Vanity and chasing after wind

Although I’ve committed to writing a blog entry every week, I usually have no idea what I want to write about until I sit down on Sunday evening. Tonight I ask myself “what have I learned this week?” – and several nuggets come to mind.

  • I was reminded – again – that I have to regulate my media diet. As I posted in an earlier blog about “right involvement,” there’s paying attention to bear witness, then there’s being consumed by the hysteria and hyperbole that passes for political discourse. I’m getting better at closing the browser window when I feel my blood pressure rise.
  • I was reminded that it’s possible to improve by being aware of one’s shortcomings, focusing on how to overcome them, and putting that learning into practice. There’s a bowl turning story here I’ll get to shortly.
  • After a week of not-very-inspiring work I learned that there are limits on how long I can go without some “juice” or passion in my work day.
  • I learned/remembered that the race is not always to the swift, not the battle to the strong.  The American Educational Research Association annual meeting is coming around, and so is ample opportunity to compare my professional life to those of friends and colleagues. I’m getting tired of my inner narratives that say I “fizzled,” or “didn’t live up to my potential” professionally. When I stop comparing, I’m happy with where I am and where I’m headed, and am resolved to use this year’s conference as an opportunity to reconnect with my interests and passions.

I worked on two projects this week that followed different trajectories. First, the bowl project. As I alluded to in my last blog post, I started over with a solid block of wood to keep my design constraints relatively free. Overall, this was a very successful strategy. I turned the outside profile of the bowl, actually finish sanded and oiled it, and turned my attention to hollowing out the inside.  Wham! the bowl (now a solid piece of wood) goes flying off the lathe, into the wall, and onto the concrete floor.  Bruised, but otherwise fine.  Re-mount it, start to hollow… and wham! off it goes again, this time splitting the spigot I was using to chuck it to the lathe.  Uh oh.  Clearly I’m doing something wrong.  So I re-glue the spigot and hit the books.

It turns out that, yes, my approach to hollowing was off in a couple of ways. First, I should have been making steep cuts starting near the center and pushing directly in toward the bottom. That is, I should have been taking shavings “down” the bowl.  Instead, I was cutting “across” the top, which made dangerous “catches” more likely.  Also, I was using way too much force.  So I sharpened up the gouges, re-chucked the bowl, and started making gentle cuts down the center.  No catches!  I needed a lot of patience – it took 2 or 3 hours to get most of the bowl hollowed out – and lots of tool re-grinding (it turns out rosewood is both one of the hardest woods to turn and one that dulls tools most quickly). But I made it through the entire rough hollowing, finish hollowing, and finish shaping without losing it once. I’d actually learned something, and reinforced it through practice.  (Normally I’d post a picture of the bowl, but it’s a gift for a friend, and I don’t want to spoil the surprise. It will make an appearance some week soon)

I still ran into problems – I nearly turned the bottom too thin, and as the walls thinned “chatter” set in and caused some scoring on the inner walls.  It took lots of sanding to get those marks out – I couldn’t manage to do it with a gouge, and had pretty much run out of extra wood to play with (not to self – when I think a bowl wall is a little too thick, it’s probably going to be just right by the time I’m done with finish cuts). But in the end, it’s one of the prettiest bowls I’ve made to date. I took great satisfaction both in conquering my learning challenge and in producing a nice piece.

Now for the second project. A paper for the upcoming conference, that I only reluctantly submitted a conference proposal for in the first place. (Because so many of my projects are collaborative – as opposed to most university work where there’s a single principal investigator and a team of graduate students – I ended up submitting this “for the team”). So from the get go, my heart was not in this paper. I won’t go into a lot of reasons why – it’s enough to say there’s no “juice” in it for me.  But it pays for my ticket to New Orleans next month.

Both projects were struggles this week. The bowl was frustrating and even a bit scary – I just didn’t now how I was going to keep the bowl from detaching itself and launching into whatever happened to be in the way. But taking a break for reflection and re-reading an expert’s writings helped take the mystery out of the problem. I’d probably read this particular book chapter 3 or 4 times, but now (having a specific problem in mind) I paid attention to particular details (the angle of the gouge in particular, and the direction of force) and had an “aha!” moment.

The paper is a struggle in another sense. The only challenge is organizing a very complicated process with lots of moving parts into a coherent narrative. Basically, we’re trying to describe something that on paper appears to be a neat and orderly engineering design/prototyping process, but in reality had lots of fits and starts, a bit of “hacking around” to get us moving, and significant revisions to the original ideas that launched the project.  How to tell this story coherently is a challenge.  It too has some “aha” moments (such as when my colleague helps me remember why we made some decisions that weren’t making sense to me), but it’s not been satisfying to write.

I think it comes down to two qualities, and those are lessons I’ve learned and apparently have to keep re-learning until they become habituated: personal expression and making a difference for somebody.  I get engaged when I’m writing/building/crafting something that has some of “me” in it. The bowl – as simple as the shape was – followed my own aesthetic judgments. The paper feels like a regurgitation of a historical process.  Yes, I had input into that process, and directed portions of it, but it feels like a pretty indirect expression of my ideas.

The bowl is a gift for a couple.  If I’m lucky, they’ll both appreciate it, actually use it, and keeping it as a decorative object will enhance the beauty of their home. The impact won’t really reach beyond them (and their occasional dinner guests). The paper will be read by at least one person (the discussant at the conference panel), and might be downloaded by one or two dozen curious individuals. Will it have an impact on anybody’s (professional) life?  Personally, I doubt it. And if it does, it could easily lead down a path I don’t support (basically, it’s about designing tests for college students, and the last thing we need to do is impose more external testing on institutions).

So tomorrow I’m back to work at my day job, wrapping up this paper and sending it off into the ether. I’ll be in “satisfaction deficit” by the end of this week, and really need to turn my attention to more meaningful work (which, thankfully, I’ll have opportunities to do). I hope to be able to deliver my bowl this week too, and am keeping my fingers crossed that my friends like it. Not for egotistical reasons (although I enjoy a good compliment as much as anyone), but because I genuinely want them to be happy with it. That personal connection means a lot to me, perhaps more than the larger academic audience that might read my “day job” productions.

I’ll close with a favorite line from Ecclesiastes(12:12):

Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.


I’m not a biblical scholar or reader by any stretch, but an old employer/mentor/former book publisher and theologian turned me onto Ecclesiastes.  “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”   Basically, my reading of it cautions against “chasing after wind” – acquiring material riches for their own sake, or spouting off to gain in reputation. Overall, it’s a constant reminder that all turns to dust.  Perhaps this isn’t the intended meaning, but I also take from it the reminder that relationships and love – in the here and now – are precious things. While they too eventually turn to dust, they give our lives meaning and depth that mere “production” for the sake of production cannot.


2 thoughts on “Vanity and chasing after wind

  1. Pingback: Metaphors of effort « The Learning Curve

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