Monday, January 13, 2014

You Must Have Tools


I remember in third grade making things.

For christmas we made stockings out of construction paper. The pattern was just two flat stocking shapes that were glued together. They were very two dimensional. I thought it was a stupid design since it would be difficult to fit much of anything in them. Fabric would have been more accommodating with that pattern because of its flexibility, but the paper was rigid. I (silly child that I was) expected it to be stuffed full of goodies, so wanted to maximize the amount of space that could be filled. I added a pocket to the front. But I made a pocket with dimension. Instead of just gluing a flat piece of paper to the front, I notched, folded and glued the corners so that the pocket had depth. I made tabs to attach the pocket to the stocking. They folded inwards so that they were hidden. I had some attention to detail.

Another time in third grade—while not paying attention like I should have been—I made a hand puppet out of tissues and perhaps scraps of construction paper that I had saved. I don't really remember, but I do know it had color on it. I may have just drawn on it. At the beginning of every year everybody brought in a box of tissues that were then used generally by the class. I never used them and it seemed like the same snot nose kids used them all, so I figured I had a right to use them (even if not for their primary function). I remember being challenged with how to make a design that open and closed better. I couldn't figure it out. I think we had made puppets not long before, and that is why they were on my mind. We probably used brown paper lunch bags as a base and then glued faces to them. The bags have a design that is conducive to that. But it wasn't til later that I really understood how that kind of bag was folded. My teacher was annoyed when she found out what I had made. I think is was the misuse of materials that most annoyed her.

In college I designed a backpack that fit my needs perfectly. The bag had a simple layout, fit all of the things that I carried and had pockets set low to give it a solid base so it would stand upright. (It bothers me that backpacks often have pockets that sit high so as to put the bag off balance and hinder it from standing up.) It was the perfect bag for my needs.

For as long as I can remember I have been creative. It is natural for me. I am sure that making the backpack would have been easy for me.

But I never made it.

I didn't have the tools. I didn't have a sewing machine.

I knew people that had them. My mom had one (and I was living at home at the time). But I wasn't really comfortable using her machine, it was hers and I needed help. I had used it in the past on some simple sewing things, but I din't have a sense of ownership (not in the sense of it belonging to me but as in feeling natural with it).

Many things went unmade because I didn't own a sewing machine, even though I was capable.

A few years ago (and a few years after designing that backpack) I was given a machine. It is an old work horse from the early 20th century. It's pretty basic with only a straight stitch. But because it was mine and I could experiment without fear of breaking someone else's machine. I could experiment at my own pace. I could get a feel for it. I could experiment. And I could do it with nobody looking over my shoulder. I had time to gain ownership.

It wasn't long before I was making things. I made a shower curtain. I made a nylon sail bag for our sailboat with a customized logo on it for flair. I sewed fitted slip covers for my dining room chairs.

It wasn't long before I was made a backpack. I didn't stop at one either. I have more packs than I need and I'm still designing and making more.

I am naturally creative. But that isn't enough.

Without the tools and the freedom to experiment, I wouldn't be where I am. I would still be drawing things that would never get made.

How can we get tools to where they can be used? What is the world missing out on because ready minds don't have the tools they need?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Filed Away

This is not my story.  Not that it really belongs to anyone.  I can’t imagine that it is a work of pure fiction, but even if it were it would still not belong to the author.  The story would have been inspired to some degree by real events and experience; it would also have been the product of the culture and ideas of the time.  But after reading it I think that it is the result of more that just imaginative thinking.  While the story has evolved into a myth-like tale I do not believe that its roots are fanciful.  There is truth in this story.

I had not heard the story and don’t know why it could have lasted as long as it did only to be forgotten by one generation.  My grandpa seemed to be familiar enough with the story and all of the nuances.  I regret that I didn’t hear about it from him fist hand.  It was from him that I heard it, but only through his words, written and forgotten.  Even if he weren’t dead, I don’t know if he would tell me what he knew. 

It’s funny where things turn up, always in the strangest places.  That is the case with this…I don’t even know what to call it.  Is it a book or more of a journal?  It might be a file or a manuscript.  You might even call it research, if you thought it held an answer, or the clues to an answer.  (Or even a question?) 

It would be such a cliché if I told you that I came across the pages in a dusty forgotten box hidden in the attic or cellar.  That would seem fitting for a movie, but that is not the way it happened.  (I probably should’ve lied and said that was what happened.)

Instead of being hidden or lost it was out in the open in plain view.  I found it in a filing cabinet in his study (a study—that’s not a thing people have anymore.  Studies and dens have been changed to offices by our money-focused culture.  In place of studying and pondering, we only work to make money.  I’m getting off topic, sorry.  It’s strange how my mind wanders when I write.)

So it was in his fining cabinet.  Not even like pinned behind a drawer or fallen through a crack.  It was filed alphabetically, right after Ecuador and right before Education (he was a man who was intrigued by learning and traveled extensively).  It was labeled with his handwriting in clear letters exactly what it was.  That is why it was so hidden, because it was just sitting there exactly where an organized person would’ve put it.

I’m not sure what would’ve come of it had I not found it.  It would have been cleaned out with the rest of the cabinet’s contents.  But I wonder, would it have been found and read, or it might’ve been discarded?  Who knows?  I only found it by mistake.  I was in the cabinet the day he died doing something unremarkable (that I have since forgotten) when the title caught my eye.

I flipped it open and read words at random from the pages as they flipped by.  A few words stood out and pulled me in­­­­­­­­­­­­­.  I read the whole thing in one sitting.  When I finished I realized that I had read for the whole afternoon.  It just had me.

This is something I wrote and forgot about.  It was the start of a frame story.  I think it dates back to 2008.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Generation V

            Recently I was discussing with someone the notion of what a generation meant.  As is the case with many things, there are many ways to define what a single word means.

One definition is a group of people who share approximate age who also have similar ideas, problems, attitudes, etc.  One example is Generation X.  I made the comment that I belonged to Generation Veruca. Generation V for short if you prefer.

If you recall the movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory from childhood then you will no doubt also recall the children who won golden tickets and admittance into the chocolate factory. 

Veruca was one of them, a nasty little spoiled child—selfish and entitled.  Her whining was constant.  What she wanted was always a fickle caprice but had to be satisfied in the moment that it first popped into her mind.  “I want an Oompa Loompa now, daddy!” was one of her many demands pronounced in her screeching voice.  What made her demands worse was the way she leveraged them.  “If you loved me then you would…” As if that was how love worked.  Her distorted realities are astounding.  Where the blame should be placed is not a question I care to try and answer.  I am only pointing out some of Veruca’s ideas, problems and attitudes.

My generation certainly shares some of Veruca’s attitudes.  It isn’t hard to find the attitude of selfish entitlement and longing for instant gratification.   Sometimes we needn’t look farther than ourselves.  But I realized something.  It’s not just Veruca’s attitudes that my generation hold’s.  I think every child in the movie has attributes that are applicable to this generation of mine.

There’s Mike Teevee’s obsession with the media (I’m sure he would love all of the new gadgets that we have now), Augustus Gloop’s gluttony and obesity, and Violet Beauregarde’s… well I don’t remember her specific vices other than the fact that she was fascinated with chewing gum.  Perhaps it was her compulsiveness in doing or saying whatever she felt at the moment. (I guess it’s time to watch the movie again.)

The only attributes we didn’t get were Charlie’s (his last name is Bucket in case you were wondering), who if you remember is the good guy in the story.  We missed out on his concern for the welfare of others, his integrity, his wok ethic, etc. 

Of course we can be glad we aren’t exactly like Charlie.  After all his family is poor (they mostly eat cabbage), he has a low paying job that takes all his time, and has no friends outside of his family.  I guess his job that takes all of his time isn’t so bad after all; it keeps him busy enough to distract him from his friendlessness.

What’s my point in all of this?  I guess that it is simply that we’re not Generation V after all, we’re Generation W, for Wonka.  We’re an amalgam of all of the children he invited to his factory.  All of the except the one who is worth emulating. 

We, like they, may miss out on the prize of a lifetime supply of chocolate because we are like them, a rotten bunch of children.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Mr. Miyagi's Lesson

My parents learned early on that there were certain movies that they couldn’t let babysitters show us before bedtime.  We would get too wound up and rambunctious.  One of those movies was the Karate Kid.

That may have been the movie that started the selectiveness.

It’s was such a great movie.  There was an eccentric old man who could catch flies with chopsticks who also trimmed funny little bonsai trees.  There was fighting, and not just the regular kind, it was karate—like dancing and fighting combined.  And of course there was the triumph of the bullied underdog who came back to show the world who was in charge.

Yes, by the end of that movie we were standing on the arms of the couch to practice our balance and trying to jump kick each other in the face.  But, nothing we did looked elegant, it was just the same old brawling we always did.  Which we did a lot of after that movie.

It didn’t seem fair that we couldn’t master the skill that Daniel had.  The montage that showed his learning and training was so short.  It looked effortless.  But really there was more to it than that.

If you remember, the sage Mr. Miyagi who becomes Daniel’s sensei puts Daniel up to many seemingly random chores.  Daniel wanted to learn to fight and instead he became a laborer, much to his chagrin.

Daniel spends his time waxing cars, painting fences, and scrubbing wooden decks.  He can’t see the relationship between what he is doing and what he wanted to be doing.  A point he makes to Mr. Miyagi, in a somewhat whiney tone.  I don’t blame him.  I would complain too.  His wise sensei disregards the complaining and sternly tells him to do as he is told.

Daniel sticks with it in spite of his misgivings.  I think he persevered because he really did trust that his teacher knew what he was doing.  And so the chores continued.

But patience was never one of Daniel’s strong points.  When he had had enough he told Miyagi that he was quitting because he wasn’t making any progress and hadn’t learned a single thing about karate.

Then Daniel sees Mr. Miyagi’s wisdom—the wisdom that we believed he had, despite the lack of real evidence.  Ah, yes, all the chores were to build the muscles needed to master karate.  Mr. Miyagi then showed how each motion of a chore was also a foundation in fighting.

Daniel’s trust in his mentor was not ill founded.  It paid off in the end.


But what if Daniel had been wrong?  What if Mr. Miyagi turned out to be some kook that didn’t know what he was doing?  What if he was doing chores for no other reason than to do the chores? That would be a supreme rip off and make for a terrible movie.  The chores and the trust only paid off because they served some greater purpose.

So, why am I reminiscing on a movie from the 80’s that was much better when I saw it in the 80’s than it is now?  Because I am sitting in a school, tutoring kids in math and science.

“When am I ever going to use this in my life?” and “Why is this even important?” are questions I asked as a kid in school.  And these students ask me the same questions.  What scares me is that I can’t answer them.  I don’t feel like a wise mentor who is waiting to show them the grander significance of the menial tasks they are performing.  I don’t have anything to show them. There is no grand picture.

I wish that what was going on here mattered.  And I don’t mean the actual problems.  If the problems were a means to an end I could support that.  Critical thinking and problem solving are so valuable in every aspect of life.  But that isn’t being taught or learned either.

At the end of the day I feel that the time these boys spend here is wasted.  They are performing chores but not the kind that are building them up.  They are not learning the foundation of karate.  They’re just doing regular old chores for the sake of doing chores.  But unlike the chores Daniel does, these accomplish little more that to keep them busy.  I fear that when it is all over they will not have what they could have had.  On top of that they will hate Mr. Miyagi, an old kook that didn’t know what he was doing after all.

That Last Story

In school I once read a story that I've now mostly forgotten.  There is only one part that I remember.

A wealthy man is frustrated that the poor farmers that farm his land steal his firewood.  His solution was to drill holes in the wood that he knew would be stolen.  He filled the holes with gun powder and covered them with wax.  the offender would get a surprise when the burnt the ill gotten wood.

For some reason I championed the cruel landlord.  It appealed to some sense of rigid justice.

The story I just posted was formed around the notion of creating one's own justice by playing by the rules of those who break the established rules of the land.  I thought I liked that idea.

When I got done with the story and read it I was shocked.  The man that I thought was the hero was actually an uncaring monster.  I didn't like him at all.  I also began to see the "villains" as victims of circumstance and society.  I began to feel like they had been the recipients of injustice, not only by society but ultimately by a man who could only see from a narrow and selfish perspective.

For me writing the story was interesting in how my perspective changed as a result.

I'm not saying that there are really any clear cut good or bad guys in my story.  There is a lot of gray.  I guess that our reactions to the story tell more about us than it does the characters--characters that are made up after all.

Writing is great because it helps us to see and understand.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Taken by Force

            “I said, give me your money.  Why are you looking at me that way?” the man who barked out the command was holding a gun, pointing it at his victim.  But the man who had the barrel of the gun pointed at him didn’t look like a victim.  He was dressed like a successful businessman.  Of course that’s a vague notion, businessman.  But that was the impression people had when they looked at him.  His actual profession seemed like it shouldn’t be defined, as if his success and its roots should remain ambiguous.  But the air of success was certain.  This man had money.
            His appearance was a stark contrast to those before him.  They all wore coats as if to hide their identities behind a shield of cloth.  Collars were upturned and caps sat low on their heads, hiding their eyes.  What the clothing could not hide was the posture of men that didn’t seem to respect themselves or have any confidence in their own lives.
            “Why?” asked the man in the suit.
            “Because if you give me your money I’ll give you back your life, if not then I’ll take your life and then take your money.  Don’t be stupid. Hand over your wallet.”
            “My life is not yours to give or take.  Where did you get such a stupid idea as that?” the man who would not be a victim stared back at his assailer with a look that demanded a response.  The answer the bandit gave him was to turn his gun to show its profile and give it a sarcastic wave before pointing it again at the suited man.
            “This says so. You’re a cocky bastard but you’re not bullet proof.  Now.  Your wallet.”
            Ignoring the demand for his wallet he asked another question, “What?  Whoever has the most force wins, is that how it is?”
            “Yeah, and that happens to be me.”  The victim smiled.  He could tell that this was no random mugging, of course it wasn’t.  This gun-toting thug considered himself something of a mastermind.  But he had come no further than alley muggings.  He only happened to be selective in his targets, a suit meant a larger return.  The distinction in his mind was no doubt much larger than it really was.  Such is the delusion that comes to those who find power in the weapons they wield.  That was certainly why he was still talking and hadn’t actually done anything, like use the gun he held.  The dialogue was a sort of gloating at his assumed victory.
            “All because you have a gun? I wouldn’t be so cer—” the man who was speaking cut himself short.  The calm collectiveness that he had showed while being mugged fled.  Fear leapt into his face as quickly as the confidence left.  His eyes that had held a steady gaze at his assailer darted to something else in the moment that he stopped speaking.  He was looking past the leader and his two thugs that flanked him.  They instantly believed the fear they saw in the face in front of them and turned to see its source.
            In turning, their guard was let down.  They disregarded their victim to appraise what was surely a much greater threat.
            And that was their mistake.  But in the moment it took to realize there was nothing to fear behind them, that they had been fooled, they also realized that the real threat was behind them. 
            But it was too late.
            That brief moment was long enough for the tides to turn.  The man in the suit moved as quickly as a striking snake.  A kick in the leaders gut doubled him over.  The knee that moved upward into his face was accompanied with a sickening crunching sound.  Before he slumped to the ground the gun that had been his authority was snatched from his hand.
            His two stooges who were slower to realize what was going on gathered their wits just in time to realize that the two sounds that they heard were gunshots.  The realization came at the exact moment that they each felt the pain of the bullets that found targets in their chests.  But the though of pain could not have been long contemplated, because they were both dead by the time their bodies hit the ground.
            The man in the suit stood above the three bodies that lay before him; two dead, one writhing in pain.  He looked unruffled standing there holding the gun, as if it were more at home in his hand than it had been in the hand of its previous wielder.  He surveyed the bodies before stepping forward and crouching next to the foremost man.
            “The problem with power by force is that there is always someone who has more than you do.  Your gun wasn’t enough today.  You see, my life isn’t yours to take or give after all. But since you believe that, I will play by your rules.  And now I am going to take your life.  It’s too bad that learning this lesson will do you no good since you will be dead.  Oh well.” 
            The man looked up with fear in his eyes.  Fear so great that he was paralyzed, frozen in the face of peril.
            “You wouldn’t—” he started to say but didn’t have time to finish.  A third shot rang out.
            In a quick motion a handkerchief was produced from a coat pocket. In a second quick motion any and all fingerprints were removed from the gleaming metal.  In a third motion the gun was tossed onto the dead body of the man who had made a grave miscalculation.
            The man in the suit walked around a corner and away from the alley. Walking down the street he looked as cool and collected as he had before the attempted mugging.  Looking at him no one would suspect that he had dealt out his own form of justice in the form of three remorseless murders.
            Hands in his pockets he began to whistle as he strolled down the sidewalk.