DIY Therapy

I made a spoon.

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While visiting my parents’ house in the country last weekend, I found a chunk of crab apple branch in the wood pile that seemed like it was meant for greater things than a campfire. After going at it with a hatchet for a half hour and carving it down with a pocket knife over the last four days, I can confidently say that I now have something that could be called a spoon. It’s maybe the third or fourth one I’ve ever tried to carve, and definitely the first time it’s come out looking halfway decent.

While I do have a bit of interest in old-timey woodworking shenanigans like this, my pursuit of that interest (and most others) has generally been limited to watching videos of other people make the things I would like to. Which makes sense, to a certain extent; as a college student living in an urban apartment, woodcraft is not the most accessible hobby and definitely not the best use of my time.

Living vicariously through other people via the Internet is far easier, to be sure, but it is nowhere near as satisfying as doing it for yourself. While I was carving I would get so engrossed in the work that an hour could pass unnoticed, and even while working in a crowded park or outside the student center I felt like I was in my own microcosm.

But the most satisfying (and surprising) part of the process came towards the end as I was puzzling over how to turn the overlarge and lopsided spoon-shaped chunk of wood in my hand into a usable utensil. For hours, I just stared at it, taking off a few furtive shavings here and there without a real plan of how to complete it. But after puzzling over it to the point of mental exhaustion, I crossed some kind of perceptual threshold where I no longer saw the piece of wood, only the spoon inside of it. To be honest, I felt a bit like Neo at the end of The Matrix.  I could clearly envisage the finished product, all that remained was to remove anything that wasn’t the spoon.

Interestingly, each of these experiences–losing track of time, detachment from the ego, feeling unable to stop working, and the perception of the work creating or revealing itself instead of being made–are all signs of “flow”. Theorized by psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, flow is a state of mind in which everything falls away from one’s consciousness except the task at hand. It is marked by feelings of serenity and being in one’s element and is associated with increased productivity and overall mental wellbeing–all of which are typically in short supply for me.

Working in an office, sitting in class, watching Netflix, browsing social media and many other activities that occupy the daily grind seem to promote whatever the opposite of flow is (wolf?). The workday drags on, focus on droning lectures is difficult to maintain, and letting one’s mind ride at anchor in front of a screen, while relaxing after a long day of the former, is not a fulfilling way to spend one’s life.

This creates real issues, apart from making life less fun. When I get a bad grade on a test, I’m not inspired to try harder next time, it’s just one more in a long list of bummers. But when I see the imperfections in the spoon, for instance, I just want to carve another one without those issues. My desk job is about as easy as it gets, but the boredom can be grueling and I always dread going in. Wood carving can be hard, as the numerous blisters and scratches on my hands attest, but while I’m working I barely even notice the discomfort.

It would be easy to condense this issue into a cut and dried Human Nature versus The System™ polemic, but in fact that doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, entire educational regimes have been built off the idea that making handicrafts for their own sake improves one’s academic performance, employment prospects, and overall quality of life. Slöjd (sloyd) is such a system, developed in Scandinavia in the mid-19th century and still taught in schools there today, which tasks students with a series of handicraft projects in conjunction with their ordinary schoolwork. Students typically progressed from papercraft to fiber arts and finally wood- or metalworking, moving up a spectrum of increasing challenge with each project. The purpose of this was not to prepare children for careers in sewing or carpentry, necessarily, but to develop the manual, observational and planning skills that come along with proficiency in these areas. Slöjd is introduced at the primary school level where the first thing taught is the use of a knife–an alarming proposition for some, but standard child rearing practice in most cultures worldwide. As students develop their skills and complete more and more difficult projects, they grow more competent and become better-rounded individuals. I would bet that slöjd instruction is a major reason that Finnish schools, the home of the practice, are generally the best in the world.

In conclusion, I made a spoon. Not because I needed or even really wanted one, but because I was tired of not making spoons. Watching other people pursue my interests is relaxing after a long day, but it had become something of a vice for me and the creative urge that I was trying to sublimate in the first place had begun to atrophy. Being able to hold in my hand a concrete reminder that I can and did create something I am proud of and have fun doing it is really a wonderfully empowering thing. So if you also feel stuck in life, I highly recommend some DIY therapy. Cook a meal you’ve never tried before, buy a pound of clay and make a sculpture, or take up topiary. Don’t worry about getting it right the first time; I can almost guarantee you won’t (I know I didn’t). But if you persist you’ll be surprised at how much better you feel afterwards.  Stop procrastinating with your creativity, just pick up a knife and go with the flow.

 

 

 

Life Lessons from a Solitaire App

Last week, I downloaded a generic solitaire app on my iPhone. I had never really played the game before, I just wanted something that could absorb my attention and keep my mind off of life’s bummers. It’s proven to be up to the task, even if I am pretty terrible at it (according to the app, I win just over a quarter of the hands I play). But in stumbling through the learning curve, I found a few facets of the game that lend themselves to waxing philosophical. The finest of those nuggets of wisdom have been reproduced below, for your contemplative gratification:

Nothing’s ever a sure thing

I’ve lost count of how many games have started out great–three aces already out, rapidly putting the tableau in order, everything going fine–only to find that the one card I need is stuck under a sequence of cards I have no way of moving, forcing me to abandon the game just a few moves from victory. Conversely, deals that seem crappy at first tend to work out to my advantage in the end. It’s a lesson in humility, and a good illustration of why the game is sometimes known as “Patience”.

Appreciate what you have

At first I just went through stock as quickly as I could and as many times as I had to in order to complete the rows. As you might imagine, this is a very inefficient way to play (I have the game set to unscored) and also wins very few deals. I eventually realized that the best way to play is to try and uncover as much of the tableau as you can, shunting strings of cards back and forth, making moves that seem insignificant in the short term in hopes that it will pay dividends down the road. Sure the brute-force method will work sometimes, but on the whole it’s a more enjoyable experience when you take the time to work with what you have.

You can’t win them all

When I first started playing, I assumed that it would be a simple sorting game that could be easily and consistently beaten if one knows the right algorithms. Only after playing a few dozen hands and consulting with my much more experienced girlfriend did I realize that some hands are dealt in such a way that it is actually impossible to win from the getgo. At first this really irritated me, but as I played more and more of those doomed games I realized that I still enjoyed them, too. So too in life; some of the most enjoyable experiences in my life have been failures, by one measure or another, and there’s a kind of zen in appreciating the ride in the face of that failure that I’d like to cultivate in my life.

 

The Thing About Depression

This morning I received some news that I’d been waiting for for a while: my mother has decided it’s time to put our dog down.

Over the years, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about what this day would be like,  as a result of both intentional refection and intrusive thoughts. I always imagined that upon hearing the news I would be pierced by grief, or bowed low under the weight of the sorrow, or punch a hole through my bedroom wall, or maybe just curl up and cry.

But as a matter of fact, I didn’t feel a whole lot of anything in the way of sadness, per se. Distress, certainly, as well as nausea and a vague whooshing feeling in my upper body. But an authentic feeling of sorrow was conspicuously absent. So I sat down and tried to puzzle out just why that was.

I’m no stranger to my emotions misbehaving. I’ve been dealing with depression since I was around 12 years old, and overall I’d compare it to a psychological cat rodeo. Depression does a lot of weird things to a person: you might barely do anything all day but still constantly be tired, or you might derive a weird sense of comfort from thinking about all the mistakes you’ve ever made. It can give you a keen sense of humor and invert your priorities.

In spite of common conceptions, depression isn’t an unusually intense or protracted period of sadness. More than anything, it’s a sort of emptiness–I once heard it aptly described as “the emotional equivalent of watching paint dry”. Certainly you do feel sadness, and anger and joy and everything else too, they just kind of sit on the surface of your mind and slide off when they’re done, leaving you with that familiar empty feeling.

The thing about depression is that it keeps you from feeling things deeply. You might have fun out with your friends but find it difficult to enjoy life overall, or be livid at the guy who took the parking space you wanted while being unable to feel angry with people who have actually wronged you. Even suicidal moods aren’t deep so much as wide–it isn’t that you really want to take a dirt nap from the core of your being, it’s just that the despair that motivates it is so pervasive that there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to go but away. So when life hits you with something that warrants a profound emotional response, you’re likely to come up empty handed.

Bear in mind that I’m speaking from my personal experience alone and, of course, your mileage may vary. I am not a licensed mental health specialist, nor should this post be taken as medical advice, yadda yadda standard disclaimer stuff. I just wrote this to help me process a real shit day, but if perchance it helps someone else process some of their shit days, I’m certainly glad to have helped.

The Sweetest Time of the Year

One of the first and surest signs that Spring is on its way around here is the blossoming of the maple trees. After three long months of barren branches and bitter cold, the fluffy red flowers are a welcome confirmation that life is returning to the landscape.

These blossoms also portend something else–sap, the tree’s lifeblood, is rising from the roots where it sat during the winter dormancy up to the branches where it will fuel summer growth. Now is the time for enterprising humans to tap off some of that sap and turn it into delicious maple syrup.

The real deal

The practice originated with the indigenous people of North America, who cut notches in the trees in early Spring and collected the sap in birch bark buckets. This was poured into wooden troughs and boiled down by adding stones heated on a fire. The resulting syrup and sugar were stored and added to everything from venison to cornbread.

Boiling sap with hot stones

There are several myths describing how the craft came to be. One originating from the Lenape nation recounts how a maple tree offered its sap to a woodpecker in gratitude for helping to rid it of bark beetles. Another told among the Abenaki states that in a previous age, maple syrup would run right out of a broken branch, but this lead to such sloth among the people that Glooscap, a creator figure, doused the trees with water until the sap was diluted to its current state and gave instructions that much work would thereafter be needed to produce the sweet treat. Needless to say, this was highly effective in kickstarting humanity’s work ethic.

The process today is much the same, only with giant metal evaporators standing in for hot rocks and hollow logs. While most of what you see on the grocery store shelves is essentially maple flavored corn syrup, the real deal can be bought right at the source at places like LM Sugarbush in Pekin, Indiana. Their annual festival offers a look back through time, from the massive wood-fired boiler that greets attendees as they enter to reenactors who interpret how Native American and pioneer sugarers would have plied their trade back in the day. If you’ve never tried authentic maple syrup or seen an active sugaring operation, I highly recommend you check it out. One taste and you will understand why people (myself included) drive out to the middle of nowhere and spend $17 for a quart of the stuff.

Antique evaporator in Pekin, IN

 

The Secret Lives of 5 Banjo Tunes

The banjo is a beautiful, if often misunderstood instrument. Its piecing twang can be something of an acquired taste for those who didn’t grow up around it, which I did. However, it was admittedly not until Mumford and Sons made it sexy again in 2009 that I took up playing. Despite being somewhat underwhelmed by its ability to impress the ladies, I was immediately taken by the depth and history of the traditional banjo repertoire. As an illustration, here are five landmark banjo tunes and the stories behind them.

1. Foggy Mountain Breakdown

This song is often the first piece that beginners aspire to learn–something of the “anyway, here’s Wonderwall” of the banjo world–and for good reason. Recorded in 1949 by banjo legend Earl Scruggs, it was largely responsible for popularizing the three-fingered picking style (or “Scruggs style”) that replaced the strumming “clawhammer” style as the dominant technique in American banjo playing. Iconic and instantly recognizable, it’s likely the first or second song most people think of when it comes to bluegrass music.

2. Clinch Mountain Backstep

One of my personal favorites, the Clinch Mountain Backstep was written sometime in the 1930’s by Ralph Stanley. The song takes its name from a ridge in the Appalachian Mountains, as does Stanley’s band, the Clinch Mountain Boys. What makes this song unusual is the extra measure in 2/4 time in the middle of the verse–that’s the “backstep”.

3. Cumberland Gap

You may not have noticed, but there is a theme of naming banjo songs after geographical features. In this case, the eponymous Cumberland Gap is a mountain pass that was crucial to Westward expansion in the 18th century, and hotly contested during the Civil War. The exact date of origin is unknown, likely sometime in the late 19th century, though it is attested in writings from around 1904. The earliest known recording was by Ambrose Stuart in 1924.

4. Cripple Creek

Here is yet another song named after a place, but with a twist: no one is sure where it is. It is either named for Cripple Creek, CO where gold was discovered in 1891, or for Cripple Creek, VA, a minor center of mining and industry in the mid-1800s. The song itself is likely as old, although it is not mentioned in extant documents before 1909. It was a popular tune among early recording artists, with the first published rendition by Sam Jones, an African-American one man band in 1924.

5. Dueling Banjos

Of course, this list would not be complete without that (in)famous song from Deliverance. I used to like this one, until everyone started asking me if I could play it, and immediately losing interest when I told them I couldn’t. But anyhow. “Dueling Banjos” was written in 1955 by Arthur Smith and popularized by Don Reno in 1963. An arrangement for banjo and guitar was recorded by Eric Weissman and Steve Mandell to be used as a dub in Deliverance–without asking or crediting Arthur Smith. Smith actually sued the filmmakers and eventually won, receiving songwriting credits and royalties from the film’s success.

3 Things Steampunk Needs More Of

Steampunk is a genre of speculative fiction that, even if you’ve never heard of it, you’ve probably seen before: Disney’s Atlantis, Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary GentlemenWild Wild West, and (arguably) anything Jules Verne are all fine examples in the mainstream. Steampunk takes 19th century society, technology and aesthetics as its starting point and imagines how things would’ve played out if, for example, Babbage’s difference engine had taken off, or if time travel were possible, or if women had been treated like actual people. Airships, energy rifles, and clockwork robots tend to figure prominently.

As much as I love the genre, there are a few things that bug me about it. These aren’t universal throughout Steampunk, but here are three things that are generally deficient throughout the genre:

1. Diversity

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The majority of tales in this genre follow the adventures of White protagonists and are written by White people. Steampunk narratives tend to take place in Europe (especially Great Britain) or an analogue thereof, so this makes some sense. However, there were and are many other ethnic and cultural groups living there who would be just as well suited for such stories–Rroma, Black British, Persians, Indians, and Basques, to name but a few. Moreover, considering that the Victorians exported their way of life to the far corners of the globe through colonialism, there is a huge, relatively untapped market for stories set in other territories under British rule.

2. Scientific Realism

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NO.

I recognize that I’m kind of being a wet blanket here, and that the point of any work of science fiction is to suspend your disbelief and just have fun with it. Nonetheless, something just irks me about seeing airships with envelopes the size of hot air balloons lifting gondolas with the mass of locomotives. That shit doesn’t work. Certainly some allowances have to be made, for time travel and vampires and the like, but I would argue that to keep most technology mechanically possible (if not economically feasible) could make for interesting new possibilities: maybe that giant steam powered mech needs a gang of orphans to stoke its boilers, or perhaps the intrepid werewolf hunter has to wait until the beast is only a few yards away from her to be in range of her blunderbuss.

3. Ordinary Folk

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Don’t get me wrong, I like stories about inventors, watchmakers and airship captains as much as the next guy. But the Steampunk repertoire is full to burst with these. What about the farmers, or the furniture makers, or the landscape artists? What if the rag-and-bone man found a cursed necklace in the trash, or if the manor house groundskeeper found a corpse in the hedge? So much of the flavor of the 19th century came from the specialization in people’s different ways of life, and to gloss over them is a huge missed opportunity.

 

One Punch Man: a must-watch for disillusioned college students

College can be a rough time for many. The verve and optimism that propelled them through freshman year have fizzled out as they realize that life isn’t going to live up to their expectations. As they go through the motions of their daily grind, they may struggle to find a purpose to their lives at all.

To these students, I humbly suggest One Punch Man.

One Punch Man is an anime that tells the story of Saitama, an amateur superhero and the most powerful man alive. He is so powerful, in fact, that he destroys any opponent with a single punch. As a result, fighting evil is no longer satisfying, and he finds himself in an existential crisis.

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In other words, One Punch Man takes the entire idea of the superhero (and its underpinning psychological principles) and turns it on its head; instead of the dauntless warrior who finds purpose in giving everything to defend the innocent, we have an invincible juggernaut who defeats all threats without really trying and takes little joy in it. He even subverts the omnipresent “anime hair trope”-he trained so hard that he went bald.

Far from being a downer to watch, One Punch Man is equal parts comedy gold and edge-of-your-seat action. Saitama’s laid-back approach to life is played against the extreme egos of friends and foes alike, poking fun at the whole enterprise of Good vs Evil conflict. At the same time, the fight scenes are so ridiculously over-the-top that you can’t help but enjoy them, putting even the mountain-destroying antics of Dragon Ball Z to shame.

But what really makes this show so good, and so inspiring to the disillusioned college student, is that Saitama continues to fight on in spite of his nodus tollens and manages to reconstitute a purpose to his life, albeit in different terms than he originally imagined. I don’t want to get into any spoilers, so you’ll have to see for yourself.

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12 episodes of the anime have aired to date, and subtitled versions are available (no dubs as of yet). There is also the original webcomic on which the anime  is based, as well as a 10 volume manga remake illustrated by Yusuke Murata.

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