter than ever, with no pots taller than 9" -- normally, that's the kiss of death to the total firing time. And adding a target brick in front of the burner and a shield brick above the burner and two small shield bricks at the bottom of the front shelf, where it gets to like Δ14 and almost always bloats the pots in the front row, all to direct the flame forward and upwards.

And taking chances with three new-ish glazes. And changing up my soda formula to 50/50 soda ash and baking soda (instead of the normal 100% baking soda). And stoking more wood to goose the firing schedule along. And more aggressive quick cooling at the end -- from 2300 to 2050 in less than 30 minutes -- to speed up unloading time and (I think) lighten the darker stonewares a bit. And cracking it open it starting the next morning, instead of waiting 36 hours, so I could unload it the next day. Etc, etc.

Somehow, none of those came back to bite me. Most of them seemed to be innocuous at worst, and noticeable improvements at best, either procedurally or in the actual results on the pots. So: yeah! Nothing sparks my optimism like a glimmer of progress.

Of course, it's not like each of those incremental things was based on pure guesswork. In fact, now that I think of it, most of those came as some permutation of received wisdom from my month at Penland -- things I saw or heard or learned from firing the kilns there. Heck, I had more conversations about kiln design and firing schedules in one month than I'd had in the previous 15 years! (With Michael "meme machine" Kline, Ron "Bacon" Philbeck, Susan Feagin, Janice Farley, Cynthia Bringle, etc…)

And I guess because I didn't get to do any of them in my one firing in last spring -- the schedule was even more compressed then -- they all lingered, and accumulated that caustic rust that tarnishes good ideas when they go unused for too long.

I'm glad I risked one load of pots to try those dozen little experiments. Even more, I guess, in a way, I have to be glad that everything kind of went to shit the last few months, to goad me out of my comfort zone. Silver linings come in unexpected places these days. And, what's more, I think I'd still be (at least somewhat) glad, even if it had all gone horribly wrong. Because even in the worst firings there are always one or two odd gems, and sometimes the really significant learning only happens when it's painful. Pain, I guess, forces us to act, to change, to risk.

Anyways, some of these turned out so well that I might not be able to put a pricetag on them yet:

So, there they are. The last pots of this strange, almost-strangled making cycle, ready to be cleaned, priced and set out for display. I think I hit my magic inventory number of 300. I think the pots are, overall, pretty good. I think I've done everything I can to make the physical objects that this whole endeavor is about as successful as possible. After that, it's pretty much out of my hands, both literally and figuratively. So yeah… see you on the other side. Wish me luck. Or, seriously, pack a bag, fill up the tank and come to the sale. I mean, you kind of owe me by now. Right? Right.

No, I'm still kidding. I think. How 'bout if you just "Like" this on FB and we'll call it even for another decade or so?

November 24th, 2013

no. 55

"...a new wing of the adjacent possible opens up.” - Steven Johnson

#55 was a pretty good firing. The usual mix of confirmed expectations, pleasant surprises, and moderate disappointments. A glorious blush of soda spray or fortuitous drip here; a sad little bloat or bit of unispired fluxing there. At this point, given all the quirks of weather, health and random acts of fate that have come my way lately, I should just be glad that it got to temperature and wasn't a complete disaster.

If you just keep lowering your standards, sooner or later you'll end up happy.

I'm hoping to squeeze one more load through the kiln before my sale, with -- gasp -- just two short weeks to go. But hey, it could happen. If not, I'll technically have "enough" pots for the sale. Just not as many as I'd like. A good minimum -- to fill the showroom and provide what seems like a good range and depth to choose from -- is 300 pots. I've got about 280 now, so one more decent firing would do it.

Hah. And to think that after my sparsely-attended, near-bust of a spring sale I thought my problem would be having too much inventory… And that back in May I legitimately thought I'd have enough time this fall to start building a kiln shed. Losing two months to a back injury sure took care of that!

So it goes. So it goes.

<loop>

November 17th, 2013

alms for oblivion

"So, there we are. Where are we?" - Henry Harrison

I put the slides from the talk I did a couple weeks ago on my Facebook page. That's not the ideal viewing experience, perhaps, but I wasn't up to the task of doing it the old school way. And this will undoubtedly commit me to responding to some comments, out of politeness, like normal bloggers do all the time. Oh boy.

I'm not sure about the value of viewing the slides without the accompanying talk; I certainly chose the images and sequenced them with a verbal script in mind. Also, most of those images have appeared here on tw@se in one form or another over the years, so there's likely a lot of repetition in that deck for long term sufferers. I mean readers. But, what the heck… I put a lot of time into it; it seems worth getting them online in some form.

This was the first time I've ever done the comprehensive, All About Me talk -- I did a few smaller versions, back in the days of physical slides -- and so a bonus to doing it now was that it forced me to find some old prints and digitize them, mostly to fill in the gaps in the How I Got Here section.

Here are a few of the more interesting ones that I dredged up out of the analog muck, so that they can now live in the pristine, overcrowded permanence of The Matrix, along with everything else:

University of Iowa "Pot Shop", 1992

Some of my pots from my first (or second?) semester throwing class. Ugh.

Watching the anagama

Clary Illian, 1994

Clary's car kiln, bisk loading in progress

Sale card, late '90s

Clary Illian jug, in our collection

A firing at Arizona State, 1996

Pitcher, Boulder Potters' Guild, 1997

Teaching at The U, circa 2008

And here's a slide I removed from the talk at the last minute, following Gary Gygax's advice to cut the bit you like the best:

heartfelt advice

It was originally right at the beginning, a bit of prologue. I had a lot of fun composing it, and it helped as a stalling tactic/entry point into thinking about the larger presentation. But after a night's sleep, I realized it was too much like a typical blog post here: overly meta, too oblique, and vaguely off target. Not right for that venue and audience. So I decided to just play it straight, for once.

But I still like that slide the best.

November 10th, 2013

making a statement

"Sometimes it's like he makes the music in order to explain why he made it. " - Alex Pappademas

As I mentioned a while back, I had a show at Huntington University in October. It's a small college on the other side of Indianapolis, close enough that we could make a family field trip out of it. So we drove over last weekend for the closing reception and my one day workshop.

Here I am doing a short talk at the gallery reception, in some goofy pants I got off the clearance rack at Kohl's and my finest Philbeckian t-shirt. (I asked Maggie, "Which one should I wear: the rat or the rabbit?" "Rabbit," she said, without missing a beat. Can't argue with that kind of certainty.)(Also, I wasn't sure they could handle the rat. It's an acquired taste. "Rats, at least, have a ethos.")(Also also, for some weird reason I felt like not just wearing my usual "potter's uniform": beat up jeans and a glaze stained shirt. Is this just middle age? A newfound sense of tact? Maggie's persistent insistence that things be more princessy? Ugh! My longstanding tradition of nonconformity with apparel standards is in jeopardy!)

Anyways, I flubbed the talk a bit, because I tried to extemporaneously deliver the artist's statement I'd written for the show a month earlier (see below). And because I was tired after a day of driving, and 7pm is hardly my daily high point. And because my brain's memory buffer was full of everything I'd loaded into it for my slide talk the next day -- it's hard to keep two completely different things in mind at once!

Cindy told me to just read the statement, when I asked her advice beforehand, and one would think that -- given her vastly greater experience with such things, and the fact that she's taught several dozen art majors how to do this exact thing over the years -- one would think that I would have listened to her. But no. Score one more point for stubborn dumbness.

It wasn't terrible, I suppose; I saw some nodding (the good kind), and there were some nice follow up questions. And people seemed to get the idea of handling the pots, which was my main goal. But still.

Here's what I wrote, and what I should have just read:

Artist's Statement - Huntington show

I've been making pots for over 20 years. My goal is for each of them to find a place in someone's home, where they are used and enjoyed on a regular basis.

To that end, I try to balance function and aesthetics. My pots should be much more gratifying to use than a plastic cup, and more intimately accessible than a sculpture. The best ones are well-crafted and also beautiful; intellectually interesting, but not at the expense of being enjoyable to use.

And so, putting them in an art gallery is a conundrum. I appreciate the opportunity to show my work to a wider audience, but I regret all the things that are usually lost in this kind of space. Because it's almost never acceptable to touch the art in a gallery or museum. The work could be damaged; the presentation smudged. Or -- worse yet -- the hierarchy between presenter and viewer could be called into question. Pedestals, velvet rope and plexiglass convey that message strongly and sternly.

But utilitarian pots challenge that relationship by their very nature. They are more than visual art. Seeing them only at a distance or under glass conceals at least half of what they have to offer.

I make my pots with the assumption that people will use them, which also means picking them up, looking under their lids, rubbing their feet. I want you to be able to feel their weight and balance, explore their surface texture, and see them from a variety of angles. Just as you would, over time, if they lived in your kitchen or family room.

And that's particularly important in a teaching gallery like this one. The only way to learn to make good pots is to handle good pots. A full appreciation of them only comes from getting to know them intimately. It's important to interrogate them with more than your eyes.

(Ideally, you would also use them: drink from a mug, wrap your hands around a bowl filled with soup, or arrange flowers in a vase. For now, in the gallery context, that remains a challenge for the future. In the meantime, to have that experience you'll have to take one home with you or invite yourself over for dinner at my house.)

This group represents the best pots I've made over the last few years. The gallery has said it's okay for you to touch them. I hope you will.

Pots are for people.

November 3rd, 2013

why sad

'If you want emotional effects, you have to place them against a cold background,
so they stand out in relief.' - Anton Chekhov

Me:
It appears that I'm now freaking people out with tw@se. Might have to back off the staring-oblivion-in-the-face routine.

Carter Gillies:
Things did seem a bit dire from the outside.....

But you certainly have cause, with all the back nonsense piled on everything else. I'm just amazed that you have kept it all together as well as you have. And if you can't vent on your blog, where can you? It is, after all, "This week at St Earth". You are just providing the themes that filter through your consciousness, not that you always have to be living them all. If you are thinking about something, that's reason enough to post, says I.

But I guess its only natural that we worry about you. Take that as your audience's human obligation. Of all the feelings and thoughts your writings provoke it would be hardly surprising if such gloomy posts inspire a bit of concern on our part. But you are not responsible, really. This is your blog. Its just a weird sort of relationship we bloggers have to our community. The difference between soapbox and echo chamber is a slender divide between who out there actually cares and those that don't. And you've always protested your wide ranging popularity. Just take it as one more of life's little inconsistencies.

Me:
At least for myself, with the commitment I've made to blogging every week, if I don't keep open the option to express the negative stuff -- whether justifiable or not -- then I'll just end up lying or saying nothing a good chunk of the time. And I don't think that's valuable to anyone; I'd be better off only writing when I had something good/optimistic to say or not blogging at all.

October 27th, 2013

perfect blue buildings

"I've got bones beneath my skin, and mister…
there's a skeleton in every man's house." - Counting Crows

George Saunders:

“Stood looking up at house, sad. Thought: Why sad? Don’t be sad. If sad, will make everyone sad... Have to do better! Be kinder. Start now. Soon they will be grown and how sad, if only memory of you is testy stressed guy in bad car.”

 

October 20th, 2013

grace

"Yeah we've been saying we're gonna get somewhere for a long, long time." - The Refreshments

George Saunders:

“I saw the peculiar way America creeps up on you if you don’t have anything,” he told me. “It’s never rude. It’s just, Yes, you do have to work 14 hours. And yes, you do have to ride the bus home. You’re now the father of two and you will work in that cubicle or you will be dishonored. Suddenly the universe was laden with moral import, and I could intensely feel the limits of my own power. We didn’t have the money, and I could see that in order for me to get this much money, I would have to work for this many more years. It was all laid out in front of me, and suddenly absurdism wasn’t an intellectual abstraction, it was actually realism. You could see the way that wealth was begetting wealth, wealth was begetting comfort — and that the cumulative effect of an absence of wealth was the erosion of grace."

October 13th, 2013

better be home soon

"Football’s hard." - Peyton Manning

Robert Krulwich:

Now I understand that if you’re married, or have a kid, you can’t not make money. And I know that it is not fun, it’s the opposite of fun, to juggle rent payments with car payments, to fudge medical bills, to play roulette with your credit cards, to have bills that must be paid month after month after month, that don’t go down, and I know about friends and siblings who didn’t go crazy, who didn’t try to become [potters], who became normal things, like sales people, and doctors and teachers, and are now moving into homes, buying real furniture and making you feel like you are slipping backwards in the world for the sin of following a dream. I know about that.

October 6th, 2013

60 months

"And what if this is happiness? What if happiness is the practice of
a slow calligraphy of these small gestures?" - Ze Frank

September 29th, 2013

craftsman's daydream

"I did it for me." - Walter White

September 22nd, 2013

showtime

"Anyone who has attempted to be genuinely creative knows what hard work it is, how suffering is unavoidable, and yet how satisfying can be the sense of process and completion." - James Hollis

I'm having a small show next month, at a local college, so I've been selecting, cleaning and organizing the current batch of my best 30 pots. And then retrieving, updating and rehashing all the words to go along with them: vita, bio, artist's statement, etc.

It's a good exercise -- a mandatory dose of review and summation. But also difficult. Mildly stressful. Somewhat tedious. I'll be glad when the pots are boxed up and in the mail, and the words are finalized and fired off into the ether.

September 15th, 2013

rats

"It’s a strange, solipsistic world where you’ve piled words around yourself like sandbags
to prevent reality from ever seeping in." - Errol Morris

"My friends and family are gonna realize that I'm a piece of garbage that rats wouldn't touch because of the smell of failure." - Ze Frank

September 8th, 2013

rats!

"Rats, at least, have an ethos." - Dan Benjamin

September 1st, 2013

man fall down

"Ista quidem vis est!" - Gaius Julius Caesar 1

Yes. We are more than ready.

So if I had a football blog, this is where I would write about:

• the coming season, including the perils and joys of being a diehard fan of two teams at once (the Denver Peyton Mannings and the Indianapolis Colts: Now With More Luck!)

• my complicity in introducing this to Maggie when: a) five year olds shouldn't watch this kind of violence (and, probably worse, all the gratuitous commercialism wrapped around it); b) it's not like she doesn't already watch enough TV as it is; c) the entire sport is of dubious ethical status, as the real consequences of multiple head injuries are gradually revealed; d) even if the NFL manages to survive that crisis, it will either devolve to the relatively shameful status and irrelevance of boxing, or become some unwatchable two-hand touch version of the game, and will therefore likely be replaced by the NBA or American Football; e) she loves her jersey, and especially that fact that we have a matching pair, which is like me sneaking football fandom in through the Dress Up loophole. Her's was a hand-me-down from a friend, and Harrison is [was?] one of my all-time favorites, but when she wears it I can't help but think of the murkiness around this story. Ugh.

• (for the record, I got my Freeney jersey after he was cut this off-season, for $10 at Marshalls. Because I am a fan of the "old" Colts regime and regret the way Jim Irsay blew up that team at first opportunity, even if it works out for the best eventually. And because, while I am apparently the kind of sucker who pays for NFL Sunday Ticket, I'm not the kind of sucker who pays $100 for a shirt.)

• how Manning remains my favorite player and my choice for the G.O.A.T. 2. How he's the most cerebral player in a game where being brutish and dumb is often sufficient, and how he wins with his brain as much as body. How amazing his ongoing comeback is, and how historically unprecidented, and how weird it is that I take that so personally.

• the fact that I will spend 5-10 hours per week watching games and digesting commentary about it for the next five months -- that's roughly 150 hours that could go into almost anything else.

Anyways, that's the kind of stuff I would write about.

You should be glad I don't have a football blog.

1 "Why, this is violence!"Just before the daggers came out, as reported by Suetonius.

2 Supporting documentation: one, two, three.

August 25th, 2013

let the dice fly high

"We've got ideas…" - The Pixies

"The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know
what is interesting and what is not." - Kurt Vonnegut

"I’ve seen time and time again the way that the process of trying to say something
dignifies and improves a person." - George Saunders

"The bit of writing you like best in a work you are doing
is likely the part that should be tossed out." - Gary Gygax

"Asking yourself, 'is this something that will respond to guts, effort and investment?'
helps you decide whether or not this is where you can commit. And then, if you do commit,
you're not browsing, you're in it." - Seth Godin

"Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit." - Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus

The requirement to write something every week is both good and bad. Some weeks, like last week, it forces me to be creative; to come up with a new idea, or at least a new twist on an old idea. That's a negentropic process, a generative set of actions that produces a tangible and (arguably) meaningful result. So the associated pressure and effort and freewheeling desperation are worth it.

But other weeks, it's just pressure. And effort. And freewheeling desperation. Things that I don't need, things that threaten to break rather than bend me. And that part gets to be a burden.

If I trusted myself to keep at it with any regularity, without that self-imposed requirement, I'd throw away the whole "this week" part and just add something new when there was something new worth adding. But the key to that last sentence is the "if". I don't.

And I knew this about myself, those stupendously many weeks ago in 2007, enough to build that in as a basic constraint. That was pretty clever. Witness the scores of decent pottery blogs that have come and gone since then.

If it was worth doing, it was worth doing every week.

It seems worth noting that in those "bad" weeks, it's not that I have nothing to say. It's often a case of having too much to say, too many conflicting things to potentially talk about. For every post that makes it to the screen I compose one or two more in my idle thoughts. If I gave up everything else and just did this -- ha, now there's an idea -- I could probably produce a typical weekly post every day. Maybe more.

For example, something relatively momentous in the pottery world happened this week. Something significant enough, at least to me, that I can't quite wrap my head around it yet, let alone write about it sufficiently or well. To do it justice and follow even a fraction of its associated threads would take days; research; phone calls. I just can't do it.

Or, that I've been reading Paul Mathieu's book (e-book; essays; PDF?) The Art Of The Future, which prompts about five good, bloggable ideas per chapter. But even though I've been slowly chipping away at it for several weeks, this is the first I've even mentioned it.

And that's just two topics of dozens. I have the drafts to prove it -- sweet mercy, do I have drafts. Just this summer I started labelling them alphabetically, and the list is already at Q. (Only B, E and N have made it to completion.) So many drafts about so many different things. Talk about getting comforable with the undone.

I bought some fancy new writing software a couple months back, and it's been a boon to the process; it helps me focus, organize, edit. It gets the associated junk of turning words into webpages elegantly out of the way while the ideas are flowing, then helps that process when it's time to push them out to the world. But it hasn't prevented my habit of starting many more things than I finish. It just sorts them into a more pleasing graphical interface. There's a wishful optimism in repetitively believing that each new idea is interesting enough to jot down, while steadily losing ground in the battle to actually turn those jots into something reasonably finished. "A rough draft of the blog I hope to write someday" doesn't mean it's a good idea to literally throw each one out as a rough draft.

Oh/and/but/plus, all the snippets and quotes and lyrical fragments, unused photos and redacted footnotes, adamant reminders and scary paragraphs chock full of top-of-mind associative junk. I have four distinct generations of this stuff going now! It's the semantic equivalent to archaeological layers of discarded culture. First it was paper notebooks, then plain text files, then in Evernote, now in Ulysses. (Oh, and a big envelope full of scribbled scraps and napkins that need to be sorted and recorded somewhere. Where's my intern?) There's no reason to think I won't just keep adding new layers in the future, rather than going back and collating them all into one distinct, accessible container.

I suppose there are other valid ways to look at this than the scathing, near-pathological one I just described. Perhaps these habits and accumulations are, no matter how vexing, a good thing; proof of an active, creative enterprise. Maybe it's the same kind of hidden scaffolding and random floor scraps that you'd expect to find anywhere such work is being done, from a kitchen to an edit bay, a programmer's computer to a pottery shop. God knows my studio is the same way and, for the most part, it works.

What I seem to lack is the time and attention -- and/or the commitment and discipline to preserving my time and attention for blogging -- to turn all that raw material into product; more fully, or better, or more often. At 42, the die is cast in that regard. It seems unlikely that I can make a significant change there.

But I can alter the intial constraint. That's the benefit of self-imposed rules and standards: they're self-imposed. I'm not ready to abandon the "this week" part just yet, although that might be wise. In part because it's in the name, and if there's one thing I'm lacking for spare ideas about, it's an alternative name. tw@se temporarily morphed into tn@se rather well, but where to go from here if I drop the "this week"?

• Sometimes at St. Earth
• Random thoughts from a guy on the Internet
• My blog: Why You People Suck and I Don't
• A Blog That Used To Be About Pottery But Is Now About Almost Anything
(abtutbapbinaaa doesn't really roll off the tongue, now does it?)

So here's what I propose, to you, my co-op team, my All-22. For the next month I'm going to dial it back a lot. There will be something here every week, but not much -- just a photo or a quote or some links. Like when I went to Penland in February, let's consider this a test, an experiment, a willingness to play outside the rules in hopes of finding better rules, or discovering that they're not actually needed. So that will be September. And while during that time I'm certain to have something happen, or some idea will jump to the top of the stack with the momentum and imperative of a comet, I'll refrain from blurting it out. Instead, I'll try to hone it, layer it, craft it a few more times and a little better than ususal. Then in October, I'll aim to either resume the formula here or announce what crazy new solipsistic and virtually meaningless plan I want to try next. Probably with five-year-old birthday photos.

I'm hoping to spend the time I'd have normally devoted to this over the next month doing other stuff; tangentially-related stuff, but not the same stuff. You may have noticed some small design tweaks here lately, and some meta twiddling: black header and footer, for contrast; be gone, colophon!; finally acquiesced to giving each post a title; updated the little bullet -- the maker's mark -- at the end. I'd like to do more of the same. Mostly because it's fun, but also because it adds to that layer of ornamentation that suggests the maker (and/or patron) valued it enough to do so. I tend to prefer a lily whose gilding is subtle and understated, but that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with going in the other direction for a while.

There are a couple other things I've been trying to write, things that aren't really well suited to blogging (or, perhaps, even to public consumption), but which I think would be worth writing. Good for me, somehow. Things that may or may not feed back into this directly, but that should be done. Like stretching exercises, strength and conditioning, R&D.

And lastly [dare I mention this aloud, when I know that doing so will create that smallest of extrinsic expectations, and risk killing the faint impulse to do it?], lastly, there's the matter of that ancient, creaking, woefully out of date thing I call my website. So sad, so useless in it's current, unchanging form. When am I going to just throw it all away and start anew? And: "if not now, when?"

August 18th, 2013

car kiln

"No one can convince me, we aren't gluttons for our doom." - Indigo Girls

Last night I dreampt that I built a kiln in my '94 Honda Civic hatchback. The dream didn't really specify why -- or perhaps I've lost the thread of that dream logic in the waking hours since -- but it seemed both important that I do it, and also like a really good idea at the time. Why not, right?

But then, as dreams tend to do (or perhaps I should say: as my dreams tend to do), it morphed into spiraling anxiety and dread. Oh, did I mention that it was a wood kiln? Yeah, of course it was a wood kiln. Because an electric would be just too easy. Brilliant.

So I went out to stoke the kiln, which I presume was done by opening the hatch, like pushing open the hanging Fiberfrax door over the firebox on one of those enormous anagamas at Iowa. Anyways, as I headed out to check the kiln -- god knows that pattern is deeply etched in my brain -- the setting shifted; from somewhere vague and unspecified (interesting how most dreams seem to happen in an eternal Here and Now) to the very specific time and place of the family housing parking lot in Boulder, where we lived for a couple years in the mid-90's, courtesy of the University of Colorado and their policies regarding students who had the foresight to get hitched in time to save on rent while in graduate school.

But then, as my dreams also tend to do, that place acquired a weird overlay, of our rental house in Penland last February. Like a sequence in a movie, where one location shot fades in over another, so that for a split second they're both onscreen at once. I suppose because both places had that nagging sense of, "Let's try not to screw anything up while we're here."

And then dream-me realized that building a wood kiln in a car -- and especially in a car parked in a public lot -- probably wasn't such a great idea. I should have known that the ghostly red light radiating out the windows would attract unwanted attention! Oh yeah, and come to think of it, that firebox is pretty damn close to the gas tank, now isn't it?

And then the old dreamscape switcheroo, in which all my worst fears are realized. Suddenly, the car is gone! And my kiln -- lost forever! Impounded by the university parking cops… or maybe it exploded and vaporized itself! Worse yet, what if it was stolen by a band of rampaging angry gnomes? And perhaps they play tubas, and like Cameron Diaz movies, and have an irrational fear of firey red Hondas! (I mean, "if you're gonna dream, you might as well dream big". Right?)

And then, just as that third act reaches the apex of tension, the sound of Spanish words intrudes -- like a vox ex machina; Trinity whispering to Neo in The Matrix -- playing on the radio from my Sony Dreamcube; also nearly 20 years old, also barely functional, so that instead of a buzzer I get the one station that comes in as something other than static. Speaking words I can't understand, beckoning me back to reality.

And then I wake up, and it's just another fucking day in 2013.

August 11th, 2013

loop

"Every minute costs the same." - Merlin Mann

Carter Gillies, Clary Illian, Terry Gess.

I like mugs best when they've got fresh clay on them.

August 4th, 2013

broken windows theory

"A REAL job is a job you hate." - Bill Watterson

Every window has a lean; a direction it wants to fall when left standing on the ground.

They don't tell you this when you start at the warehouse. They let you figure it out for yourself.

My first day on the job, back in that late summer in Boulder almost 20 years ago, there was already a semi waiting at the dock. A lean, bald man named Curly -- friendly but slightly menacing, like a deer hunting version of the lead singer of Midnight Oil -- was up on the dock. Smoking, pacing; impatient to hand over the first of a thousand loads of WeatherShields that I'd eventually move and sort and move again during my three years there. Lesson #1: Don't keep Curly waiting.

So we rushed to unload him, my arms suddenly full of cardboard and plastic, wood frames and heavy glass, mysterious oblong packages to lift and slide and stack wherever they'd fit.

Every window has a lean.

Later on, I would realize the reason for the rush. While short-handed, with the manpower gap that I'd just arrived to fill, they'd fallen out of the habit of loading each day's deliveries the day before. So when an incoming batch arrived even before we did -- all those bleary 7am's, back in the days before I'd discovered coffee -- it was chaos. Curly's stuff coming off and piling up in front of the stuff that needed to go on. The route back into the stacks narrowed down to a mere footpath as we filled the small dock; no room for machines, making it all hand and back work. Two drivers anxious to get on the road; one empty, one full. Service techs frustrated to be pressed into donkey work before starting out on their more delicate rounds. Managers flustered by yet another Monday shot to hell almost before it had a chance to begin. Welcome to the fray, New Guy. Lesson #2: Load the truck the day before.

We think of windows and doors set into walls, as they are for almost all of their serviceable lifespans; fixed in place and relatively immune to gravity. Not so in the supply chain that leads to the job site. Until the carpenter or homeowner places it in that rough opening, each is a free agent, a dozen times more vulnerable to accident than it will be once installed.

Every window has a lean. They want to go towards the glass side, the exterior. Stack them up with the glass aimed at the nearest stationary object -- a wall, a metal rack, the forklift, your truck in some godforsaken empty lot -- and all is well. When you get in a hurry -- and you will -- they can pile 50 deep this way without trouble. Like jumbo, very expensive dominoes. But get just one of them reversed, and it's ready to fall back when the pressure of the one in front of it is released… BAM! The whoosh of escaping air; the glancing scrape of cardboard down the back of your calf as you turn away; the thud as it hits concrete; and, sometimes, the dreaded sound of breaking glass.

Each time I reconstruct this memory, the window in question gets bigger and more grand. But I'm sure it was a wooden-framed arch, half-round or an eyebrow, at least 60 inches long; custom made, probably to fit up into the cathedral ceiling atop the glass wall of some ski palace in Aspen or Vail.

"Just set it right there. It'll be fine," my new coworker said, as we stood it in the aisle by itself, balanced on it's bottom edge, next to the sharp corner of a metal cart.

OK, I thought. Who am I to argue -- ten minutes into the job, just now starting to breathe heavy from that first exertion, using muscles ignored by a summer spent at the treadle wheel and laying brick walkways -- with this burly, aggressive, older guy ordering me around? We're obviously in a hurry, with Curly pushing the pace, dragging each piece solo from the front of his trailer all the way to the back door, joking and swearing and complaining the whole time.

I turned back to the truck and heard the sound of glass meeting metal, the crashing realization that I'm about to get fired for the first time in my life, and before lunch on my first day.

But I wasn't, and it turned out fine. Ends up that broken windows go with the territory in the window and door business. Some swearing from the boss, a little cleaup with a broom and dustpan, a quick demonstration of which way the glass wants to go. Lesson #3: Every window has a lean.

On to hauling the next unit, but with new questions. Was I set up? Was the burly guy mad at the company, or at Monday morning, or taking his shot a bit of New Guy hazing? Or just a random accident in the rush? I'll never know.

The warehouse has its own culture, it's own unspoken rules and customs. Lesson #4: We don't dwell on yesterday, or think too hard about tomorrow. Unless, of course, tomorrow is Saturday.

Someone orders a new piece of glass, and a few weeks later we pop it into the frame. I'm instructed to assist with this task, as some sort of penance for my mistake. The suction magic of glass cups, the razor edge of that naked double pane, gently tacking the bead back in place. "I don't silicone them in because it makes it easier when we have to go out to replace it." Lesson #5: Shortcuts will be taken.

An unknown delay and hassle on the construction site, some unseen chunk of profit eaten by sloppy organizational process, my introduction to this bizarre little fraternity of economic need and circumstance.

That first day, I literally didn't know which was way up, or forwards from backwards. I couldn't tell you the difference between a double hung and a casement; had never operated a forklift or cherry picker; didn't know that vinyl was cheap and aluminum cladding pricey; wouldn't have imagined that the order for a single job could routinely climb into the tens of thousands of dollars; and had never considered navigating an overloaded 30-foot box van through snowy mountain passes.

A year or two later I knew and had done all those things and more. All those little lessons stack up, a leaning pile of knowledge and know-how that starts to work for you once you get it all oriented in the same direction. They also start to matter, to override other lessons; they inform your sense of how the world works, and gradually become your reality. You are what you do.

Supervising a crew of hungover temps… mulling together bays and door frames… processing reams of paperwork, inventories, order forms, sorting labels… distinguishing Low-E from argon filled, something and something quarter from something and something else quarter jambs, Andersen from Marvin, 6068 from 8068… playing darts in the back when we got caught up, or it was slow, and no one was paying attention… extending conversations about the Broncos or fishing or "at my old job" for several more hours than the subject could reasonably bear. (Never about books, or "back in college" or Seinfeld.)

Hearing the same tired, crude jokes, over and over again. Repeating sayings to mark our passage through the day, the week; heckling, moralizing, like the recurring lines of an epic poem: Don't move things twice. Put some hair around it. Dude, that's above my pay grade. Kay-aa! Let's just get these put away. Yeah, well…

Those guys, or other guys just like them, are still there, of course -- Greg, Bill, Don, Ben, Gene, Mike and a dozen others I can't even remember. There, and just about everywhere else. As I sit here in a climate controlled room and type this, or take another mug of the wheelhead. Unloading, stacking, loading.

Every window has a lean. A perspective; a slant; a direction in which it wants to go.

July 28th, 2013

let's try that again

"Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” - Stephen King

Here's a new idea: instead of adding another post this week, I'm going back and annotating last week's photos of Maggie's "throwing lesson". If you happened to miss it, then chalk this up as one of the benefits of only checking in every other week.

Oh, and Carter, that Easter Egg I promised you is in there now, too. (Time-saving hint: it's the one with the rain boots.)

July 21st, 2013

at my knee

"Don't you know, about your fingertips away,
there's a universe of atoms that thinks you're really something?" - XTC

It was pretty amazing to take her soft little hands and set them on the clay like this; guiding them just so, aiming them at a goal I couldn't help but go towards -- the unconscious habit of thousands of repetitions -- while at the same time realizing that she couldn't see it and didn't care. For her, this was almost pure exploration, so I tried to balance gentle guiding with staying out of the way.

I'm glad to have these photos because they remind me of what this was like, the visceral senses that got lost in the moment: the feel of her fingers against mine and the clay; watching the slip gradually work it's way up her forearms; seeing what she wanted to try, feeling her boundless interest, hearing her excitement. Imagining how her brain was working. Pottery is recording a moment in a medium more durable than time.

Who's that balding old man helping my daughter learn to throw? Oh yeah. Me.

The look on her face makes this one the best of the bunch for me, says it all.

Funny how in a traditional apprenticeship, she'd start out moping floors and hauling firewood, with the privilege of working her way up to tasks like wedging clay and carting wareboards around.

None of that nonsense in post-modern America! I'm letting her aim straight for the best gig in the shop: Lead Thrower. Instead of sipping tea and pontificating like a distinguished Master, some day I'll end up greeting customers and taking out the trash, once she's turned this family business around and figured out how to wring a profit from it.


She found this hand position without any prompting by me. I've taught 19 year olds who struggle with this even after seeing it demonstrated extensively. Wouldn't hurt to cross those thumbs and get those elbows anchored on the edge of the tray, but I decided to save the pro tips for later. Not wanting to taint her enthusiasm with dogma.

I guess by now she's seen all of this done a few times; she probably absorbed a lot by osmosis during our month at Penland. That's the luxury of being immersed in something before you even know it's a thing; learning without trying to learn, or being told to.

(I'm not sure she's realized yet that not every kid's Dad has a pottery studio in the old garage.)


Look at that technique! Is it just my overwhelming bias, or is this kid kind of a natural? (However, I was tempted to recommend she support her right hand with her left. As I used to say to my students, "Otherwise, it's just sitting there -- may as well put it to work!")


This was in response to Cindy: "Show me your hands!"

My wheel is such a private, reserved space -- the sanctum sanctorum of making pots -- that it was weirdly wonderful to suddenly have her sharing that space with me... This only occurred to me afterwards; I hadn't expected it. How many thousands of hours have I spent alone on that seat? And now, suddenly, here's my girl; pushing the clay around, using my tools, asking questions. It's crazy to think that she might sit down and throw a pot one day. I can hardly wrap my head around that one.

The rain boots were her idea. In retrospect, given the amount of throwing slip that made it over that edge of the tray there, that was a rather brilliant choice. As Michael Cardew said, "I'm one of those potters who use thick slurry instead of water."

The chair was my idea. I'd long delayed this further notch in her ceramics education because I couldn't figure out how to get her perched on the seat without excess danger of falling on her head, while also allowing me to push the treadle bar without torquing my back too much. Once she figured out how to lean against the chair, this arrangement worked perfectly.

July 14th, 2013

white on white

"…got some things I just can't say." - Counting Crows

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

July 7th, 2013

I'm a grown up

"You have to put on your goggles. So you don't get music in your eyes." - Maggie Pixel 1

1 Runner-up quote: "We don't need any instruments. We have a radio that's full of music."

June 30th, 2013

making up for lost time

"And even though the moment's passed me by, I still can't turn away." - Goo Goo Dolls

Hey, remember when I went to Penland for a month? Yeah, me neither.

After serving up last week's Wall o' Text, this seems like a good time to post some photos. You've earned it! So here's the long overdue conclusion to my potting sabbatical's travelogue. This is part four, so if you weren't following along in March and April here are parts one, two and three.

(I should probably wrap them all into a single, chronological post for the sake of the archive. Maybe I'll do that some week when I have nothing else to say.) (As if.)

Making jugs and small soy pourers, somewhere in the latter half of wet clay time. That's another view of "my" corner behind me there, and on sunny days the light coming in through those windows was exactly as brilliant as this.

Assessing these handles. I seem to always make them a little too small and a little too strap-like; too focused on how they look and not enough on how they work. Need to be more open and more circular in cross-section

Pots awaiting the kilns, and my commuting boots. I did a little Mr. Rodgers routine every morning and evening, to put strong brackets around the work time, and it really helped me stay focused. One of the few benefits of a studio away from home is keeping the two separate.

I really studied the kilns there -- planning ahead for building mine -- and paid particular attention to the methods of getting the chimneys through the roofline that have been used by various kiln builders over the years there.

Based on my research (and paranoia), this is one of the better ones. But I'd still like to see a little more space between the brick and the combustable framing, and an air gap where it goes through the metal roofing would be a plus.

The last morning walk to the studio. Sigh.

Cracking the last firing on the next to last day. Time to play another round of Hero or Goat.

Turned out pretty heroic. The typical blend of exciting surprises and minor dissapointments, but more of the former. I was really glad I let one of the other residents talk me into cramming in a final firing.

Small faceted and stamped teabowl from the soda kiln, with just the right kind of shinny grey soda concrete, bleeding off to lovely, subtle flashing colors. This is one of the things I hope my new kiln might be able to do.

Treadle wheel all cleaned up. Thanks for the ride, friend! As happy as I was to go back to my own wheel at home, cleaning out the studio and packing everything up was sad. It was such an amazing month that I hated to have it end.

Packing up the homestead. New pots, a pile of unread books and digital peripherals.

My sabbatical pots, unpacked at home in the studio. Not a bad group, all in all! I had imagined myself making so much more, of course, and also brought home too much unfired biskware; I think I'd make a more deliberate plan for how to move pots through the workflow, if I ever had to chance to do this again. I should have brought bisked pots from home, to jumpstart the firing process, and should have forced myself to stop making a little sooner to go visit potters or whatever.

So that's it! It's been good to look at these photos again; fun to relive it just a little bit. It seems so far away now, like it happened in another life or to another person. The time since we returned home has been packed with circumstances and events that seem tailor-made to making me forget that magical month away.

But I didn't, of course -- not completely. Those experiences changed me, in ways noticed and unnoticed, felt and unfelt. The big reward was in those moments, but most of the payoff, I suspect, will be the long, slow burn kind.

June 23rd, 2013

worlds of fun

"Our download numbers have been improving, which tells me there's
more and more people to disappoint." - Merlin Mann

"Baby all I need is a shot in the arm." - Wilco

tw@se Year Six Reader-Response Experiment FAQ 1

1. So. It seems you got back 22 responses?

Yes.

2. OK, smart guy: can you elaborate on that?

Sure.

I did the KINDLY SEND US AN EMAIL post on Wednesday two weeks ago, and had 13 responses by the next morning; then 22 after a week. A few more have trickled in since then, so as of today the current total is 27:

a) 20 email
b) 6 FB
c) 0 Tumblr
d) 1 Twitter

Some notes on those sources:

a) Most of the people who clicked the email link added a note in the body of the message. All were pleasant and generous, which was quite enjoyable on my end. I suppose the implication behind calling roll is something along the lines of, "Hey people, I could use a shot in the arm!". These also gave me a very nice sense of who some of you are, "out there in the dark and the noise".

b) I counted "Likes" on only that tw@se post (I promo them on the St. Earth FB page and also via RSS). There were a few new Likes on the St. Earth page in addition, but I didn't tally those as specific to the experiment.

As of now, Facebook says "64 people saw this post". I suspect that number would be bigger if I posted tw@se into FB in full, or added an easy way to roundtrip there from the blog (like a link back to FB at the end of each post). While I know that would make it easier for some people to read (or skim), I still have reservations about committing to the "walled garden" approach, and want to maintain my own site as the primary source. That's pretty old school and inflexible, but so am I.

(In contrast, when I posted a link to the trailer for the Ron Meyers film by George MacCauley a couple weeks earlier, it was "seen" by 269 people. That's more than four times greater. Hmm. It's almost like the Internet wants easy-to-digest content, with more pictures and fewer words; preferably about a previously-known subject. Who knew?)

c) Apparently, none of you use Tumblr. That's cool. Other than posting the occasional apottersarchive item, I don't either.

d) The esteemed Mr. Kline cleverly understood that when I said, "I'm still not on Twitter", what I really meant was, "I dare you to find me on Twitter." He did. You probably shouldn't.

[This week's meta-meta moment: as I was editing this, another response arrived in my Inbox. So make that 28]

2.1 Did you respond to the responders?

Seriously? What do you think?

Of course I did. And if you're reading this, then you probably read that, and clicked the link, and hit send, and got back an email from me, and so you already know what I said. No need to repeat it here, now is there?

(I think I just *might have met my uncalled-for snark quotient for the week, but I can't promise that's the last of it. The fake FAQ format brings it out of me, I guess. OK, I've gone back and snipped out as much of it as I could stand to. Like garlic, a little snark makes almost everything better, but a little also goes a long way. Too much ruins the dish.)

3. What can you conclude from these results?

That's a big question. It's probably the question.

I guess it boils down to this: after six years of doing this blog -- writing it, editing it, shooting the photos and composing the images, thinking about it in a million spare moments, filtering my experience through its lens -- after six years, I have acquired a relatively small, but fairly committed readership.

They -- eg. you -- span the intersection of an interest in handmade pots and, for lack of a better way to put it, an interest in the way my mind works as it puts words on screen via typing. Many, and perhaps even most, have been reading for years, and read most of what I put here. I also get the impression that the majority read a range of pottery blogs and/or keep their own, and that following mine is just part of that larger activity. (With the exception of my wife and my mom, both of whom are obvious exceptions to the pattern.)

So I have to conclude that somehow -- amidst and in spite of all my warbling, self-aggrandizing, deliberate obfuscating, syntax- and sentence-structure demolishing, and persistent moaning and groaning about my (privileged) place in the universe -- I have to conclude that somehow these people, you guys, find value here. That it adds a little something, whether that's mild amusement or accidental wisdom, to your weekly routine.

Or that you are really, really bored at work.

3.1 And what can you conclude from those conclusions?

Well, in one sense, that's not much, and I wouldn't pretend that it is. We're not saving the world here. It's sincere but it's not activism. It's done in earnest, but it's not likely to generate any profound insights. It's fun, but it's not worlds of fun. 2

But in another sense -- and I guess this is how I must genuinely feel about it, at least 51% of the time -- it does make a little dent in the universe, to use that wonderful Steve Jobs phrase. An infinitesimal, humble dent, but a dent nonetheless. And making those dents -- whether in the actual universe or just in each others' perceptions of it -- is almost all we have. No one lives forever.

So I'll take that conclusion and run with it.

4. How does this change your view of the Google Analytics question? The one about real readers vs. bots and random visits?

So yes, that was really the question that started all of this, wasn't it? How many of those reported 100 weekly site visits are legit?

As I suspected at the outset, it's obvious that taking Google Analytics' (GA) raw numbers to equal real, intentional, reading people is a big mistake. At least, it is for tw@se. A closer look at those stats reveals some of the ways that number gets inflated, like all the page views that are by first-and-only-time visitors (drive-by readers), and the large percentage of visits that last only long enough to hit the Back button (wrong turns).

But I also don't find any evidence that the GA stats are padded, deliberately of otherwise. I think those packets of data actually do hit my server in the quantities GA says they do. The long term stability of their pay-per-click advertising model (and make no mistake, Google is an advertising company first and everything else second) probably demands it. It's less clear how much of that traffic might be bots and crawlers; eg. automated software hitting the site, rather than humans driving that software. There are good technical reasons that these would be excluded, but also, perhaps, lots of incentives to game the system.

I'd like to correlate the GA numbers against another report, like my raw site statistics or a different statistical tool, but I haven't done so yet. (More on this in the next answer.)

5. Was the overall response more or less than you expected? And is that a good thing or a bad thing?

As I've said previously, based on those numbers from GA, I was expecting more. The long term, surprisingly steady, strangely tidy, round number average for tw@se is 100 visits per week. A quick scan of detailed breakdowns like "Visit Duration" and "Frequency vs. Recency" made it pretty clear that at least half of those were the drive-bys and wrong turns mentioned above; people who arrive just long enough to realize this is definitely not the blog they're looking for. [Obi Wan waves his hand at them and they leave us alone.]

But the remaining 50% looked legit. Or, at least they did based on my initial pass at slicing and dicing them. But a closer look, combined with the tally of actual responses, paints a different picture.

Here's a breakdown of site visits by "Visit Duration" for the week after the "roll call" post:

Time on site Visits
a) < 30 seconds 67
b) 30-60 seconds 4
c) 1-3 minutes 5
d) 3-10 minutes 4
e) 10-30+ minutes 4
Total 84

So 79.8% of people who visited stayed on the page less than half a minute! That's even more dismal than my expectation!

Here's my interpretation of those various groups' behavior:

Group a) lands on the page and immediately runs away.
Group b) skims the most recent post, or reads quickly, and leaves.
Group c) reads more carefully, or skims through several older posts at once.
Group d) reads and perhaps follows some of the links and returns, or catches up on a couple posts at once.
Group e) do the same as d), just more or slower; or they read in binges. (This is how I read most of the blogs I follow, so I can relate.) Alternately, they just leave that tab active in their browser while catching up with Facebook on their phone, then close it without having read a word.

(I imagine it's hard for GA to distinguish between tabs that are actively being read and those that are sitting open and unattended. But if anyone could figure that out and compensate for it in the stats, it's Google. Oh... they probably use things like cursor position and scrolling activity. The magic of Javascript. Evil geniuses, those guys.)(Not really. Best corporate motto ever: "Don't be evil.")

So... before running the experiment, I expected the response to be about 50 real people and 50% of traffic. The real number, for any given week, is closer to 25 people and 25% of traffic.

Which is sort of ironic, because my hard-won personal rule for expectations is to take my sincere best guess and cut it in half. (eg. everything takes twice as long as you think it will; or costs twice as much as you'd feared; or ends up being half as enjoyable as you'd wanted). I thought I'd done that by halving the 100, but I should have done it again after culling out the 50% incidental traffic. If I had, my guess would have been 95% on target. Doh.

And so all of this is also a good/bad thing to the extent that I can use it to refine that rule. (Expectations matter because they're so inextricably tied to happiness. And happiness matters because... well, I don't know why it does, but that's what everyone tells me, so until I can figure out a better thing to care about I guess I'll run with it.)

Considering that I missed such an obvious thing -- eg. do the math after running the first, blatantly obvious filter, dummy -- this is a data point that suggests I need to update my rule. It would probably be more accurate to cut all expectations by 75%. The problem with that is that if you cut expectations to the point where they'll never fail you, it's hard to work up the enthusiasm to get out of bed in the morning. Life is risk, and vice versa.

One final caveat here, is that I'm keeping open the fuzziness of external factors which might actually push those totals higher: people who read it but didn't reply, for whatever reason; it being summer, when lots of people have good reason to be doing other things than reading the Internet; and the potential for reading habits that I'm not sufficiently imagining, like hitting the page just long enough to download it to Instapaper, or in a browser that doesn't trigger the GA Javascript, or cyborgs who can siphon in RSS feeds through their fiber optic capillaries or whatever.

5.5 For the love of Loki, this post is droning on forever! How many questions is this thing going to have?

Well, it started with 10, but I keep thinking of things to add, so these dot revisions are creeping in. Sorry.

6. Did you learn anything new about your readership?

I touched on this in #3, but I'll add that this experiment did refine my sense of who "my readers" are. I knew who some of you were in advance, of course, from your previous emails and comments; most often in virtual space but some in Meatspace, too. And over the years there have been occasional bits of anecdotal evidence: inbound links; references to things I've written on other sites; GA's drilldown into visits by location 3; offers to do things like bleed out my soul in 700 words or less on a page in CM that likely originated here.

But it was somewhat surprising to realize that I didn't -- and still don't -- know most of you, or really anything about you other than what you replied with. That's pretty interesting, too; the way that a technology with so much potential for interaction can still primarily serve as a one-way stream of information to a largely anonymous audience.

There were also a few people who were noticeable in their absence; people I had assumed were locked in, weekly readers but who, presumably, either are not or didn't get the memo that I expected them to announce themselves just now. Which is fine, of course. Even better than fine. Honestly, I am anything but judgmental about the lack response from anyone in particular.

As I've said several times before, I don't expect anyone to read this -- either weekly, as I post them, or ever. And it would be ludicrous to hold that against anybody. Even my closest friends... I can't really recommend it to them. It's so introspectively navel-gazing and inside baseball and of such uneven quality and WHY AREN'T THERE MORE PICTURES OF MAGGIE and... really, you're either crazy or remarkably generous to even be reading this now. (No, not really.)(OK, yes. Really.)

Lord knows my own reading/following habits have dwindled and/or become highly variable the last few years -- either from RSS fatigue, the comparative ease of scrolling through my Facebook feed, or just for lack of spare minutes at a screen due to other priorities. There are easily a half dozen blogs I would count amongst my all-time favorites, and that I consider myself an avid reader of, that could call roll today and not hear from me for weeks or months. That doesn't change how I feel about them, or how much I've gained from them in the past.

All that said, the desire to find a larger audience and connect with more people is perennial. We write for ourselves, of course, but also in the foolish desire to communicate; to speak and be heard; to be understood. I wish that the things I want to communicate resonated with more people, and that my ability to communicate them was more skillful. Alternately, I wish I was more interested in writing about the things that I know more people are interested in: how to throw and pottery tools and glaze recipes and 'How To Make A Living As A Potter'. [SPOILER ALERT: You can't!] But I wish for a lot of things that aren't realistic or reasonable. These are just more little bits on that pile.

There are certainly more people that I'd love to hear from, names that it would be nice to see trickle in over the coming weeks and years... It would be fantastically validating to know that, say, some (more) of my favorite potters read this on occasion, or just one random famous person I admire, like, say, Bill Bryson or Paul Westerberg. Wouldn't that be amazing?

(Occasionally, I indulge in the daydream that one morning I'll open my inbox to sift that night's spam and auto-notifiers to find a quick hello from Michael Cardew's grandson or the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Not that those things will ever happen, but -- back to the amazing potential of the WWW -- it's the fact that, however unlikely, they actually could happen that's perpetually kind of mind boggling.)

7. So how will this experiment change the way you approach tw@se in the future?

Damn you guys ask good questions!

I'm sure it's already changed my thinking about it, in a half dozen little ways. It certainly reassures me that I'm not just trodding the boards of an empty theatre. The lack of echoes in my little virtual echo chamber can be deafening sometimes. I can see where the impulse to trawl for comments comes from. As anyone who's tried it seriously can tell you, writing is both a completely engaging and an excruciatingly lonely endeavor.

Some of the responses I got reminded me that much of what I do here just for the hell of it (and/or as in-jokes for an audience of zero-to-one) probably does actual harm to my ability to tell the stories that I really want people -- you people -- to hear. That my self-defeatist streak follows me even here.

It also prompts me to reconsider, in a good way, what the ultimate value of doing *tw@se is. What it does for me, and to me, and if I want those things to change in any way. That remains an open question, and I think I always have to keep open the option to radically change it without notice, or to quit it in an instant, if those neurons line up just so on some random Tuesday.

It reminds me of all the times I've gone out of my way to send a bit of appreciation to some online stranger; an email, a comment, an unsolicited $5 donation via Paypal. It reminds me that I'm connected, albeit tangentially, to all the other writers, typing away in their own corners of the world, who share this willingness to push the results of their efforts out into the world, unfettered and free of charge. It's a strange tribe, this group of "bloggers", and one which spans as many disciplines as have ever existed. I admire a good, personal blog about sports or programming or music or games or just about anything that holds a spark of interest for me, if it's written sincerely and honestly and relatively well. As much as they may amount to nothing, in the great scheme of things or in relation to the world's vast well of intractable problems and heartbreaking injustices, it seems to me that this tool, this technology, that allows for those connections to happen at all, might also be one of the best things we have ever done. For the zillions of things still wrong with the world, it occurs to me that we're living through the start of a magical bit of history.

8. Has it prompted you to reconsider adding a comments section?

Oh, hell no.

9. Can we do this again sometime?

Yeah? Would you really want to? If so, then yes -- absolutely. Maybe we'll even make it a yearly thing. Or a survey, with all sorts of probing, overly complicated questions for you to answer. Or a raffle. Or all three.

Because as much as I joke about not wanting standard-issue-comment-caliber feedback -- and technically, that's not actually joking -- the feedback that comes through the slightly elevated and more deliberative medium of email is precious to me. There's an email link right at the top of every page for a reason; (see it? tucked up there just above that fancy new string of "social media" icons?) I encourage you to use it. The incoming volume is low enough, and my susceptibility to attention of any sort high enough, that I almost always respond personally. And usually in greater and weirder and far-more-personal-than-desired depth and specificity than almost anyone on the receiving end might want.4 If that sounds appealing to you, hit that link again.

10. Because an FAQ just seems like it should have 10 items.

Plus or minus three. And also: footnotes:

1 No one has actually asked these questions, frequently or otherwise. I'm employing a gimmicky compositional device to make my job here a little easier.

2 "Are you having fun, Lou?"
"Worlds of fun."

3 For example, in the week I cited above, the site had 8 visits from Georgia, and GA displays that information down to the city level. Hello Athens!

Conversely, among the visits from my home state of California, there were two from San Francisco and one from Berkeley. GA reports that they were all first-time visitors and that their "average visit duration" was 0:00:00. So obviously they number among the "wrong turns"; it's just coincidental that they're from places where I happen to know people. But then there's a new visitor from Modesto, CA, who purportedly hit two different pages and stayed on the site for 13:11. That's probably a real person actually reading my posts, and likely following a link back to an archived page. Who are you, person from Modesto? Do you rank among those who sent me an email, or not? And if not, why? Interesting.

(If this site statistics business seems spooky, it kind of is. Google probably extrapolate visitors' locations from matching IP addresses -- the unique identifier that is assigned to each computer when it connects to the Internet -- to ISP, and from there to the geographical region you're connecting from. So while that's not exactly the same as spying on you individually, it's the next closest thing.

Even spookier? Sites like Google and Facebook, which we all use almost everyday, and most people never sign out of, insert their "Like" buttons and Comments widgets into other sites, like major news portals, ESPN, etc. This lets them track your browsing from one site to the next, and over time gives a very detailed history of your online behavior. Facebook probably knows how you spend your time in a web browser better than you do and, of course, they can correlate that to everything you've ever told them about yourself.

I could link to some sources for this stuff, but if you want to find them they are legion. Just... oh yeah... just Google for them and the relevant articles should pop right up. Then you could post the results to FB.)

4 In fact, many of the weeks where I'm very short on words here are due to an excess of time spent in email, responding to some bit of feedback from a reader. It's always tempting to just spin those back around as Publishable Content, but I generally don't. It feels cheap somehow, like the one-on-one interaction was just a set up for more word count.

June 16th, 2013

feels like work

"The more writing feels like work, like a chore to me, the less I feel like doing it." 
- Jonathan Poritsky

I've got a pretty good post in the hopper, a follow up to my Reader-Response Experiment from the other week. But I'm sorry to say that it's just not quite there yet, and events have conspired against me banging it into final form this week. So instead, I'll take this as my annual summer blog break, beg your pardon for the lack of prior notice, and aim to get it over the digital threshold next week.

Cheers!

 

June 9th, 2013

the all-22

"I have loved telling this believer's story, loved living inside of it, loved hearing when and how it resonated with people I've loved or never met, out there in the dark and the noise."
- Glenn MacDonald

Twenty two! Twenty two? Holy cow. That's almost two dozen real, breathing, reading human beings on a random week in June. Oh my, that's way, way too many.

I was much more comfortable with the idea that it was just me, a hundred bots and web crawlers, and the two or three people in the world who already know most of my embarrassing secrets.

So I'm sorry, but some of you are going to have to go.

Valar Morghulis.

OK, like that fake robo-response I sent you if you clicked the link last week [and if you haven't, ], I'm mostly kidding. Mostly.

There's a weird push-pull to the idea of having found an audience, even a modest (fervently loyal, super intelligent, highly skilled and wonderfully decent) one. As all-world comedian Louis C.K. put it:

"On Twitter, I've got 1.3 million followers, and there's a part of me that wants to get that to zero."

I am very grateful to you, my football field's worth of readers, for loaning me your time and attention, both this week and all those other weeks. But -- in cynical, reactive, Groucho Marx style -- I'm also dismayed that I haven't yet managed to burn every bridge and salt every field on this scorched earth campaign through my weekly life and the more obscure recesses of my brain. What the hell are all you people still doing here?!?

{meta alert!}

Also, if you made it through that last paragraph, you really are my kind of reader. I love you [non-gender-specific shorthand] guys!

"Hmm. Huh. Huhrm." - Merlin Mann

It occurs to me now that if I take the results of this reader feedback experiment as a license to become ever more obscure and self-indulgent here, it'd be kind of like poisoning Schrodinger's cat before putting it in the box. Or is that Occam's cat? I forget.

{/end alert}

Anyways, the thing I like about 22 is its tidyness; its repetitive compactness; it's potential for numerological significance. (Remember back when I used to make frequent, lame jokes about numerology? Yeah, those were the good times.)

The thing I dislike about 22 is that my vainglorious ego still wants it to be more. And -- going back to the thing that kind of started this in the first place -- according to Google Analytics, it's way too low. Like, by a factor of five. Which is puzzling.

As it is every year, a tw@se anniversary means I had a birthday last week, too. (My preciousssss...) And so, while now would be a good time to slice and dice those statistics, tally the responses I received, and try to come to some rational conclusions about this experiment, I confess that I'm too weary to do so at the moment. Let's kick that particular can down the road for consideration next week. Or the week after. Or, perhaps, never.* I honestly don't know.

Here at 42, I still haven't figured out the answer to life, the universe or everything. Hell, aside from "the secret to happiness is low expectations"; "water bugs, trout below"; and "don't forget to bring a towel"**, I'm not certain that I've figured anything out yet. Many days, I can't even unpack what those phrases mean.

I suspect Ze Frank might know. (Maybe I should follow his example and study syncopation.) Or the esteemed Ur-blogger Glenn MacDonald. (Maybe I should follow his example and quit this blog for a project with more heft.)(His ending on post #500, shockingly almost 10 years ago now, was genius.)

So I'm going to go work on that answers business now, and will aim to return to the stats/visits/readers topic, plus my usual tricks and subplots, antics and relentless striving after sincere self expression, shortly...

I am, and remain, your grateful blogger.

* In which case I will gladly refund all your money, as per our verbal agreement.

** Respectively, those come from Daniel Gilbert, Anne Lamott and Douglas Adams.

June 2nd, 2013

roll call

"It’s surprising how hard we’ll work
when the work is done just for ourselves." - Bill Watterson

2007-13

So tw@se is six years old this week. My precious baby is now officially a big kid.

Here's what it wants for a birthday present:

That's right: an email. Just an email, from you. Go ahead and click that link there. We've pre-filled the subject line for you, and you don't even have to type anything in the message body. (Unless you want to, of course.) Just let the link open in your email app of choice and hit "Send". That's it!

(Really! Go ahead and click it now. We'll wait...)

     [Really. <Stop reading here and click that link.>]

          {Really? I mean, seriously... carpe linkum! What have you got to lose?} *

...

Here's the thing: after six years of writing this blog -- almost weekly, and always to the very best of my ability -- I'm curious who, if anyone, is still reading it. Really curious.

The tools for monitoring site traffic, like Google Analytics, are nice and all, but I suspect the numbers they report are mostly robots and people who got lost on the Internet. Not actual readers. I'd love to know how many of those numbers are real people, and how many of you are actually reading this. (Or, at least, skimming it. I can't fault anyone for skimming.)

So that's the idea. I'm calling roll. After 292 posts, I don't think that's too much to ask.

[EDIT: Even if you're reading this a week, a month or ten years after I posted it, I'd still like to hear from you. There's no time like the present!]

...

You're still not sure? OK. I promise I won't add your email address to my mailing list. Or share it in any way. Or barrage you with future requests. I promise. There's no fund drive coming; this is the fund drive. I don't want your money, I want to know if you're a robot.

What's that? You already did it, and now I'm selling past the close? Silly me.

Thanks! Seriously, you're the best! tw@se will be so happy!

See you next week.

*Alternately, you could ping me on Facebook, or tungle me on Tumblr, beep me on Twitter**.

**Oh yeah, except I'm still not on Twitter.

May 26th, 2013

dreamy

"It’s a pain, but reality can be a tough nut to crack.” - Phil Plait

Last night I dreampt that my friend Carter and I were taking a week-long Ron Meyers workshop, like the one I did in 2003. As is often the case with dreams, the setting was vague... but it was deeply infused with details from my month at Penland; it was like some Bizarro Penland, mixed with aspects of every other clay studio I've spent time in, from Iowa to Boulder to E'Ville. Maybe even the lighting from that Michael Simon workshop video.

Anyways, a few days into the workshop, I was informed one morning that I was the first to have been voted out. The first! Red hot shame, then smouldering anger at the other participants, these lesser potters with their watery purples and their love of raku. How dare they take aim at me, the clearly superior contestant? I am a challenge monster!

Ah, the hubris.

So: clearly I've got the Meyers/Simon thing on the brain. It burrows ever deeper into my subconscious. It informs future dreams that are just now laying down roots; idealistic notions that I'll have to prune away someday to protect myself from their viscous oils.

Also, I've almost certainly watched way too many seasons of Survivor for my own good. Pottery as "reality" game show; all human relationships entangled in the competitive drive to outlast and backstab my way to some proverbial first place finish.

And, without so much as asking his permission, it appears that CG is now a participant in even my offline adventures; a squire for my misguided quests, a wing man for my battles.

And maybe I'm jonesing to take another workshop? To go be a student again? Or just to recapture the single-minded focus of those weeks in the mountains, every day just clay clay clay clay clay and more clay?

Probably. Why wouldn't I want that? It's much better than the alternatives.

But what do I know? I'm just the dreamer. "Perhaps the dream is dreaming us."

May 19th, 2013

time's up!

"Time's up!" - Living Colour

"What will I do with it?"

What will I do with it?
What will I do with it?

Well, the first thing I'll do is re-examine that assumption from a half dozen angles; tear it apart to see what it's really made of; put it back together wrong a few times by accident; and then probably decide it never actually existed in the first place.

Big leads have a way of evaporating in the 4th quarter.

The funny thing, at least to me, is that when I wrote that line last week I meant it sincerely. Ah... so hopeful, so naive. I suppose I still want to believe in hidden bonuses; magical X factors; moral victories. The American Dream unfurls itself yet again; the illusion of progress becons even as it recedes into the distance, like some Enlightenment-era Deus Ex Machina.

But that was then. I know better now.

Given some more thought, it seems that even the idea of "free time" is problematic, because it is inherently too idealistic. It's a wrong answer stemming from an inaccurate equation -- one that assumes a starting value of zero.

Because, after all, the fact that I have extra pots on the shelves doesn't necessarily mean I'm at zero in every related metric -- time, money, energy, motivation. Far from it. In fact, I'm likely still in the red in several of those areas, perhaps even by double digits.

That's a consequence, I suppose, of living for years -- decades, even -- with little to no margin: no spare time, no savings, no backlog of inventory, no big favors owed. This is how we live; always on the edge of nothing.

So getting a firing or two ahead of the curve for the next half year, while certainly better than the alternative, is hardly a cure-all for what ails me.

Heck, I could spend the time represented by those extra pots solely on delayed projects around the house, yard and studio. (In University parlance, that's called "deferred maintenance". Which sounds a whole lot more respectable than "crap I haven't fixed yet".) And that doesn't even consider any number of other delayed promises and forgotten tasks. A smart strategy would also factor in pending random encounters: illnesses, breakdowns, appointments, unexpected yet impossible to refuse opportunities; a thousand little time sinks that are so easy to ignore in the now, but so present and persistent in the later.

In fact, I'm starting to think that even the idea of free time is potentially dangerous. Belief in available, unspent resources -- without grounding in solid proof, like paid vacation days or money in the bank -- creates inflated expectations. Also known as: false hope. And false hope, almost inevitably, leads to disappointment. Disappointment, in sufficient quantites, leads to despair. And despair leads... nowhere.

So isn't it better to just accept that the sale was bad, dispense with the idea of free time, and just get to it?

"I didn't care, where I was going. All the different names for the same place." - DC4C

Alternately:

As has been the case for as long as I can remember, prior to my spring sale I had assumed that the rest of the year was pre-committed to making the pots I would need for my December sale. Now that that's not the case, my false hope says that I should be able to fit in a few other things; or do the same things a little differently.

If I really did have that time, what would I use it for?

1. Build the damn kiln shed. I need a block, or multiple blocks, of concentrated time to plan it, hire a contractor and build the thing. Trying to squeeze it in around all the normal stuff has been consistently failing to work for over five years now. Enough.

2. More freedom in the making phase. Less inventory pressure -- "I'm out of ____ and need to make more" or "I need some ____ to fit into that spot in the next kilnload" -- means I can be more exploratory. It means more room for inefficiencies, like practice or pure R&D. It also means I can focus on one thing -- a form, style of handle, surface treatment, decoration, whatever -- longer. Going deep rather than broad for a change. For example, I've been thinking it might be grand to spend a month faceting every pot that comes off the wheel, just to see where that takes me.

3. Other things. Non-pottery, non-worky things. As I said above, my day-to-day life is pretty full even when everything's going according to plan. That's partly by design, I guess, part by necessity, part by not being able to apply reasonable boundaries to my aspirations. So as much as I want to be in the studio making pots -- and I really want to be in the studio making pots -- the next sale deadline is often a barrier to other things I want (or need) to do. It'd be nice to adjust that slider in the other direction for a while.

There's a life and there's living, and the latter requires some slack; some space for serendipity and unhurried relief; some random days that go wherever they want without punishing you for it later. Hobbies are good. Time to read something difficult in between naps is good. Time outside, just watching the world go by is good. Strumming a guitar, playing a silly game with a kid, having a complex conversation.

Too often, in the name of efficiency or progress or desperation -- all good or useful or necessary in their own way -- I put those other, living things on hold. "Deferred maintenance". Why?

And: is it worth it?

May 12th, 2013

+/- 300

"Take this silver lining, keep it in your own sweet head." - David Gray

Keep it where? Oh no, I could never do that. How would everyone know what I'm thinking and feeling in intricate detail?

Rhymes with "bling"

So there's a silver lining to be found in my spring sale's mediocre turnout, if I squint a bit and wrinkle my mouth just so. Yep... there it is. Faint, but distinct.

As you know, optimism isn't normally my thing -- water bugs, trout below -- but even so, it seems that having these pots left over might be a good thing. With 200+ pots in the showroom, this is the largest "standing inventory" I've had at this time of year in any of the past 13 years of studio sales, and probably going all the way back to my start in clay.

As I've said before, my persistent problem is getting enough pots made before each sale to meet the usual demand. (That is, as opposed to having a lot of pots and needing to work hard to sell them, which seems to be the more common problem.) Which is not to say that I ever sell out; not even close. That's a degree of success that I don't even let myself daydream about anymore. Instead, I mean "enough pots" in the sense of filling my showroom so that it's worth the expenses and effort of hosting the event and worth my customers' time to come to it. In my average sale weekend, including a handful of online orders, I usually sell about half the pots that I start with. Most of those 26 times, the more pots I have at the start, the more I sell.

That's somewhat counterintuitive. My best explanation is that it's because more pots creates more choices, and therefore better odds that if someone wants a stack of porcelain plates or a Teadust planter, I have them available. (Especially since I make a rather wide range of forms, glazes and decorative styles. Once the inventory dips below 100 pots, it can be a real mixed bag of odds and ends left.) But also, a full display seems to encourage more purchases by the same number of people -- say, buying a mug for yourself, too, when the goal was to just get a wedding present. A sparse display, with limited choices and a feeling of having been picked over, doesn't.

In any case, whether it's the seven month stretch between May and December or the five month turnaround from December back to May, I almost always struggle to hit my target number of pots on the shelves. There are many reasons for this: my half-time dayjob is the biggest factor, of course, but there are others that I've detailed at length here previously, like my slow pace in the studio. In any case, while it's always nice to be making pots with the sense that there is an existing demand for them -- that people value what I am doing -- always being a little behind the curve is also a lot of pressure. It forces me into compromises or procedural approaches that I dislike and that are far from the ideal way to make good pots, like firing kilns in bad weather, or working through illnesses, or letting the demands of the studio throw the other parts of my life too far out of balance. And if there's one thing I learned in my 30's, it's that plodding along with things out of balance for too long eventually comes back to haunt you.

So: for almost every sale, it's a race to the finish line. I usually starting with around 100 finished pots and aim for something over 300. (Last weekend, it was 330.)

So for this cycle I'm just beginning, I'm already more than half way to that goal. And on the long side of the cycle (with that extra month until my Holiday sale). And with a pretty good pile of bisqueware already waiting in the studio -- because I cancelled two salt firings last month when I got bronchitis and all hell subsequently broke loose.

Seven and a half months to get (at least) 75 pots through the kiln. Heck, Phillips and Kline can do that in a week. That should leave some time for other things; heck, if I get lucky, plenty of time.

OK. Back to the silver lining. The other lesson that I seem to learn, over and over again, is that time is all we have. The rest of it -- bills to pay, obligations to meet, people to greet, food to eat, a million random little activities that try to it all seem worthwhile -- all depend on that primary constraint of time. It is the greatest common divisor.

From that perspective, there's nothing more valuable than time... unplanned, uncommitted, unspoken-for time. And "found" time -- hours and days that are discovered just lying there on the ground, waiting to be put to use -- is better than money or joy or respect, because it can become any of those things. It's treasure, silvery treasure: full of infinite promise and potential freedom. Or... anything.

What will I do with it?

May 5th, 2013

2/0

"I like to write about certain things that if they are not written about
are not going to exist." - James Salter

December 2012 | May 2013

Here in the sixth year of tw@se, I occasionally find myself writing a post which is essentially the same as one I've written previously. This week, I was two paragraphs into trying to summarize studio sale #26 when and the little Pattern Recognition light in some dim part of my brain switched on: "Wait a minute... I've been here before."

This life of mine tends to loop back on itself, as I've mentioned before many times.
<loop>
The surprising thing is how often it still surprises me when it does.

So after some random scrolling (through these ridiculously long archived pages) I found this, my reaction to last December's sale. I had forgotten not only the results of the previous sale -- whether it had been good, bad or something in between -- but also the fact that I even wrote this. That's strange-bordering-on-worrisome, but I suppose not all that shocking considering the circa 1971 RAM in this computer that I call a brain.

Forgotten or not, from my perspective today that seems like one of the best things I've ever written. Really. And also, it's probably as good a summary of the experience of trying to sell pots as I'm likely to ever achieve.

Given my propensity for forgetting, reading what I wrote then and being instantly transported back to those facts and that exact set of thoughts and feelings is a strong justification for why I blog in the first place. Sure, I could have written that down in a private notebook somewhere, but if I hadn't planned to share it publicly -- if it had lacked the goal of communication -- would I have even made the effort to write it? And if I had only written it privately, would I have stumbled across it again, to read it and remember all that just when I needed to? Unlikely.

I've joked with my friend Carter about tw@se being written for an audience of one, where, presumably, he is that ideal target reader. But if it's true that all of this is aimed at only one person, then, really, that person has to be me. My Past Self makes my Now Self laugh, and nod appreciatively, and mutter, "No way...", and arrive at the end of a post like that one and think about how perfectly it hit the center of the target. No one else, I'm afraid, writes about the intersection of life and making pots in a way that does it for me quite like... me.

Which is, of course, both goofy and nuts. And also a degree of solipsism that would probably bring joy to the most jaded of therapists. (Aha, from whence this unfillable void in the ego?) And it completely ignores the fact that, more often, I often read my old posts and groan at how horribly inept they are. But pushing all those caveats aside, I accept the usefulness of that function. I like the fact that what I wrote in the now-forgotten past can speak to me today as if it were composed by my secret twin, my unknown brother, my Dark Half. Sadly, few other things have that effect. Maybe the best of Ze Frank. Or that handful of songs that I only listen to on purpose, and never on shuffle.

Anyways, I can't imagine what else I can say about this sale -- from the insanely compressed, woefully haphazard path I trod to get ready for it to the weary blend of disappointment at the tangible results and relief that it was again done for another half year -- that isn't somehow already expressed in that post from last December.

So I guess I'll shut up for now.

April 28th, 2013

a time to sell

"There is one great taboo that still exists,
which is that art should not take part in life." - Pete Pinnell

Sale time! This weekend, 10am - 4pm both days. Here's all the relevant info: St. Earth Spring Sale.

13th Annual Spring Sale

Meanwhile... behind the scenes, chaos reigns. I haven't been this far behind the curve in getting ready for a sale in a long time -- not since Fall 2008, right after Maggie was born. I've just barely begun to get things set up around the yard, house and studio. I squeaked out each of the various promotional efforts at the last possible minute, and dialed them all back considerably. And I have over 200 pots -- from my month at Penland and two spring firings -- left to process: sorting, cleaning, pricing, arranging.

For the first time in 12 years (this is bi-annual sale #26, I think), I won't get good photos of new pots shot in time, which means no new inventory in my site gallery and so, most likely, no online sales. I hate to give up on what's been a standard part of the event all those years, but something's gotta go.

Not ready yet...

It's going to be one heck of a slog to get ready this year. There have been so many wildcards, setbacks, exceptions and crazy delays since we returned from North Carolina that I've been spending idle moments the last few days wondering which parts of the customary setup -- the standard that I've aimed for in terms of polish and finesse -- could stand to be minimized without drastic consequences. Which details have the most impact for my customers? Do any of them really matter? To what extent am I just indulging my perfectionist instincts, in carefully dusting every pot, attempting park-like order outdoors, laying out a spread of snacks and refreshements?

I'll probably do it all as per the usual, and grumble about it the entire way, but still manage to make it. I mean... at this point, what choice do I have? Chances are, most people won't notice. Chances are, the results will be in the usual, historical range. Chances are, by 4pm on Sunday I'm going to be a comatose pile of pottery-hocking fodder.

Ah... what a life. Wish me luck!

April 21st, 2013

a firing

"Holding a gem is such a joy, and the feeling I have as I familiarize myself with new work is very much like the feeling I've come to cherish as a father.
Work is like critters, I enjoy the mechanics of make'n em, but I'm not sure I'm fully understanding the true miracle of making things real just by accident… " - FetishGhost

April 14th, 2013

Hackety hack hack.

"… like some millennial demon from the digital unconscious." - Emily Nussbaum

This seems particularly relevant this week, for several reasons. Also: it's awesome. If you want a passing grade in tw@se studies this semester, it's required viewing.

April 7th, 2013

Penland: part three

"In another life you might have been a star." - Living Colour

Continuing on with the story of my month at Penland:
(Here are parts one and two.)

At Michael Kline's studio: Kyle Carpenter, Ron Philbeck, Michael, me, Brandon Phillips, Will Wright. (Photo: RP's iPhone)

During the month or so that we were in North Carolina, I didn't spend nearly as much socializing or visiting local potters' studios as I'd planned to and, aside from random bits of conversation while working in the studio, virtually none the first few weeks. Once I'd seen the firing calendar on the whiteboard and settled in to making pots in the new space, the rush to keep the pots flowing towards the kilns took precidence. Heck, I barely even set foot in most of the other studio buildings on campus! Given the option, I'll almost always go into hermit mode to jam in more clay time than get out in the world to socialize; often, I'm sure, to my own detriment.

We had planed to tour the local circuit on Sundays -- Potters of the Roan, Crimson Laurel Gallery, etc. -- but the few first attempts were foiled by snow and ice. Despite the bonus of escaping an Indiana February, it was still winter in the mountains.

But near the tail end of the trip, I got to spend an evening with this group of potters, thanks to a lucky bit of timing and -- once again -- the fortuitous connections created by the Internet. (Thanks, Internet!) It was great fun; definitely something I wish I could do (e.g. should make an effort to do) more often.

"Why do some many potters look like bums?"

And here I am, caught in some mixture of awestruck silence at MK's wisdom and calculated preparation of my next sarcastic comment. I like how the Tree of Knowledge painted on the wall appears to be blooming from my bare skull.

More seriously, does it get any better than standing around shooting the shit with a bunch of other potters you like and admire? I suppose that's a commonplace event for many, but for me it's so rare that it's a mind-blowing highlight.

And there's something about getting to hang out in another potter's studio -- compared to just stopping in -- that really does it for me. There's time to notice subtle details of the space; to casually pick up a random tool; to idly scrape dried clay off a canvas tabletop with a fingernail. It let's me imagine myself working in that person's environment, standing at that wheel, perhaps even making those pots. I see things I'd like to copy in my space back home; things I have a little better, things I have a little worse. Good for proper perspective.

(Here's a post I wrote about an earlier visit to MK's studio; probably my best bit of writing from that blogging sabbatical project.)

Anyways, suffice it to say that that evening was one of the most memorable parts of the month, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Ideas for tumblrs

One of the stranger aspects of the time away -- a minor but radical break with my normal routines, and so one of the things that made it feel like a brief stint in an alternate life -- was the lack of a TV at the house we rented. Or, more precisely, the lack of a cable subscription (and DVR) for the TV. This was a little jarring at first, because it's been my habit for decades to end almost every day with an hour or two of near-comatose screen staring prior to hauling myself up to bed.

Of course, I could have easily substituted the iPad -- streamed something from Netflix or YouTube or Amazon or HBOGo -- or even brought my half dozen moldy old DVDs along. (Now I'm imagining that anyone under 30 reading this finds it hilarious that steraming to a handheld device isn't the default. Kids these days.)

But even though it would have been easy to just switch over to an online source, I took that new constraint as an opportunity to try a different pattern. I wanted to see what else would change if I temporarily broke that strongly-engrained habit which so often seems like a rather unfulfilling waste of time.

This ended up being just one of several disruptions to the tidal cycles to my day to day life; changes I hadn't fully anticipated, but that I was suddenly interested in playing around with and acquiescing to. In fact, the first couple weeks there ended up being largely about that -- about doing largely the same things in different ways. Which was unexpected, because I'd planned more on doing different things in the same ways; say, trying out different pots using the same techniques.

I guess being away from my normal environments -- home, office, studio -- as I so rarely am, especially for any extended period of time, seemed like an ideal chance to tweak some of those things that have long settled into being constants. To treat them as variables for a change. Not watching TV/movies/video of any kind for a month -- while admittedly a rather mundane thing -- was an interesting exercise in self-determination and willpower, and revealed some things that had been hiding behind that habit all along.

For example, I spent a surprising amount of that time writing for my sabbatical blog. Normally, I don't dare try to compose even monosyllabic sentences after 8pm, but I found this to be really enjoyable, and the results were noticeably different than my usual writing. Maybe a little more conversational; a little more free-form, without as many compositional tricks and attempts at cleverness layered in.

I also read more books and magazines (on actual paper); wrote dangerously unhinged emails to friends; conversed with my spouse (imagine that!); and, something new, drawing.

(Which is not to say that I didn't still spend a lot of that time looking at a screen. The iPad is a pretty intoxicating replacement for a flat panel TV, even sans video. But unlike just watching, that device is still enough of a computer that it encourages more interaction and more activity, like the writing I mentioned above, or trolling through the day's "news" on Facebook, or playing iOS games. (I practically burned a Triple Town-shaped hole in my reptile brain.)

Anyways -- drawing. Thanks to a handy, stunningly full-featured app called ProCreate, the iPad is now almost exactly the digital sketchpad I've been imagining since the early days of tablet input devices and vector graphics -- things I first played around with, attached to a desktop computer, over a decade ago, and wished that I could hold in my lap or take out to the studio.

The funny thing about the ongoing digital revolution -- and make no mistake: we're still in the early stages or it; the stuff that's yet to come is going to make today's iPads look like barrels and buggywhips. The funny thing is that the stuff you dream about when some new feature first becomes conceivable -- like digital drawing with your fingers -- seems to take forever to arrive as a fully mass-market, off the shelf, no-brainer product. But when it does… holy cow, it's like magic. And then it's hard to imagine, how we ever got by without such things in the past, let alone remember all the terribly inefficient, frustratingly limited prior formats and methods.

Like photography. It's now so ridiculously easy to shoot digital photographs and instantly share them online, it seems like we've all been doing it forever. The days of too quickly filling up clunky memory cards, downloading the files to a computer, manually editing them to web specs, wrapping them in HTML for display, FTPing files to a server -- all that is practically a relic of a prior era. I mean, I still do that here, out of habit and stubborness, but for most of the people most of the time, that's a dead methodology; one that our kids will likely never even know existed, just like I never punched holes in cards to feed data into the machine.

Another, equally mind-bogglingly improved example is recording multi-track audio. Today it's pretty simple to do it at full quality and in real time, with very little custom equipment or expertise. Or even something like having a spontaneous video chat with someone thousands of miles away, and you can both be walking down the street or sitting in a cafe. In 1993, the year I graduated from college, that would have seemed like something in a sci-fi show. These capabilities are ~~truly revolutionary, seen from the 10 or 30 year perspectives. And yet we almost instantly assimilate them into our habits and expectations and move forward as if they'd always existed. Wonderful.

Anyways, so in place of TV, I used the magic of the iPad to do some digital sketching, like these ideas for tumblrs. It's really fun to push pixels around with my fingertips and end up with something worth looking at! I suppose it's still no match for physical paper and ink and paint, for for a very poorly trained 2D person like me, it's pretty damn amazing. Also, to the point of these amazing technical advances above: share, post, done. No drying time, copy stands (remember those?), slide film, printing labels, sending precious individual copies out to a few select shows or viewers. We're so much closer now to think it, make it, share it than we've ever been, it's a little staggering to consider.

In Terry Gess's showroom, just around the mountain from Penland.

So let's see: I made it out to Kline's studio twice; also John Britt earlier in the month, and Gess and Michael Hunt/Naomi Dalglish on the very last day. And, sorry to say, that's about it! Oh yes, also squeezed in the NC Pottery Center in Seagrove, on a day trip through the Piedmont. But given that I started with a list of at least two dozen potters and places I wanted to see, that's a pretty meagre tally. Ah well; I suppose there's always a next time, and I don't regret the pots that I made and kilns that I fired instead.

Gess wasn't home that day -- my attempts to call ahead to various potters in hopes of seeing their studios, buying pots and getting to meet all failed miserably. I suspect the locals have been trained to not wait by the phone in February. But his showroom was open and his wife gave us a quick tour of the studio and kiln, all of which was great. I've admired his pots for years -- since I discovered that he'd preceeded me at SIU Edwardsville -- and it was great to see a range of them in person.

This also made me think that a cool part of a potters' tour would be scheduling time for visitors to come hang out in the studio while the potter was absent; maybe with the intent of letting people do some of that "absorbing the environment" I talked about earlier. As good and important as it is to make a connection with the potter, there's something intriguing and subtle about experiencing their space and the context their pots come from without the (good) distraction of conversation, or the awkwardness of feeling too intrusive. All of which is to say, I guess, that if anyone wants to come snoop around in my showroom or hang out in the studio while I'm gone, just ask!

Well, that's more than enough for now. Still a few more installments to go, rehashing the trip, I think. I'm chipping away at it as fast as I can, while enjoying the chance to reflect on that time with a little different perspective, and to see where else those memories can ramble to. It's like that one month seeded a year's worth of blog posts, if I were to give them time to grow.

March 31st, 2013

stars. daydreams.

"The stars are laughing at us..." - XTC

I failed my save against bronchitis this week, so the rest of the Penland review will have to wait a while. I managed to fire a kiln and get my sale card off to the printer -- just barely -- so with my sale a month away there's still a chance that I can pull it off. As is almost always the case, it feels like I need two months.

That weird background noise you're hearing is the sound of my mental gears clanging away; a symphony of cognitive dissonance, generated by crushed plans and the dawning awareness that resistance is, once again, futile. Canceling planned firings, scaling back aspirations to the bare minimum, and preparing to enter four weeks of fight or flight mode. Dive! Dive!

"All of my daydreams are disasters," sang Uncle Tupelo. I couldn't agree more.

Ah, pottery -- so romantic.

Spring sale card

March 24th, 2013

more photos!

"Anyone who hosts a podcast, or writes a blog for that matter, does so with a healthy dose of self-importance. Wanting to be heard, telling others that your voice is the one worth listening to, is inherently narcissistic, at least on some level." - Jonathan Poritsky

On the right are most of the pots from that first salt firing.

It's hard to see here, but as I said they were uniformly too dark and not salted enough, with some funky glaze and underglaze results mixed in, too. Much of that came from the clay body, which ended up being what I think of as a rather iron-heavy clay, but which I was imagining as much lighter in tone. My decade-plus of working almost exclusively with white stoneware and porcelain skewed that perception, as did some test pots that were fired in the soda kiln before this load, in what must have been a very oxidized firing.

This was really disappointing at the time, both because I'd been really happy with that first week's pots at the bisque stage, and because the information I gained after the firing could have so easily improved the whole load if I'd somehow been able to gain it beforehand. I could have easily reduced the kiln less, or crash cooled it at the end to lighten the body color, and these pots (and rather salt-resistant clay) could have easily taken two or even three times the salt I put in. Ah well; live and learn.

The day afterwards, I realized I had to just get over it, commit to filling a good portion of another kiln before the month ended. Which, in a way, was probably really aided by the circumstances. At home, my tendency would be to linger over a bad firing for days, if not weeks, dwelling on the losses instead of highlighting the few bright spots, asking new questions and getting on with it. So, happily, I now have a bit of a template for not doing that the next time it all goes to hell.

So I rebounded and started throwing more pots. Those are them on the left side of the table -- I blasted through the rest of that dark Hestia clay and then switched to a stash of B-mix Woodfire left over from a previous class session, which came out much closer to my initial aims. And, by the end, somehow I squeezed in almost as many pots after the halfway mark as I did at the beginning, despite wearyness, cracking fingertips, all the chores of drying, bisque firing, cleaning up, etc., and a thousand beckoning distractions (see potters! walk in the woods! drive to Seagrove! relax and enjoy the ambience!).

Brothers in Arms

That process of getting back in the saddle was helped mightily by a couple days working next to Michael Kline in the studio. He came up to make mugs for the Penland auction, and we (or at least, I) had a grand time spinning clay, talking about blogs and podcasts, and getting to know each other in person, after several years of revolving in similar orbits online.

The original idea for this trip started, at least in part, with provisional plans for a group of potter/blogger friends, who mostly know each other in the virtual sense, to all do the winter studio rental together. As ambitious ideas often do, that one fell apart once the realities (time, money) asserted themselves, so I had to make a big adjustment to my expectations for the month when I realized I was pretty much going it alone. But, although two days and two potters was a lot less than we'd originally imagined, that time with MK was a really nice compensation, and proof (as if I'd needed any) of how great it will be when we finally manage to pull it off someday.

Also, that plan not working out probably made room to get to know the other people who were there better, and I'm grateful for that opportunity, too. It also let me explore different things (or the same things differently) than I would have as part of that group, which might still pay off in ways I haven't entirely sussed out yet.

Also: nice Ron Philbeck rat shirt!

Rules: No ice balls, no hard throws (me), no headshots.

Other than that, it was game on. She absolutely loved getting to pelt me with snowballs, as her absolute maniacal laughter every time she connected proved. (Photo credit, with bonus points for catching that shot in the air right before impact: Mom.)

At Klinehaus

I also got to visit MK's studio a couple times, which was grand. He was a very generous host, and a lot of fun to hang out with. It was so rewarding to see his place in person, after years of consuming every bit of his blog, seeing it in photos, etc. We had some really interesting conversations, which happens so rarely for me in my normal life -- sitting with another potter over lunch is a less-than-annual event -- that it was almost mind-blowing.

And the pots! Good grief… so much good stuff to see, from the pots for sale in the showroom (more on that later), to the stuff around his studio, to the shelves piled high with beauties and gems in the kitchen. Too much information to absorb. Cindy and I almost talked ourselves into taking home this big jar -- almost! We got several smaller pieces instead; all of them great. But in retrospect I wish we had, even though I'd have had to ship it home, with all the pots of my own I made and needed to lug back. Someday we'll get one. Someday.

(Dang. Should've got that one, too.)

Miss Lucille

Here's the crossdraft soda kiln (SODA ONLY!), which I split a load in with two other people right at the end of the month. I got another 50 or so pots through it, and the experience of firing a type of kiln that I'd never done before was great. Interesting contrast from the Julia kiln I showed last week. Lots to think about in the kiln building department.

Most of these pots turned out pretty well -- the usual range of 'absolute winners', 'par for the course-ers', disappointments, and 'damn, I really wish I had that decision to do over again-s'.

In some ways, it renewed my interest in straight soda firing, as opposed to mostly salt and minimal soda like I do in my kiln. But in others, it reminded me of the drudgery goes into doing all that spraying near the end of a long firing day. There's a cost for the sweetness that it adds, and I'm still not sure it's one I want to pay with every kiln load. Which seems kind of dumb, relative to the amount of time that goes into the pots themselves before they ever hit the kiln, but still. I'm staring middle age in the face, and none of this is going to get any easier going forwards. To put it in IT terminology, I'm not sure that process scales well enough for me, whereas tossing in a few salt burritos is easy as pie. We'll see. Plenty of time to think about that more before I commit to my new kiln.

Fresh pots

This jug (and yunomi in the background) are from Lucille; not my firing but another one before it (again, fired by someone else). Dark stoneware clay, flashing slip, really blasted by the soda vapor. Pretty great! I had another jug like it, a sibling pot, that came out of my firing even better…

But it'll have to wait for the next batch of photos here. Or the next. Yes, I'm drawing this out for a few more weeks, it seems. Time is not on my side these days, I'm afraid, and tw@se is paying the price.

And/but: I'm also enjoying the slow burn of revisiting these images -- and my ideas and feelings about the Adventure -- over a longer span of time. My instinct was to just blast them all up here at once, but I think there are benefits to this constraint, too. Perhaps you agree.

March 17th, 2013

photos!

"The swans are ghosts on the jet black water." - David Gray

Even as the memories fade, and the tyranny of the Here and Now reasserts itself, here are some photos of my great Adventure:

Here's everything I packed from the studio for the trip.

I started out with a lot more -- some of my clay, bats, a couple small batches of dry mixed glaze and some bisqueware -- then decided to leave them all behind and take my chances on the tools and materials I would find at Penland; mostly for fear of overpacking the car on the way there, knowing that I'd need space to bring back pots. But also from a bit too adventurous an assumption that I could go there, start with completely unfamiliar materials, and get enough new pots made to be firing kilns before the halfway mark. In retrospect -- or if I ever get to do something like this again -- I should have taken a little of my clay, at least a batch of a familiar liner glaze and a few dozen biqued pots. Those would have made me less dependant on the qualities of the clay there; with less risk in the first salt firing with liner glazes (eg. not so many eggs in one basket); and added the option to get into the firing phase earlier, and to see my home clays in other kilns and firing cycles.

Also, one of the few disappointments with the studio gear there was the bats. Mine are nice, chunky ones that don't flex, and I loathe throwing on plastic. Especially plastic with the thousand little cavities underneath, which inevitably store some of the clay used by the previous potter. (Which in this case was earthenware; ugh.)

Scenic overlook.

Cindy shot this photo looking out the front window of the house we rented. She shot so many great ones from this vantage point that it's hard to pick just one to share, but I love the color here; the overcast sky behind the trees; the ghostly silouhettes of the lamp inside and the deck chair outside. It feels like what being there felt like.

That's the first light coming over the mountain behind the house, setting the mountain out front on golden fire. The views there were spectacular, not the least because they were such a contrast to our views of flatness back home. I got to see the sun rise and set on that mountainside of trees most of the days we were there (fewer risings, as I often cruised up to the studio before dawn to get an early start, but I made it home for almost every dinner and evening, in time to watch the daylight fade back in the other direction across that infinity of winter trees.

This was my daily commute to the Penland studio

It was about a five minute walk up a short stretch of mountain road, around the curve of the amazing meadow-like swale the slopes downhill from the school. You can't see it for the fog in this photo, but from the front porch of our house I could practically see the window next to my wheel in the clay studio: a straight-line shot of about a half mile. Most mornings, I could tell if I was going to be the first person there (or if I'd lapped the last person to leave) by which lights were on in the buildings up ahead. There were several days of mist, light snow, or a little ice on the road, but I never got rained on once. How's that for luck?

My corner of the studio for the month.

Not as appealing in this night shot; during the day having those banks of windows in both directions was glorious. This treadle wheel -- I assume, based on its copper splash pan -- was made by Doug Gates; probably many years ago. It was a little worse for wear, and the wheelhead wasn't exactly on center (which, I suppose, was good antidote for my perfectionism instincts, but took some getting used to) -- but it was great to be able to work on my preferred wheel type, rather than getting stuck on an electric. Also: who knows which other potters have turned on this wheel? Possibly -- probably -- some of my heros!

(I have it on good authority that this is about where Mark Shapiro sat during that fateful/semi-legendary (at least to me) workshop with Michael Simon in the late 80's. And yes, learning this fact made me do a long, thoughtful pause...)

Just to the right of the previous shot.

For most of the month, there were 6-8 of us sharing the upper clay studio, which has 2-3 times as many people in it during regular class sessions. So it was nice to be able to spread out some, with extra carts, tables and shelving. (But, at the same time, odd to have so much less space than I'm used to in my studio.) This was about midway through the first week; just starting to fill up that warecart.

Pots in progress; i.e. chasing plastic.

Maggie Pixel

Here's my girl, playing with some of my trimmings. Unlike at home, where I've still never quite gotten around to making a space in the studio for her to work/play in, we did this many times at Penland, which was really great. She loves getting her hands into the clay, adding water, using my tools (the sharper the better). It was great to give her space at the table and a ball of clay and just see where she went with it. Sometimes we made stuff together, a few of which I kept and fired, most of the time she just moved the material around and seemed content with that; we might have a "process artist" on our hands, at least until I get in there and mess it up with expectations and the idea of producing product.

The other people working in the studio were really generous about letting her come in and do this, even to the point of loaning her tools to use or letting her watch them work. So it was really cool to have her see other potters working, and to just kind of take in the atmosphere of the place. From the parenting angle, it doesn't get a lot better than that.

Also: so cute!

First bisque of first pots.

Cautious beginning: small bowls, yunomis, test tiles. A new, untested batch of white slip on a new, untested clay. (Ends up it worked great -- no flaking! But I didn't know that then, so I was more cautious with it than I wanted to be.)

"Julia"

Kiln loaded; first salt firing of mostly my stuff. This is my best "what could go wrong?" pose, although I was far from certain about any of it. Photo by my new friend Janice.

Ugh.

Ends up I had good reason to be. The firing went really well -- almost flawlessly, which really improved my sense of what kind of kiln I want to build at home (eg. probably a lot like this one). But the results were pretty disappointing: really dark, over-reduced clay; not nearly enough salt on the ware; shop glazes that didn't resemble their test tiles very much; the old problem of my black underglaze bubbling in too much reduction. More on that next time.

Another shot by Cindy, of the woods behind (well, really, all around) the house.

My walk home most evenings was along this wooded path, which parallelled the road pictured above, running behind the houses. Quiet, drop-dead beautiful, filtered sunlight… that walk each day, even though most of the time I was bone tired, was like my reward for having put in a solid 8 or 10 (or 12) hours in the studio, and a nice transition from that to home life, and dinner, and bath time, etc. I got into a rhythm of going back up to the studio most nights, after Maggie was asleep, for another hour or so; tucking wet pots in for the night, or trimming a few stragglers, or just cleaning up the chaos to allow a fresh start the next morning. I almost never do that at home -- go back to work at night -- except to just go throw plastic over pots that I've let dry through the evening.

But it's something I'd like to try to take away from the "sabbatical" experience, even if just in miniature. That's complicated in my studio, during the winter months, by not running the heat 24/7, like in the luxury of the Penland studio. But the rest of the year I have little excuse not to, beyond lack of willpower. I'm hoping memories of this walk through the woods, or the stealthy nighttime drive back, or how wonderful it is to walk back into the studio first thing the next morning to a clean, ready-to-rock workspace, will help motivate me to do it.

Well, that's about half the trip. It's been fun so far, right? The second half is coming up next week. Thanks for reading.

March 10th, 2013

... and back again

"...its maker has something to say and these needle drops are how he says it." - Alex Pappademas

Well, that was fun.

So I was pretty mysterious about my "potting sabbatical" here, back in January; not so much because I didn't want to advertise that we were going away and for exactly how long and to where (don't be creepy), but more because I had signed myself up for an adventure, of sorts, and had willingly kept myself in the dark about as many of its potential details as possible. I didn't want to know where I was going and what might happen, both for fear of my tendency to inflate expectations beyond all reasonableness, and because it seemed like a lot more fun to just venture out into the wild for a change. It really was.

Me & Maggie at Penland

If you happened to follow my sabbatical blog, or if we're friendly on The Facebook, you already know where I went and much of what I did there. But if you didn't, to spare you the ~13,000 words I wrote trying to explain it along the way, many of them about Hobbits, I'll try to summarize it here.

The family and I spent a month in the mountains of western North Carolina, where I rented space in the clay studio at the Penland School of Crafts. It was my first chance to go 100% in the studio since my ill-fated, short-lived attempt at being a full-time potter five years ago, and it was almost uniformly glorious.

In four weeks, I made over a hundred pots -- that's a lot, for me. I fired two good sized salt/soda kilns and had pots in several other firings. I met and got to hang out with some great potters and other fine people, visited studios and showrooms, explored the mountain roads a bit. It was a great break from all the routines and obligations of home; a chance to pretend to be someone else for a while. And, somewhat unexpectedly, I worked myself to the bone, one amazing and amazingly gratifying day after another.

It was kind of a surreal, fairytale experience: the seclusion, the ability to focus, the intense motivation to make the most of the time and to hit that next firing deadline. The perceived freedom to try new things in the studio -- even if just for the hell of it -- or to do the same old things but to go about them in entirely new ways. The forced perspective was intense: getting to see my "normal" life from a vantage point outside itself, and therefore getting to see myself differently. Perhaps even to see who and what I am (or could be) with all the trappings of "normal" temporarily removed (or potentially changed). Maybe we go away like this to see and do things we can't see or do at home, and also to be people we can't really be there.

And while I don't mean to say that the month away was revelatory -- it's not like I came back feeling transformed, or with a brand new identity, or even with a restocked arsenal of pottery tricks -- in total it was so enjoyably different that in many ways I didn't want to come back. If there was a simple reboot button on many of the bigger choices one can make in life -- where to live, how to work, what to do, how much risk to absorb -- I would have been sorely tempted to push it.

Of course, there isn't, and I didn't.

But... Huh. On second thought, maybe it was more revelatory that I'm giving it credit for. Near the end of our time there, a friend asked what my takeaways from the experience were and I struggled to come up with much of an answer. Sure, I'd learned a lot about those kilns, and about working in a completely different environment, and about certain parts of my studio habits and working process that I'd taken for granted or forgotten to pay attention to, but I couldn't really point at one grand thing and say, "There. I learned that."

But then after we got back, another friend reminded me that these kinds of experiences don't necessarily have a linear impact on us; much of what happened probably happened in ways that are more subtle than is initially obvious. Some of it -- maybe even the really good parts -- will probably take more time to recognize and understand.

Oh, and hey: thanks for indulging my absence here in the meantime. It's nice to be back.

January 27th, 2013

A pause for station identification.

"Bye, I'm on standby. Out of order or sort of unaligned,
powered down for redesign." - Grandaddy

I'm putting tw@se to rest for a while; settling the machine into dark wake mode, letting this field go fallow for a season in hopes of producing better crops later. But that doesn't mean I'm stopping -- indeed not! I've decided to change things up during my "sabbatical" by stirring up trouble over here instead.

I will probably post there a little more often for the duration of this experiment and, I hope, a little differently. Consequently, it will probably also be a little less useful (and/or intelligible) than usual. It might... well, it might turn into just about damn near anything, for all I know now.

So -- here goes nothin'.

January 20th, 2013

Oh dear god, no, please not another post about blogging!

"Thinking about... leaving." - American Football

End of the line.

Yep. Another post about blogging. Please contain your excitement.

So... where to begin? Next week, I'm starting a potting sabbatical. Or, at least, that's how I'm thinking of it. I'll leave out the details of what exactly that means for now, both because I'm not entirely sure yet and because it'll be a more fun as a slow reveal. (Won't it?)

In any case, it should be really different and very interesting; I'm trying to keep my expectations in check, but even so, it's hard to imagine how it won't be pretty great. I'm excited.

After giving it a lot of consideration, I've decided that the perfect companion to that will be to take a blogging sabbatical, too. Naturally, I'm not sure quite what that means yet, either, but it certainly means that some of the constants here will become variables for a while. I'm fairly certain it will be not at St. Earth for a change. As with my potting adventure, the possibilities seem wide open.

I might try a different duration between posts -- anything from multiple times per day to -- I don't know... perhaps even not at all? Or I might try something stylistic, like writing more thematically, or adapting a clever new gimmick. I might lean more heavily on photos -- maybe just a running Tumblr-style list with captions; then again, I might omit them entirely for a while and see what I can do with only words for a change.

It might be an opportunity to see how most other bloggers live, posting through a system like Wordpress or Blogger, instead of my wildly anachronistic, manually-intensive homegrown system here. I still doubt that I'll ever be content working within a system I can't completely customize, but trying one on seems like a good way to find out. Maybe the benefits (auto-generated RSS! drag-and-drop images! updates from any browser!) are worth the compromises (prebuilt templates, excess chrome and wingnuts, the ever-present temptation to turn on comments).

And so... so. I don't know much, I guess. It might be super cool, it might be nothing. But I guess what's inherent in the idea of a sabbatical -- as opposed to a mere vacation -- is that I intend to proceed with working, and probably even more intensively than usual. On the blogging side, that might mean a temporary retreat to regroup in private. After six-plus years of going at it weekly, I'm starting to feel the need to rethink what I'm doing here and why, and if the things it has been are really what I want it to be in the future.

I might spend a lot of time on just a few things -- aiming for quality instead of quantity for a change -- and if that's the case, the visible output will probably be rather sparse. Of course, I'm more likely to do just the opposite. It'd be a hell of a lot of fun to temporarily embargo my self-imposed rule about writing drafts and letting things simmer on the back burner of my brain overnight before serving them up for public consumption. (I suspect that the much more popular practice of hitting "Publish" before there's time for any second thoughts to get in the way triggers some heavy-duty neurochemical reactions.) (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

In any case, I thought I should give you, my tens of regular readers, a polite heads up. In case next week (or weeks) there's nothing new here; or in case tomorrow this spontaneously morphs into something wildly different.

<loop!>

January 13th, 2013

living in an unfinished thing

"The sign of a perpetually restless and unsatisfiable artist chafing against
a lifetime's worth of impossible expectations." - Alex Pappademas

I was hoping to squeeze another meaty post in before next week, but alas, it's not to be. Instead, here's the thin gruel of another top-of-mind ramble; what I've come to think of as my alternative

<loop>

style.

As I think about change, about leaving, about doing the same things in a different place or different things in a different place, I come back to this idea of the loop; that it's all been said before, that I'll likely say it all again in different ways, that sometimes I have to write an awful lot to eventually write anything good. "We are not the apes of a particular prejudice."

Find different ways to make the same mistakes again.

And that loops are OK; they are nature, they are human nature. [Including human imperfection and frailty, of course.] Loops: wrapped up in a tidy, graphically overloaded bit of symbolism -- that sideways eight that mocks us with its immortality, as we age and wheeze and watch hopes and deadlines go flying by like geese headed to different weather.

Because a post needs images like a sword needs a whetstone.

Then again, I've probably already overplayed the whole <loop> thing. While going further behind the scenes into what it was like writing that short piece for CM might not be a big improvement, let's try that instead.

For one thing, it really got me thinking about venue and context. If writing were like sports, with Home and Away games, that was a big Away game, with the season on the line, after an unbroken five year string of comfy Home matches.

It was quite strange; disconcertingly hard but strangely fun, too. In some ways very similar to my normal process and experience, wildly different in others. It's still mostly thinking things out, trying to get at the kernel of an idea or the truth behind the reportable facts, and then put that into words that, hopefully, have some flow and energy to them. But the venue was obviously different; I couldn't escape the awareness that these words were going to end up in a new place, and therefore had more weight or importance to them. I had to imagine a different audience, to form a view of who they were, in aggregate, that I could aim the writing at. And, beyond that, most likely a much, much larger audience, which is frightening and humbling in its own way.

Here, with the words I put on screen week after week, there's so little concern for length or final format. I feel free to get things wrong; to think of everything that goes onto the server as a polished but still first draft. As "seriously" as I take it at times, my general approach is that it's a word playground. Few rules, limited consequences. But suddenly needing to fit a chunk of words into a box yay big on a glossy piece of paper, and knowing that paper will then be duplicated many, many times (I hope) was daunting.

The toughest part was writing to a word count. At 750 words, it was fairly restrictive. Heck, in a typical week here is about the point where I've just finished warming up and started the turn into the crux of the idea. [You just made it through 562 of them.]

I got to a draft that I was happy with, after having two very helpful editorial reads by Cindy and OKG, only to discover that it was still over 900 words. (In the editing, I kept adding back as much as I cut... Duh.) I eventually pared it down to 777 -- almost there! -- but was stuck for anything else to cut without sacrificing too much meaning. As usual, I stumbled into trying to tell too big a version of the story to fit the resources allowed.

In any other week, that limitation is only time and attention -- how much I can say before the timer in my head goes off and I have to move on to other things. But I guess that's the luxury of blogging: unlimited word count, unlimited pixels, and as much time as you can stand to throw at it.

It was hard to write about that particular topic, one I'd agreed to months in advance, whether I really felt compelled to just then or not. I suppose a good thing about assignments is they can help push through self-imposed restrictions or weaknesses: procrastination, laziness. How many weeks do I start out thinking that I'll finally tackle Big Idea X, only to give up mid-draft and veer into easier, safer territory? Lots of them. How many ideas do I have sitting as half-drafts in a text file somewhere, with little motivation to go back and make something of them? Dozens.

Anyways. Now that the writing's done, it's also strange that I have no idea when it might be published -- if it ever is -- or to what extent it will be edited or cut. I've lived in blogging space for so long and, aside from term papers in college, have really only ever written here, that things like controlling the levers that make a particular chunk of text public and having final say over every last detail are just assumed; like gravitational forces, or natural rights rather than assigned privileges.

Signing over those rights -- both in the sense of editorial final cut and the rights to publication -- means I can't repeat what I wrote here, which really nags at my desire for archival completeness. Assuming they ever see the light of day on the glossy page -- and, hopefully, on the magazine's site -- I'll give a heads up here.

Lastly, it seemed a bit odd to be writing for a publication that, while still certainly influential, I've all but given up on paying attention to. (Sorry, CM. I genuinely mean no offense. But I've got to go with both-barrels honesty here, as usual.) As I've written before, my days as a subscriber to that magazine (and most ceramics magazines) are long gone. A recent resampling didn't do much to change my desire to read it, despite some notable improvements to the product in the intervening years.

Unfortunately, to my tastes and for my needs, it's still too heavy on sculpture. And I can't escape the conclusion that it features a fair amount of rather weak writing (I don't except my future self from that judgement, either). And it is frequently, probably unavoidably overwhelmed by its advertising. The content would have to be pretty damn spectacular to make me face down another of those full page ads of a kiln load of Vegas Red; luxurious, can't-miss, premixed Cone 6 glazes; classified ads for fully stocked "potteries" in some resort town for only a few million dollars, give or take; and back pages littered with studio gadgets like self-centering clay or yet another variation on a Giffin Grip.

(Surely there are even worse contemporary examples than those. I'm relishing the fact that I have to really dig into my memory to recall what sort of horrors used to lie outside the content boxes of the typical issue.)

All of which, perhaps, screams the question: Why did I take the assignment?

Answer: I don't know.

Certainly not for the money -- it's unpaid work. I'd be happy for a free t-shirt out of the deal, and will likely have to settle a copy of the issue.

The chance to blah my words at a larger audience? Perhaps. But what audience do I imagine that being? Potential future tw@se readers? Hardly! Students and potting beginners, their minds susceptible to my skewed, corrupting views of the ceramic universe? Maybe. If there's a rabble out there, I'm probably guilty of wanting to rouse it, at least a little bit. Fellow Dreamers, future or past, successful or failed, who might somehow benefit from hearing my heavily-condensed, cringe-worthy story? Yes. Probably, mostly, that one. I felt more obligated to say yes than interested, like I was being asked to contribute my little bit to the larger picture, and that it would be selfish to withhold it.

Without a doubt, I have debts to pay to the community of potters that raised me in clay. I was given so many five gallon buckets full of free advice, encouragement, technical knowledge, inspiration, you name it, that I feel a duty, an obligation, to repay it with whatever I can contribute to the potters' hive mind. Despite the hubris required to believe that my experience in the realm of KTD is unique enough, or considered enough, or well-stated enough to be valuable to someone else, I guess I believe it is. I hope so.

<loop>

January 6th, 2013

new new year

"The river to the ocean flows, a fortune for the undertow.
I've got to leave to find my way." - R.E.M.

Sometimes you have to scrape away the old to make room for the new.