Mastery and other paths

Once again, the commitment to write – something! – at least weekly is turning out to be an interesting challenge. Some weeks are rather “ordinary,” where there are no grand epiphanies to be written about. What to write on these ordinary weeks? I suppose look back on the ordinary moments and see what themes emerge.

Last Tuesday I went for a trail run (first one of the season). Near the trailhead is a site where the city tree trimmers drop off the logs and limbs from major trees they’ve taken down. Local scavengers (the 2-legged variety) come by to take home some free firewood, while others (like myself) look for wood to squirrel away in our shops.  On Tuesday there were a couple of folks there with a portable saw mill slicing up some nice redwood slabs.  I was limited to what I could physically lift and carry over to the trunk of my car (as well as what I could store in my garage/shop), so I walked away with a couple of pieces of oak, what looked like crotches and other gnarly pieces with severed limbs and knots sticking every which way out of it.  These can often hold beautiful gems of wood grain on the inside.

I split one piece in half, chucked it onto the lathe (without even rough-cutting it into a circle), and started turning away the outer bark. There were some inclusions (bark that had grown inward between the limbs that met in the crotch) that promised an interesting pattern. Of course, they were also structural weaknesses – would the bowl hold once I started hollowing and thinning the walls?  Well, as the pictures below show, it stayed together.

That was a good exercise over the course of a couple of evenings. Having free wood to play with allows me to experiment and take chances with design choices – I have nothing to lose but my time, and even that is in service of learning and improving. As it turns out I might have tweaked the profile of the final bowl just a little, but overall (so far) it looks like a serviceable bowl for serving nuts or snacks at a party.  Whether it survives the drying process (which could take several months) is another question. “Green” bowls distort upon drying, and the structural weaknesses in the wood could decide to give way.  That’s part of the delayed learning process.

So this project was a small learning segment on a much longer journey of mastery. In fact, that’s what most of the week was like: I learned a little bit more about some technical aspects of my day job, had some minor breakthroughs in my relationship, continued practicing music… just staying open and aware and letting the learning happen.

The late George Leonard wrote a book on “Mastery.”  A PDF copy can be found here at scribd. It’s a fun, easy read, and very insightful. A keen observer of human learning (his own and his Aikido students), he’s characterized some typical “paths” that we take as learners. His characterizations have what we in the biz call “face validity” – we recognize the truth in them intuitively.

First up, the path of mastery:

If you think of the vertical dimension as “progress” in a general sense, and the horizontal dimension as time, this is Leonard’s take on the master’s path. It involves lots of time spent on plateaus, simply practicing our practice. Then (although the detail isn’t apparent in this diagram, but I’ve heard him describe it this way), things start to fall apart – there’s a small dip before the growth spurt. Growth tends to happen in spurts, and then there’s a settling back down into another plateau. As they say on the bottle: lather, rinse, repeat. This is mastery.

There are a couple of critical components to this path. The first is that most time is spent making very little discernible progress. That can be very discouraging to people who like instant gratification or quick fixes. The second is the somewhat chaotic nature of the growth spurts. In particular, that sense of things actually getting worse before they start to really improve is paradoxical, but I believe it signifies the beginning of some significant cognitive/neurological/whatever reorganizations. A time of “things falling apart” is emphatically not the time to give up in the pursuit, but to hang in there just a little while longer – great learnings are just around the corner.

Leonard’s three other paths are pathological cases (no pun intended) of how we fall off the path of mastery.

The Dabler

The dabler’s path is to start something with enthusiasm, experience that first rapid growth spurt, but when the inevitable plateau comes around say to oneself “this is it? I’m bored… time to move on”.  Variations on this theme include “I guess I wasn’t cut out for this” or “I guess I have no talent.”  So we move onto different activities or fields, and experience the same dynamic…

The Obsessive

The obsessive dives in 110% to a new activity. S/he attempts to prolong that initial growth spurt through increasing effort, refusing to accept any form of the plateau. “If you’re not growing you’re dying” is the motto.  Ultimately this simply isn’t sustainable – nobody can keep improving at a constant pace forever (I claim that as if it’s a fact, but it’s just a generalization from personal observation. If anybody knows of a counter-example, please fill me in!).  In athletics we see the injury-prone athlete who doesn’t know how to recover or taper effort.

The Hacker

This one is my personal nemesis.  The hacker starts off looking a lot like the path of mastery. Growth spurts, plateaus, more growth spurts. But then there’s that plateau that never seems to end. What’s happening here is the appearance of steady practice, but not masterful practice. And although I cite this as my personal bugaboo, we all probably do all of these in various areas of our lives. I enjoy bicycling, but my mountain biking skills haven’t noticeably improved over the past decade. When I was training for a century I was on a good mastery path, but then ramped down the effort during the fall and winter. My history with music is one of very long plateaus, dropped interest, and then a long time spent regaining the facility I had when I last stopped.

(Well, I guess I found something to write about, even if it’s just reflecting on someone else’s writing)

I’d like to – obviously – stay on the path of mastery in as much of my life as possible. I’m doing it in my primary relationship – I’ve experienced more steady, genuine growth here than in any other time of my life, and have also never worked as diligently at it. I’m trying to stay attentive to my growth in woodworking and woodturning. The challenge for me at the moment (as has been the case in the past) is musical – staying at it when sometimes what I’m playing doesn’t flow very well.

Flow. Leonard cites Csikszentmihalyi’s work on Flow as being a characteristic state of one on the master’s path. In my day job as a researcher I experience flow frequently, getting lost in my work, not knowing where the time has gone.  That’s one place I don’t worry about falling off the master’s path. Similarly in the woodshop – I can stay at a task all day, plodding along at a relaxed pace, engrossed with what I’m doing.  I think the trick for me in music is to find the style and level that lets me flow. I’ve played mostly classical guitar, which is technically demanding and not always the most soul-satisfying genre of music. I’m been branching out more this past year, taking classes in celtic and folk music, trying to find that style that makes it effortless to pick up an instrument and practice on a daily basis.

So there – I found something to write after all.  I do recommend Leonard’s book (available on Amazon and probably still in print at brick-and-mortar stores) as a fun read, particularly for my friends in education. And of course, I’d love to hear your own stories of mastery (and/or other paths) in the comments section below.

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.

Freedom, constraint, and design

Mike Darlow, in his book Woodturning Design, writes:

Perhaps a major reason for the popularity of bowl turning is the belief that you can produce a good bowl without having to do any formal design in advance. The wood is supposed to “speak” to you and thus empower you to free the wondrous bowl hidden within the unpromising blank – I may be deficient in the necessary spirituality, but wood doesn’t speak to me all that often or all that clearly.

Darlow is not exaggerating about the mythos of wood “speaking” to the turner. Many “artists statements” accompanying gallery turnings contain similar language – so-and-so follows the natural properties of the wood and is never sure what is going to emerge in advance. The remainder of Darlow’s book argues that 1) good design is critical to avoid a lot of wasted time (and wood), and 2) the only way to become expert enough to “listen” to wood is to have spent a lot of labor turning out well-designed turnings.

I start with Darlow’s quote because I turned out a very unsatisfying bowl earlier in the week. The sides were too steep, and took a sharp curve into a non-footed bottom.  The shape was, frankly, dumpy.  Too deep for its width, too.  Sadly, I used a really pretty block of rosewood and some uniformly black ebony in the construction – good material gone to a “learning opportunity.”

The shape that I turned out was not the one I intended to make.  I actually did lay out a design and thought I’d dimensioned the critical rings of the bowl blank to fit. It turns out (no pun intended) I made some technical errors in constructing the rings that limited the amount of material I had to work with. Once I knocked the corners off of the wood, I didn’t have a lot of extra thickness left with which to slope the sides. That, and I probably just wasn’t paying close enough attention overall.

So today I decided to start over, and rather than construct a segmented bowl, I’m starting the “old fashioned” way with a solid block of wood (well, actually 3 layers face-glued together – two thick slabs of rosewood topped by a 1/2 inch of curly maple for the rim).  Even for designs where segmentation isn’t used as a decorative feature, I’ve been trying to use a segmented (stacked concentric ring) design in order to save precious wood. The “traditional” method entails using a solid block (or just half a log, sometimes from a freshly fallen tree) and hollowing out the interior on the lathe (as opposed to “designing in” the hollow by building the rough bowl up from concentric rings). This generates an impressive volume of shavings, and when turning large bowls, there’s often enough wood in the interior to create a whole new smaller bowl, if it could be salvaged.

But at this point I’m tired of taking a week to cut and glue the rings (with several overnight drying steps in the middle). I’m going to start with a solid block.  This way I can shape the outer contour to exactly what I’m looking for, and then hollow out the middle to match. I’m not exactly going to let the wood “speak” to me (I know what shape I’m roughly after), but there is going to be some fine-tuning as I look at what I’ve wrought and tinker with the proportions.  It’s also true, as an artist/educator once told me, that one never approaches the canvas with a completely worked out idea of what the painting will be. The partially finished painting “talks back” to the painter, and through this dialog the artist discovers what s/he really meant to be putting down on canvas.

This experience has led me to think through these concepts of design, constraints, and freedom.  By starting with a single block of wood, I’m imposing minimal constraints: the overall diameter and height of the bowl. Wide rim, narrow rim, S-curve, concave, out-flowing… there are a gazillion design choices available with that block. When I sketch an outline and plan the rings of a segmented bowl, I’m pretty much freezing in place the profile I’ve sketched. This is fine, as long as 1) I’m sure the profile I sketched on paper will look good in 3 dimensions, and 2) I don’t make any technical mistakes that result in an altered profile.

Another way to think about this is to ask “when do critical choices get made?”  If I sketch up front and construct rings to match, all of my design choices are locked in before I’ve started to actually see the 3-d product.  If I start with a solid block of wood, I’m making a series of micro-decisions every time I shave a little more wood off the bowl.  Like sculpting marble, this is a “subtractive” process – we can’t add wood back on once we’ve shaved it off. In fact, if I’m puzzling over a particularly important cut, I can stop the lathe, stare at it, or even go take a break and come back.

The price I pay for leaving lots of options open is to waste extra material.  In a sense, I have the wood available to make an infinite variety of bowls, and with each cut, I cut away some of those possibilities until what’s left is my final product. This, then, seems to be the trade-off:  leave my options open, but possibly waste a lot of resources.  Or, plan for efficient use of material, but constrain my choices down the road.

Somehow I feel like this touches a life lesson.  I’ve seen similar issues come up in software design – when do you lock down design choices?  In the early 1990’s Apple and IBM combined forces to create a new operating system by co-founding the Taligent corporation. Taligent eventually folded without ever producing a product, and some of my friends at the time suggested a big part of the problem was that nobody was willing to constrain design decisions. All of the code was to be “object oriented” and fully extensible, to a fault. By leaving lots of room for flexibility in the design, they never actually produced anything (of course, that’s not the whole story, but a relevant part).

In my current work as an education researcher I often see a tension between pre-specifying research questions and a design on the one hand, and desiring fully open-ended exploration on the other. Sometimes when we lay out questions, instrumentation, and samples well in advance, we only discover mid-way through that we should have been asking a different question, or talking to a different population, and by then it’s too late to change course. On the other hand, were we to keep all of our options open, we could potentially waste a lot of money chasing down dead ends, talking to the wrong people, and ultimately never publishing any findings.

So – my thought for the week. Awareness of design choices, constraints, and trade-offs. I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about this – just that I’ve experienced it in art, engineering, and research.  It’s feeling like one of those “universal truths” that needs to be condensed into a pithy nugget (which means somebody has probably already done so).

Read, do, re-read, do…

“The lesson will be repeated until learned.”  That’s the theme of my recent foray into segmented bowl turning. I just had my third disaster at the lathe (for those that are counting, that’s 3 of the most recent 3 bowl projects) making exactly the same mistake as I’d made the first and second time. Does this qualify me as learning disabled?

I posted a short video in my last blog entry illustrating the problem – I made a heavy cut using a chuck (a device for holding the workpiece on the lathe) intended for light finishing passes. The wood is held on largely by friction against rubber stoppers, and any significant shock will tear the workpiece from the chuck. The first time I made this mistake, the bowl shattered. Episode #2 (in the video) resulted in a gluable crack, but the bowl was saved. Episode #3 (yesterday) was only on a ring segment to a bowl, but the ring was large and thick, spun off directly into my face (yes, I wear a face shield for a reason) before hitting the floor and shattering into 3 pieces. I’m pretty sure I can re-glue the segments without obvious flaws, but that’s yet another side-track on this project.

So why do I keep making the same mistake?  Obviously, the lesson hasn’t sunk in, although I’m hoping the 3rd time is the charm. What has struck me, though, is that all of the bowl turning guides essentially warn against this, and I’ve read them all diligently. Book learning was clearly insufficient to prevent this error, and even repeated experience required, well, repetition.  But now when I go back and re-read the wood turning books, the wisdom in their recommendations makes sense in a way it couldn’t have without these disasters under my belt.

My bible for this project (The Art of Segmented Wood Turning by Malcolm Tibbetts) suggests building up projects from bottom up – true the bottom, glue on a ring, true the ring, repeat.  This keeps the working surface co-planar with the bottom and other rings (as opposed to the method where all the rings are flattened on a sander and glued up in a bunch, as I’ve previously done). I fully intended to use that method on this bowl, but somewhere in my excitement to “keep moving” I decided to flatten the main middle ring separately, and that’s when disaster struck.  Using Tibbetts process, the bowl is very securely chucked with proper fastening – using my “modification”, the ring is only attached with a friction fit, and as I realized in the post-mortem, wouldn’t necessarily be flush against the plane of the chuck, anyway.

Enough of the wood turning technicalities. I’m starting to think about instructional guides and their proper use. I have a colleague who is taking an advanced statistical methods class at Stanford, that on the one hand should be “review” for techniques we’ve all been practicing for years, and on the other is intended to revisit them at a deeper level and highlight some of the essential errors and misconceptions we may be unconsciously carrying forward.  I studied under the same professor and encountered many of the same ideas in my first or second year of graduate school, before I had any real-world experience in statistical modeling. While I could follow his reasoning and nod my head, I didn’t have any context for understanding why these were so important (or just not patently obvious). It wasn’t until I’d been practicing in the field for several years that I saw the seduction of statistical shortcuts or the social pressure to use methods that “everyone else thinks are valid.”  Now I can look over my colleague’s shoulder and have a renewed appreciation for what the professor was trying to impart. This wisdom went over the heads of most of his students, not for lack of ability on the part of student or teacher, but because the students simply hadn’t had the years of experience to deeply appreciate why these concepts were so important.

Experts who write textbooks and instructional manuals have the benefit of hindsight – having traversed the ground and scouted out the best routes, they are ready to provide a trail map to the uninitiated. And this is a reasonable approach based in a desire to be efficient – a student should not have to repeat years and years of trial-and-error that the original researchers encountered on the way to enlightenment. My experience as both a self-taught and instructor-taught guitarist has confirmed what a friend once remarked: you can teach yourself the guitar, but you’ll progress 10 times faster if you have a good teacher.  I’m not dismissing the value of instruction.

However, there is an issue of timeliness – when is a student ready to benefit from instruction? I don’t believe this is a linear sequence – my experience with the bowls shows that reading, practicing, re-reading, practicing, etc., seems to be a proper rhythm. This is the basis of what educators call the spiral curriculum – ideas are re-presented cyclically in a deeper and more integrated fashion as the student progresses in his or her learning. So I first learn about chucking wood on the lathe by reading about devices – screw chucks, face plates, 4-jaw chucks, and the like.  I also learn some basic safety rules for using them. Then I go off and work, and eventually violate one of the rules.  Wham!  Wham! Wham! Three disasters later, I’m ready to go back and re-read what each of these chucks can be used for, and in particular I’m highly motivated to understand their limitations.

At a macro-scale, our education system is not well-suited for the read – practice – re-read cycle. Some of this is due to simple age constraints – if we decide that kids can’t do much useful outside of school for their formative years, perhaps we’d better keep them constantly supervised in “productive” learning environments (not that I’m agreeing or disagreeing with this sentiment – just reporting what I observe). But for adolescents and early adults this argument starts to make less sense. Why go through four straight years of undergraduate work when people are still trying to figure out “what works” for them dispositionally, intellectually, and avocationally?  Why not attend, say, a year or two of “foundational” higher education, and then go work for a while, and then come back and continue education when one has proper practical insight and motivation?  Again, I fully understand the practical constraints – it’s hard to interrupt one’s work/career to go back to school full time, there are financial constraints, wouldn’t we just prolong a period of delayed adolescence, etc.  But our current system of 4 continuous years essentially force-feeds a wonderfully rich meal to youth, and hopes that they’ll be able to digest the bulk of it over time, such that years later, they’ll look back and appreciate the value of what they were exposed to, even if they couldn’t fully fathom it at the time.

Just a thought… I wrote a few more paragraphs about the origins of higher education in the US, but then erased them. I was going too far afield for a single posting. For now I’ll just let this basic idea cycle through the back of my mind – the dynamic of reading/doing (and for many, the third leg is “teaching”). Read/do/teach/do/read/do/teach/do….  Time to re-read and repair my bowl and try again.

Winning some, losing some, and non-attachment

Setting aside Sunday evenings for a blog update has one unforeseen (but in hindsight obvious) consequence – I may not always be in a blogging mood at the appointed hour. Or more precisely, I may be having feelings and thoughts that are not as pleasant and well-ordered as I would like when it’s time to put e-ink to e-paper. CS geeks recognize this as “event driven” vs. “clock driven” processing.

It’s been an eventful weekend. The bowl I worked on (at the top of this posting) was finished, but not without some hair-raising moments in the final cuts. Just as with one of the last bowls I attempted (using a similar design), I used too much force for what should have been patient light cuts, and the bowl went flying off the lathe into the wall. Instead of shattering into pieces, though, this one only suffered a crack, easily repairable with some CA glue. You can see the entire episode in the frame below (it only lasts 3 or 4 seconds).

I went to a party on Saturday night to give this bowl to a kind gentleman who had given me a trunk load of walnut about six months ago. He was very grateful and thankful, and other party-goers paid some very nice compliments. So that goes in the “win some” column.

At the same party, the host (my sweetie’s uncle) had asked if I’d be interested in playing my guitar, as there’d be other musicians there and I enjoy such informal gatherings, so I said “sure!”  As Lyle Lovett once noted in a song:   “it was then I knew I had made my first mistake.”  I hadn’t been practicing much, and still don’t have anything memorized.  No biggie, I thought – the NYE jam was low-key enough.

I’d forgotten that Unkie (as he’s affectionately known) is a bit more, um, structured in his event planning than the NYE crowd. Some of his friends are professional musicians (i.e., they make a living playing, composing, and teaching music), others are very serious amateurs, and these were the other folks he’d invited to play as well. This wasn’t just a bunch of people singing along to Simon & Garfunkel while a couple of us strummed guitar in the background – this was me sitting on a chair with a living room full of expectant audience members.  After some very good musicians had already played, some of them singing their own compositions.  Very gracious, kind, wonderful people, audience and players alike. That’s what saved this from being an unmitigated disaster.

Instead of sticking with something simple that I’d have a half-way chance of pulling off under pressure, I went with one of my favorite preludes by Villa Lobos (here’s a YouTube video of John Williams playing it). I knew right off the bat I’d have to modify it to skip the fast middle section, and I set the audience up by explaining I was just getting back into playing, and felt like a guitarist with Alzheimers — I’d be going down a familiar path, but all of a sudden would forget where I was or what came next. I managed to struggle through this with fingers shaking – it frankly sounded horrible, but like the dog walking on two legs, the miracle isn’t that he does it well but that he does it at all.

As Lyle Lovett continues “it was then I knew I had made my second mistake.”  I decided to try another favorite piece that I had once completely memorized – could play in my sleep:  Steve Howe’s Mood for a Day. I got about 35 seconds in and completely fell apart. My left hand just couldn’t remember where the notes were, and my right shoulder was trembling so badly I found myself taking blind stabs at hitting the right strings. So I just stopped, said I was going to have to stop as I clearly couldn’t remember the piece, and bowed out.  Again, the audience was very gracious, and the party went on.   This goes in the “losing some” column.

Today I had periodic bouts of post-traumatic stress flashbacks to how excruciatingly awful it felt to just blow up, publicly.  My friends who are into improvisational theatre tell me that’s an essential part of the practice: to “fail spectacularly” when things go awry. My sweetie (bless her for her support!) told me the Villa Lobos was well received and that I’d made a very graceful exit.

So as I sit reflecting on the weekend, I’m reminded of that central principle of “non attachment” the Buddhists practice. This becomes a profound “easy come, easy go” way of being in the world, not grasping at our “wins” nor regretting our “losses.”  I was happy to make Russ happy by making him a bowl I knew he’d like – my ego was for the most part not involved in that. But boy, I wish I had the same detachment over melting down in a musical performance. I’m having trouble letting go of that one just yet. It’s still painful to remember (which is why I hesitated to keep to my “clock driven” blog posting), but I know I need to sit and process that experience.

Some of the lessons learned are basic – I had no business trying to play for an audience unless a piece had been memorized to automaticity, or unless I had a *lot* of public playing experience.  As with everything else, practice is critical. It was also a good opportunity to experience the “energy” of a situation. When I used to practice Aikido, one of the points of the practice was to make threatening situations (e.g., someone grabbing your arm or collar) completely ordinary, so that one could learn to be present in the situation and respond accordingly. This was done through sheer repetition – thousands and thousands of grab-counter-throw episodes over a span of years. I realize now I should avail myself of more opportunities to play in groups (there’s a local Meetup group of SF classical guitarists who should fit the bill). I need to feel that adrenaline rush, be able to stop, take a deep breath, readjust my posture (I wasn’t sitting comfortably on Saturday, which didn’t help), even ask the group for help as I feel the panic set in.  (It was an uncanny loss of fine-motor control that did me in – it felt like playing a guitar in ski gloves). There’s no way to get better at this than to practice with good guidance and coaching.

Meanwhile, I try to stop beating myself up over this episode. It’s also an excellent opportunity to practice non-attachment and the suffering that accrues from dwelling on the past. My mind knows that’s what I “should” do, but there are some well-worn habits of shame and humiliation that can’t be broken with just a thought. As with all things, practice, practice, practice.

Parallel frustrations

Bowl-from-a-board layout

I had an “aha” moment tonight in the shop, after a frustrating attempt to design and plan a “bowl from a board.”  The technique involves cutting concentric rings from a board with the saw blade set at an angle. The rings are then stackable – think of the way you can cut a thick slice from an onion and reverse-stack the rings into a sort of cone. But there are trade-offs – if the cuts are shallow (toward the horizontal) you won’t have very many rings, and consequently a shallow bowl.  Cut the rings steeper and the walls end up being very thin – fine for an “art” bowl but I was looking at a solid 3/8″ thickness for a salad serving bowl.

But onto the interesting part.  I spent about 2 hours tonight working on this – tweaking the design, measuring, staring at what the rings looked like laid out on wood and thinking “this just isn’t gonna work.”  When I came back in the house I was feeling quite frustrated at the lack of progress. But then I remembered that I had that same exact feeling this morning at work.  I was stuck on a modeling problem that I couldn’t resolve, although by the end of the day I’d made considerable progress. That modeling problem had a much more satisfactory resolution than my bowl construction.

The moral of the story? (other than I appear to like working on hard problems all day?) At work I had an 8 hour day of relatively uninterrupted concentration to tackle this problem (plus a few hours yesterday when the problem originally arose).  I only spent 2 or 3 hours on my bowl problem. And that’s my lesson learned for the day: hard problems take time. What makes the bowl relatively more frustrating is that I don’t have 8 hours a day to play with designs.  I had the distinct feeling tonight that if I’d brought my bowl problem into work and labored at *that* all day, I’d have some satisfactory resolutions by now.

So I’m trying to remember that as a hobbyist, I just don’t have the time and energy to apply myself to woodworking (or music, or biking – you name it) that I do to my day job. The learning curve(s) take more time (in days/weeks/years) when I don’t have the hours to put into the practice.

Oh, in the end I think there is a good solution for the bowls – if I use thicker stock (1.5″ instead of .75″) I should have more wiggle room. I’ll start looking at that option next.

Design phobia

Bowls.  This year’s autumn project is going to be a series of large serving bowls.  That somehow “feels” right and I’m motivated.

That is, until I start sketching designs. I’ve really enjoyed Richard Raffan’s book The Art of Turned Bowls, a treatise on bowl design. I’m learning to see the effect that different profile shapes have on the overall impact of the form, the different uses of rims and feet, and detailing. And now I’m paralyzed by the thought that my designs will be “dumpy,” “turgid,” or other terms of derision he uses for awkward looking forms.

Another author on turning design (Mike Darlow’s Woodturning Design) takes a slightly different approach, more of a “aesthetics is largely personal taste, with some good design elements helping” attitude. After a whirlwind history of aesthetics through the ages, he suggests some general heuristics for sound design principles (focusing mostly on spindles, not vessels). But then again, he shows before-and-after examples of forms that could stand some improvement, and the result is unmistakably better.

So now I’m petrified that my first large bowls won’t measure up somehow. I’m not giving myself any permission to be a beginner and make mistakes – whatever comes off the lathe the first go-around has to be at least satisfactory. Clearly I “know” better – intellectually. I know I need to stumble and make mistakes and learn those lessons viscerally. I’m less worried about technical errors than I am about aesthetic ones, though. What if I can’t conceive of a beautiful design? What if I’m missing that gene?  For the educational psychologists out there, I feel like an entity theorist with respect to my artistic abilities – the ability is largely innate and can’t be improved through practice.  Again, I know that’s BS, but the fear lingers that I’ll just confirm my own worst perceptions of myself.

So, what might I advise a student to do in a similar situation?  Something like “commit to turning 10 bowls – all with different profiles – that will never leave the shop. In fact, plan on cutting them in half to study the thicknesses.”  That is, practice with the planned intent of trashing the bowls afterword for study.  And plan on variation, not 10 attempts to get the “perfect” design.

I was reading a blog by a teacher of furniture design, and he had a great assignment to get students “unattached” to their design ideas. (The full blog posting is here on Fine Woodworking). This teacher demands three different design ideas for a table.  Not three variations on a theme, but three completely different designs.

The problem with having just a single idea is that as more and more work goes into developing it, the stakes grow higher. It becomes harder and harder to turn back, because now so much is invested in it. All of their eggs are in one frail basket.Their precious little design becomes something that must be protected at all costs.  Not necessarily because it is good, but because it’s all they’ve got.

Ah…  Now I see what might help.  Three different bowl designs, all radically different from one another. Execute them. See what I like.  Rinse, repeat.

Yes, that’s the ticket.  Planned, radical variation. As with biological evolution, the better ideas will stick around to appear in subsequent designs. But variation is crucial to the mechanism of biological evolution; perhaps it is to the evolution of design ideas, too.