The Joy of Work



I don’t know what there is about the latest from my woodworking shop that pleases me so; I just know that it does. And by latest, I don’t mean the unfinished hutch in process. We call it a hutch because that’s the purpose it will serve when finished, but it will actually be a short base cabinet with countertop beneath a short run of wall cabinets. For ease of construction—and also as a sort of practice run for the kitchen to follow—I’m making three separate base cabinets, as you see here, which will be followed by three separate wall cabinets, although I have every confidence I could just as easily have made two long cabinets.


But to return to “the latest,” I mean just that, the stack of slatted shelves on top of the center cabinet. When finished, these will be roll-out shelves for the wine cabinet that will comprise the unit at the far right. Truthfully, making them was pretty straight-forward. They’re just slats I cut to length and then glued to the long pieces that run top and bottom. Over the years I’ve done any number of glued-up projects that were considerably more difficult, but these just had such a satisfying look to them when I removed the clamps. I liked them even before I ran them through the thickness sander. And even now, looking at them unfinished, I find myself feeling very pleased with how they came out for reasons I’m not sure I can explain.


It’s not even a pride of creation because none of this is really mine. My blogging partner Joe Dusel gave me the idea of making roll-out shelves instead of fixed shelves for the wine. When they’re finished, they will have the obligatory crenellated front piece to help hold the bottles in place, although this particular shelf relies more on the slats you see here. They’re designed to trap the bottles in the open spaces, thereby ensuring that the bottles will not roll about. And that, in turn, is a detail I got online from someone who was happy to share her designs with others. So none of it is mine, and none of it is new, really, but still, there is just something so very gratifying in how it all fit together and finished out so well.


And here’s the coup de grâce. Once the project is finished, no one will pay the slightest bit of attention to these shelves as you see them here because they will not see them. Oh, you’ll see them when you roll out the shelves to retrieve or store a bottle of wine, but really now, who stops to admire slats that have been placed just so? Who will even care about the configuration of these shelves, other than him who made them?


Woodworking is like that, though. It’s an endless parade of details, none of which can be said to matter all that much unless you choose to consider the final picture. In the end of course, the whole is made up of the many details that went into it. Do a poor job on any of them and the project suffers, and I think this is true whether it’s readily noticeable or not. Once a joint is glued not even another woodworker can tell if it’s held together with dowels, biscuits, mortise-and-tenon, or nothing at all–a simple butt joint. But that detail matters because it determines the strength and longevity of the finished project. More than that, caring to that extent is proof positive that one has chosen the correct vocation.


Quality is everything. And in that sense, it’s also a bit of commentary on workmanship these days. “The Reckoning” by David Halberstam is a book that compared the American car industry to the Japanese. One of the incidents I found especially compelling was when some executives from Detroit were touring a Japanese car factory. They asked where the inspectors at the end of the assembly line were and where the yard for rejected cars that would require remedial actions to correct detected flaws. They were told that “each man on the line does his own quality control” and knew then that they were no longer able to compete with the Japanese in quality.


The whole idea of the project at hand is to ensure that one can store and retrieve wine bottles for decades, never giving the process a second thought. If the bottles must be placed just so to prevent their clinking together, it’s a fail. Success is when it works so well that people are really not conscious of its working at all. It has then a grace all its own; it’s a project that works.



The First of Forty Carats





“World Enough and Time”


“HAD we but world enough, and time,  

This coyness, Lady, were no crime  

We would sit down and think which way  

To walk and pass our long love’s day.”

—Andrew Marvell


If I didn’t read as much as I do, I’m not sure I would know what serendipity is, but whether I understand the term or not, it favors my life all the same. For those who are not familiar with the word, it’s a gift for making pleasant, valuable or useful discoveries by accident. It happened to me earlier this month when I went in search of our annual Christmas Ornament. We were married in 1976, just a few years after Hallmark started making their dated ornaments. Christine was quite taken by the idea, and we’ve gotten one every year since. This year when I went in search of an ornament, I was really thinking of an impossible theme for it: Janus.


Janus is my favorite of the Roman gods. He’s the god of beginnings and endings and is usually depicted as having two faces, the better to enable him to look both forward and backward. I’m told that January is not actually named for Janus, but I frankly don’t believe that, simply because it fits so nicely with the god Janus and with what he represents and with what the month of January has come to mean to people in general and me in particular over the years. It has always been my most productive month, and also the month when I do the most work and make the most plans for the year to follow.


That’s what makes this ornament absolutely perfect—its timing in our lives. This January represents considerably more than just another new year; it’s the beginning of a new season, a much bigger transition than Christine and I have previously shared with each other for a number of reasons. I can begin with the main title of this blog because the 40 Carats I’ve referenced is intended to show that 2016 is the year of our 40th wedding anniversary. Anyone who has read any of my occasional blogs on marriage over the years knows how very happy the two of us are in our relationship. With such a significant milestone approaching, I thought it might be fun to write a little about some of the things we have learned about happy marriages over the years. So this will be the first in an occasional series that I mean to eventually take out to 40 Life Lessons, as it were.


The other aspect is a bit darker—or hopeful, depending on your prospective. But anyone married as long as we have been is clearly no longer young, and in the coming year she will finally retire. There are some who will see the cloud in that much more than the silver lining, the kind of people who give work their all, to such an extent, really, that once they retire, the boredom just damned near kills them. Without their jobs they no longer have any meaning in their lives. And now that same fate is upon us—or soon will be—but only if we think of it as fate, not future.


I have deliberately posted this on December 21st, the Winter Solstice, because for us it is very much the beginning of the winter of our lives, and we know that. Even so, it is a time we are very much looking forward to. I cannot tell you how often we have come to a Monday and remarked that “it was a good weekend,” when the truth is we didn’t do a damned thing. But for us it really was a good weekend—and for the simplest of reasons: we spent it together. It’s pretty much all we’ve ever needed.


We were married in another city and very nearly another time. Gasoline was 35 cents a gallon, electricity was affordable, the middle class still prospered, and leisure suits were all the rage. We worked at the Long Beach newspaper at the time, and Christine soon became a department secretary for one of the advertising departments. Every year they had an elaborate Christmas luncheon, but only some of the employees were allowed to go, which necessarily produced quite a bit of jockeying for position and hurt feelings for many of those left out. Christine was on the Invitation List, but when she saw the bad blood that was developing she threw up her hands and said, “To tell you the truth, I’d rather have a peanut butter sandwich with Joe!” She was rewarded with a horrified gasp and immediately assured one and all that she was kidding, but really, she wasn’t.


Christine sometimes worries about our future in the Golden Years, but I never have. She has no fears of how she will spend her days without a job because so much of it has been dealing with people’s problems and idiosyncrasies and irascibilities and miscues and hurt feelings and god knows what all. How she’s made it through with that marvelous, infectious laugh intact is beyond me. But miss all that? Not on your life. But she does worry about the money sometimes, and I always tell her the same thing. We are a very cheap date, always have been. On our honeymoon we were going to drive around California. We went to San Diego for a few days (we lived in Orange County at the time), then drove up to Santa Barbara, the first stop of half a dozen we’d planned, if memory serves. That night we were sitting in the room sharing a beer when we looked at each other, and said almost simultaneously “You know what? Let’s just go home. We can travel some other time. Let’s just enjoy being married.” Some thirty-nine years later we are still doing just that!


We’re not looking forward to retirement to travel places or go to fancy restaurants or expensive outings. We just want to do the one thing we have yearned for all these years. We want to spend time with each other. Elsewhere I have written about that first date on April 3, 1976, but as I left her apartment at two o’clock in the morning, a song title immediately popped into my head: “Never Can Say Goodbye.” And from that date to this, I have always felt that way about her.


For some years now we have gotten up half an hour earlier just to enjoy a cup of coffee with each other before we begin our days. On the weekends it’s even nicer because we’re not relegated to just half an hour. Almost invariably, she is the one who will eventually say, “OK, I don’t want to get lazy, so I need to get going so I can do such-and-such.” For myself I could easily spend the rest of the day on the couch with her, and if there just weren’t so many things that have to get done on weekends when you’re working, she’d sit longer too. And that, really, is the one thing we most anticipate from our new life—time to do the things we really want to do instead of forever chasing after the things we have to do.


So, perhaps that could be our first carat in this series: no matter how many children, jobs, or other responsibilities may come along, you began with only two. Don’t let that get buried under the prosaic necessities of life. Make time for each other. And a world.



The Biblical Threescore and Ten






“The days of our years are threescore years and ten.” Psalm 90:10


I think if my father had not become so obsessed with the Biblical threescore and ten that today’s birthday, my own seventieth, would have passed as not much more than another day. Oh, there would have been some fuss, simply because the passing decades always engender a bit of that. As we age, we tend to laugh a bit at those turning thirty and thinking themselves old, but there eventually comes a time when we can no longer deny the passing years. That said, I have to admit that I don’t really feel seventy today. In my mind I’m—oh, I don’t know forty or so—but I have but to vocalize that thought to have my body shout “In your dreams, pal!” Sixty was nothing, but I have now begun accumulating the aches and pains of the aged. Nothing major: just sore knees and a loss of flexibility. Beyond those very minor issues, I have been blessed with extraordinarily good health, which surely accounts for my looking so much younger than my age. I have never been hospitalized, never had a major ailment of any kind, which means, too, that I have not had to endure the debilitating pain that is the lot of so many. There are people who cannot move without screaming in pain, and that sort of thing will definitely create a few wrinkles in one’s face.


In thinking about this blog, I briefly considered sharing lessons gleaned over the years, but W. Somerset Maugham did that so much better with his “The Summing Up,” published when he turned sixty-five, that it would be an embarrassment to add anything of my own in that regard. I do think I’m a bit wiser than I was fifty years ago, but that’s so common an occurrence that it really merits little in the way of observation. For all my reticence on the subject, though, I don’t mind saying that I feel very blessed to have seen things that have now passed away.


I grew up in Helena, Montana, and because that city is so far off the beaten track, we still got radio comedies and dramas in the early 1950s. I can remember lying on the floor in front of the Philco in the second or third grade listening to “Sky King” and “Fibber McGee and Molly.” We got our first TV when I was eight years old, which means that my younger sisters (nine and eleven years younger) never knew a world without television. I did. And it was in Helena where the local radio station demonstrated stereophonic sound for the first time in our lives. We were instructed to set up two radios at opposite ends of the living room. When they finally played the sound of a freight train that seemed for all the world to actually be going through our living room, the Old Man was literally jumping up and down with excitement. “Can you hear it, kids, can you hear it!”


In September, 2007, AT&T announced that their Time-of-Day information service would be discontinued, an item I found particularly intriguing because I can remember how fascinated we all were when it started in Helena back in the 1950s. For a while we kids dialed the number with some frequency, still not yet able to get our arms around such a concept. AUTOMATED Time-of-Day on the telephone! What would they think of next? Well, as it turns out, we now have three computers, two cell phones, and a TV cable box that have filled that role quite nicely, to such an extent, really, that when AT&T pulled the plug on the Time-of-Day service, it no longer even mattered.


The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but I saw it in person as a young soldier stationed in Berlin in 1965 and 1966. At that time the Soviet Union was such a behemoth that no one could foresee an end to it, yet alone its total collapse.


I remember the Soviet Union launching Sputnik I in 1957 and the rush for the USA to catch up, a race so intense in the beginning that they had a tendency to go off half-cocked, causing a number of rather spectacular missile failures in the early years. As a high school freshman I was part of a group that was putting together tiny missiles, none of which, if memory serves, did much more than fizzle almost immediately after launch.


The one thing I’ve seen that most resonates with me on this seventieth birthday is my parents’ example. I started this by saying the Old Man was obsessed with it, and he really was. It was thirty-four years ago (when I was just thirty-six!), and he kept remarking on how difficult he found it to be attaining the Biblical threescore and ten. I gave him the Banzai Tree that tops this blog along with a card that explained it. A bonsai plant, I told him, surely required more attention than he would be willing to give it in his “declining years,” but this creation of jade, copper wire, and petrified wood was a Banzai Tree from the Japanese for “live for ten thousand years.” When he finally passed to glory some eight years later, I inherited it, and it’s been in our home ever since. It feels more than passing strange to have finally attained the age that made this gift appropriate for the one we always called the Old Man.


But beyond his difficulty with the number seventy was Dad’s reaction to it. He enjoyed excellent health, but upon turning seventy he started to shuffle and did so until he died at age seventy-eight. My mother was twelve years younger than he and died just a week short of twelve years later (both of them in late December), also at age seventy-eight. She said at the onset that she was NOT going to be an old woman, and she never was. She was wise enough not to dress like a twenty-something, but she never looked frumpy, never wore house dresses, and never once shuffled.


At the moment I am still much too busy with my many woodworking projects to start shuffling, but even when that work is finished, and I can spend more time in the study with a stack of books, I will still not shuffle. Age really is just a number, not a physical condition.


Finally, saving the best for last, I am still having entirely too much fun with my wife of thirty-eight years to ever feel old. We’ve often said that we’re childless because we felt that as parents, there should be at least one adult in the house, and neither one of us wanted the job! All these years later we still cut up with each other, still tease each other mercilessly, still laugh about something every day, usually a LOT of somethings!


I met Christine where we worked, the Long Beach Press-Telegram, and I knew her some two years before we ever got together. At Christmas, 1975, when we were still just friends, I gave her a little book of poems by James Kavanaugh, not knowing that the following year and every year thereafter it would be on the nightstand on my side of our bed. The last stanza of the first poem sums things up quite nicely:


“There are men too gentle to live among wolves

Who toss them like a lost and wounded dove.

Such gentle men are lonely in a merchant’s world,

Unless they have a gentle one to love.”


I did find that gentle one to love, and that, more than anything else, has made “the Biblical threescore and ten” just another birthday. Or as Maya Angelou famously put it, “wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.”