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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

Monday, December 24, 2007

Definition of a Craftsman

I was doing a bit of BoingBoing catch-up, the other day, and came across this item about a Japanese "Lego craftsman" who's doing a massive scale model of the WWII battleship Yamato.

"Cool!" I thought. Fun to get a window on people's absurd, obsessive hobbies. And this is really the fantasy of every kid with a Lego kit: build something huge and beautiful that will freak out your friends.

And, props to the guy: It's a fantastic creation. Here's a pic of it in progress.

But as I was having my momentary groove on the dweeby Lego coolness, I caught myself.

Flame-Haired Angel and I spent some time with her folks in Australia, a couple of months ago, on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary. No visit to their house is complete without time in her Dad's model shop. The family considers it a bit of a duty: go see Dad's models. Ian's been making ships since before Flame-Haired Angel and her siblings were born. They've always been around, taking up most of the garage.

I think his kids all consider it an endearing eccentricity that he's been doing it for, well, about 70 years. He works on them every day. Even if you don't count the small ships he made as a boy, he's been working on his models continuously for more than 60 years, around the interruptions of making a living and raising a family.

And here's the thing: He's built 3 major models.

Three. Almost. The third isn't quite finished.

Ian's not slow. He's obsessively meticulous. And he builds every piece of each ship from scratch. Every wooden part is cut from timber. Every metal part starts in his hands as brass rod or plate.

Yet it isn't the wood and metal the family talks about to convey the extent of Ian's obsession. It's the rope. His first major model was a four-masted, square-rigged barque. Obviously, with all those sails, the rigging required a monstrous amount of rope. And when he had finished the entire ship except for the rigging, he hit a major snag.

Even on a relatively small model, Ian would need a few hundred feet of scale rope. But it wasn't the quantity that presented a problem. Every type of string he tried was wrong. It neither look ed like rope, nor did it have the tensile strength it would need when the ship sailed. And, of course, all of it was made with the wrong materials.

By all accounts, Ian didn't hesitate very long before coming up with what he considered the only viable solution: He built a scale ropewalk, and taught himself how to manufacture rope. His technique had to be precise, as the original ship would have had several different guages of rope on board, so Ian's model would, too.

And does.

A few years ago, working on his second major model, Ian's heart began to decline. He was booked in for a bypass and came out of the months-long recovery in good shape. Re-entering his garage workshop gave him, he says, his first indication of just how sick he had been. He picked up the deck planking he'd been making, and was amazed at how imprecisely fitted it was. He tore it all up and started again. Heart bypass or no, the ship was going to be right.

As I looked at that Japanese guy's Lego battleship, I suddenly felt almost embarrassed.

Novelty and whimsy are effervescent. We love the absurd. We flock to the crazy idea rendered before our eyes. We enjoy the lift it gives our hearts, even as we shake our heads.

We more seldom celebrate the meticulous.

Ours is a cultural moment in which it seems somehow restrictive -- arrogant, even -- for someone to insist on a narrow definition of accuracy. What about the creative impulse? What about interpretation? So enamoured are we of the flight of imaginative fancy, we rebel against objective reality. We seem un-fascinated by the obsessive manifestation of things already known; we seldom stand in awe of a perfect rendering of the familiar.

In so doing, we rob ourselves of a glimpse of a different kind of sublime: the way master craftsmen reach out beyond themselves to touch something that seems beyond us all. Their technical mastery is the opposite of slavery. It is devotion. It is love manifested in craft. And, in applying it, great craftsmen can make us see the familiar anew.

It doesn't happen often. Great craftsmen are rare, I reckon. They can be hard to find. They seldom work for companies. They don't have publicists. They are as humble as they are exacting. They seldom seek attention. They aren't even likely to think what they're doing is extraordinary. They will tell you they are just doing the job right. They barely recognize that what they do isn't just difficult, it's profound.

Ian's been building ships all his life. It's just what he does. He might, if pushed, admit there are less than five people on the planet who hand-make ships the way he does. But any suggestion that what he does in his garage might be profound would only embarrass him.

Yet, looking at his ships makes me wonder what I will do in my life that equals them.


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