Archive for the 'Work' Category


All you need is a strong back and a weak mind.”

— A stonemasons’ saying

As Interstate 90 heads east out of Issaquah and winds up among the flanks of the ancient Issaquah Alps, plateauing just before it plunges down into the Raging River Valley, it passes the little town of Preston and offers motorists an exit there. Off to the left, on the outskirts of the town, there is what I can only call a rockyard. It’s not a quarry, but almost for as long as I can remember I have remarked the presence there of massive boulders and huge pallets of stone. This is the Marenakos Rock Center.

Back in September I spent a wonderful day at this rock yard and on that day I lifted, by my conservative calculation, a ton and a half of stone, mostly Colorado sandstone, with my bare hands. I’m about to tell you how such a thing came about, so settle in.

The green stones are fuchsite, the lady said. The first stone wall we found.

Ever since I wrote that post about my great-grandfather’s stonemasonry I haven’t been able to get stone walls off my mind. I reread Cormac McCarthy’s play The Stonemason, a book that has occupied a treasured spot on my shelf for years. In it the old character of the title passes down such pearls as “The keystone that locks the arch is pressed in place by the thumb of God” and “Stone ain’t so heavy as the wrath of a fool”, and “Nothing is ever finally arrived at. The journeyman becomes a master when he masters the journeyman’s trade.”

I kept thinking how stonework is so opposite to my own work as a technical writer and marketing copywriter, and how liberating it would be to be engaged in work that justifies itself, without any argument or explanation. In writing on behalf of a software company I mostly write things that we hope are true or that we wish were true or we want people to believe are true or at least to understand in a certain way. Not lies, certainly, but there is very little in what I do that has a truth unto itself, external to me or the company, and my work is riddled with the shame of the asterisk. Good stonework seems to be all about the truth, because it’s all about gravity and gravity is a hard truth. All stones in a well-built wall are always falling straight down, each falling on the ones directly beneath it, forever. The desire of each stone to fall toward the center of the earth that hatched it is what makes it possible to build stone walls. Listen to this wonderful passage from McCarthy’s play:

The reason the stonemason’s trade remains esoteric above all others is that the foundation and the hearth are the soul of human society and it is that soul that the false mason threatens.


It’s not the mortar that holds the work together. What holds the stone trues the wall as well and I’ve seen him check his fourfoot wooden level with a plumb bob and then break the level over the wall and call for a new one. Not in anger, but only to safeguard the true. To safeguard it everywhere. He says that to a man who’s never laid a stone that there’s nothing you can tell him. Even the truth would be wrong.”

One day shortly after Emilia was born when Mara needed to be outside and get some of her wiggles out, I asked her if she’d accompany me on a search for a wall I thought I’d seen up near Meridian Park. If she would indulge me long enough to sniff out the stonework I wanted to look at, then we could spend some time at the playground before heading back to the house for dinner.

A garden wall in Wallingford built by Michael Knapp.

I’m not sure we found the wall I remembered seeing several years ago, which I had thought faced west, but we found a south-facing house with a beautiful stone wall retaining the yard at the sidewalk. It was a mortared wall with artistically placed stones, some of them sticking out or recessed to form ledges or nooks for a gardener’s coffee cup or a candle, some even forming comfy little benches near the stairs. Some of the stones in the wall were a light pastel green. We ascended to the porch, Mara and I, and we knocked. Over the barking of what turned out to be a friendly dog, the lady who answered the door told me that yes, she knew who had built the wall. His name was Michael Knapp, he was a great guy, he was a third-generation stonemason, and he had died last year.

A bolt of disappointment shot through me. In the back of my mind, I’d been fantasizing about approaching such a person and asking them to let me hang out and help, learn something of the trade. Not in a true apprenticeship — how could I afford to do that? —  but just informally, maybe on weekends sometimes. The woman said Mr. Knapp was a character, that he would sometimes come to work in a Cat-in-the-Hat hat. She said he had helpers, but she didn’t know if he had trained anyone. She was under the impression, and I didn’t disabuse her of it, that I was looking for someone to build a wall for me. She remembered that Mr. Knapp’s wife was very friendly but didn’t have their contact info any more. While we talked, Mara petted the barking dog, whose name was Rusty, and a quieter, older one who had lived most of her life with only three legs. The woman was very happy about the greenish-blue stones in the wall, which she said were an uncommon stone called fuchsite. The woman told me where in the neighborhood I could find other walls built by Mr. Knapp, and in the next week Mara and I visited several of them. Each was a little different from the last and all were beautiful.

In search of Michael Knapp. This one we found at the south end of Green Lake. There be gargoyles (if you click for the larger image).

I still hoped to find a real — and living — stonemason, not just someone slopping stones or bricks together but someone who appreciated the work for the same reasons I did, even if they were not particularly articulate about it. I wanted to learn from a master, some hardbitten and grouchy old guy who would speak little and purposefully, and teach me how to lay up stone. I did a little scratching around online trying to discover other stonemasons in this area and eventually connected with a drystone apprentice up north in Bellingham who told me that if I really wanted to meet people working in stone I should not miss Stonefest 2010. Stonefest is an annual week-long gathering of people mad about stone. Building with it, shaping it, writing in it. It is as though the dwarves of Moria come together to the Marenakos Rock Center from all around the U.S. and even across the oceans to share their knowledge about methods and tools, their ideas for projects, and their passion for rock. Every year there is a large construction project that all attendees can participate in, overseen by experts.

I was not able to take a whole week off, but it was possible to register for just a day, so I signed up and paid $150 for the privelege of joining the effort of some forty or fifty other people in constructing a traditional Irish clochán. A clochán, accent on the second syllable, is a beehive structure built without mortar in what is called the drystone or drystack method, with barely enough space inside for one person to turn around in and three or four tiny slits to admit some light, and a door as small as an igloo’s. Ascetic monks built them on isolated islands off the coast of Ireland in order to sit in them and contemplate the nature of God and subsist on berries, sips of rainwanter and the occasional lentil. The originals have stood for centuries because, as I said before, every stone is placed so that it is perpetually falling onto the stone directly below it, and if something is built of stone in this way, it will be there several thousand years later. Patrick McAfee and his son Brian, stonemasons from Ireland and authorities in ancient drystack methods, were to manage the project, which would be built onsite — by us — in the Marenakos yard.

My man Dan is inside the structure, in the gray t-shirt, pointing. Our leader, Patrick McAfee, is behind the trammel end in a broad-brimmed hat. If you click to enlarge, you’ll see me in here wrasslin’ a big ol’ block of sandstone. Photo by Allison Wilhelm, used by permission.

The design for the clochán we would build was adapted for construction in five days by a mob of people who are more inclined to do stuff than to listen closely to instructions about how to do stuff, in other words, construction workers, landscapers, and stonemasons. There were one or two like me, people who were interested in stone as nonprofessionals, or who were branching out from construction or landscaping into masonry, and there were artists acquainting themselves with the engraver’s craft and sculptors learning stone sculpture. But I thnk I was the only desk pilot, the only spanking tyro, the only person from another world who knew absolutely nothing about any of these lithic arts.

Wednesday morning when I arrived with my protective eyewear and my heavy gloves, the clochán was more than waist high. I had seen it Monday when I had dashed out to Preston after work to participate in the opening day orientation and slideshow. That evening it was not even supposed to be started, but the attendees couldn’t help themselves; they had laid the first course of large granite (I think) stones in a circle, with an interruption for a doorway made of three large blocks — two on edge and one spanning their tops, like a dolmen — and now the courses of smaller, flat sandstone blocks were starting to slope inward in accordance with markings on a trammel, a central swinging wooden gauge used to make sure the structure had the correct shape and curve to it.

Pretty instantly I felt small and alone and out of place. Many of these men and women have known each other for years, it was clear. They knew stone — seemed, all, instinctively to know what to do. They scrambled purposefully around the beehive structure like the occupants of its namesake, buzzing with congenial conversation, “off-color” jokes, and periodic consultation about the next course of stones. The feelings I had were shockingly similar to those I felt on any given day of high school.

It’s starting to take shape, and I’m starting to feel like part of the crew. Here you can see me just left of the trammel pole, kibbitzing on placement of a window. Photo by Allison Wilhelm, used by permission.

But I had been expecting those feelings. As the event approached I had begun to feel dread, like maybe I shouldn’t attend. I wouldn’t know anyone. I would be ignorant (again, so often in my life, a learner). I might get injured. I pushed through the feelings, reminding myself that this was something that I was really interested in and an opportunity I was paying for. It was immediately evident that the event was not going to be organized in a way that would ensure everyone’s inclusion. The nature of the type of person chiefly drawn to this event prohibited any such coddling social structure. I could see that if I was going to get anything out of the day, I would have to take a swan dive into the midst of the action. And this became my strategy: start doing something; if it’s wrong, someone will surely tell me, and then I will have learned a thing. And this is exactly what happened.

Every endeavor on earth that involves more than one person has what is usually referred to as a “shit-job”, pardon my Gaelic; a job no one really wants to do, a job for beginners. I am as familiar with this role as anyone under the sun, I think, because of the number of times in my life I have started from scratch. In the case of drystack wallbuilding, the job that constantly needs doing is adding “hearting” — small stones or fragments of stones — to the spaces between the inner and outer courses as the wall goes up. Without hearting, the walls would be hollow and the longer stones would be unsupported, and the wall would eventually shift and the structure would fall. The hearting is really and truly the heart of the wall, and while everyone acknowledges this, most people would rather lay the courses, choose and set the stones, than scrape around the perimeter of the jobsite like squirrels, collecting shards of rock in a bucket to be used for hearting.

As you submit to the realities inherent in the work, the work begins to draw you in and educate you. Click for larger view. Photo by Patrick McAfee, used by permission.

I gladly started on hearting duty. It got me busy right away, it reminded me to be humble, and in fact there was something satisfying about it. The chips and chunks that fall from the stones that the mason dresses with his hammer become the hearting that fills the wall, so that there is this elegant economy and waste is avoided. Ideally, rather than having a site littered with stone fragments at the end of the job, the area around the work is spotless. The wall has made a home in its heart for its own waste products.

A big guy named Dan, who has his own construction and landscape business in Centralia, seemed to have taken charge of one section of the wall and started asking me to hand him this or that stone to try fitting, or asking me in particular if I could find one that was about four fingers thick and somewhat triangular. I left off collecting and fitting the hearting — which itself has a better way and a sloppy way of being done if you care to learn — and began hunting stones for Dan, and pretty soon he had shifted half his energy to helping the McAfees lift the window blocks into place, which left me in charge of Dan’s section of wall. I asked a gregarious fellow named Chad how to read the trammel, and he was happy to explain it to me. Then at some point, I realized I had become part of the hive mind. I knew what to do. When the next window blocks were being laid, I was there to help shim them. I could foresee what stone was going to help the course and which stone might seem to answer a certain spot but would cause trouble later. I paid attention when Patrick or Brian came around and coached about the exterior angle of the stones, and I pulled down work I had done, or that others near me had done, and did it better. I called for hearting, or fetched a bucketful and fitted it myself. I made the comment that shouldn’t there be another step here (a stone sticking out from the wall so that we could later stand on the steps and continue working on the higher parts of the structure), and darned if I wasn’t right.

Checking my progress with the trammel. Seven hours earlier I hadn’t even known what a trammel was. Click for larger view. Photo by Patrick McAfee, used by permission.

I was covered with a fine orange sandstone dust. At lunch, I sat next to Dan and it happened that Patrick and Brian McAfee both joined us across the table, so I was able to benefit from their conversation. Patrick was naturally quiet, reflective, and worried that with so many people working on the clochán it was impossible to keep it going the way it should. He feared that at the rate we were going we wouldn’t finish by the time he had to fly back to Ireland on Sunday. If we finished, the quality would be low. He was okay with that, but you could tell that he had a deep love of doing things the right way.

Patrick was the kind of stonemason I would want to learn from. I gleaned what I could whenever he circled the structure to inspect and give tips, and I considered the day a personal success. I had worked right through an afternoon rainstorm that sent many scampering for their rain gear but which Dan and I and the others in our corner regarded as refreshing relief from the punishing sun that had beat on us at midday. We had raised the wall about three feet and installed four sets of windows. A few of us were still at it when someone came out from the store and said “It’s beer o’clock guys. Call it a day.”

The clochán nears completion. I wasn’t here for this part. This photo shows the front door and the front window (yes, that tiny three-inch slit is a window). Note that people are standing on steps protruding from the wall. Photo by Allison Wilhelm, used by permission.

I felt a deeply satisfying exhaustion in my bones as I went around shaking hands with and saying goodbyes to the people I’d worked with, thanking many for little tips they’d given me. I told Patrick that I would not be back the next day but that I’d enjoyed learning from him. It meant the world to me when he said in his lyrical accent, “Tanks for your efforts. You were quick on the uptake, I noticed.”

Remember in the Roop’s Mill post, when I wondered if anything I’ve ever done will outlast the collective memory? Well, there’s a beehive-shaped structure up in the Issaquah Alps that I expect will still be there a couple thousand years from now, and I had a hand in that. Two hands, in fact. My own two hands.

Photo by Allison Wilhem, cropped without permission.

Hand tight, R.I.P.

Angela has warned me again not to screw the lids on Emilia’s feeding bottles so tight. I did it again tonight. At first I thought she was just complaining because she, while strong in many many other ways, is peculiarly wimpy with regard to that kind of wrist strength that is required to unscrew the lids of things. Jars of spaghetti sauce and capers. We go around and around about the lid to the marionberry jam (although the issue there is compounded by stickiness). “Hon,” she’ll say, handing me a jar whose last user was I. “Will you loosen this?”

But tonight she explained to me why — technologically — the baby bottle lids must not be screwed on so tightly.

And this does not even include the cap.

We have special bottles because Emilia has a sensitive stomach and we need to reduce the amount of air she gulps while feeding. All babies gulp air, which is why you burp them, and we still have to burp Emilia, but this system — they’re not even called bottles; they’re a feeding system — is made in such a way as to vent air more efficiently. These are not your father’s baby bottles, so to speak. The traditional bottle is a bottle and a nipple and a ring to cinch the nipple down with. This new system is a bottle and five separate pieces that make up the lid assembly. One of the pieces is rubbery like the nipple and it goes under the lid and has tiny, almost invisible grooves in it that channel air into the bottle from somewhere around the neighborhood of the threads inside the lid ring. Angela showed me these grooves. The problem is, if you cinch the ring down too tight, the vent grooves squish closed and then you’ve negated the benefit of your high tech bottle.

Last week on two separate occasions I encountered the meme — not a new one — that traditional men are either obsolete or doomed shortly to be so.  Changes in his daily surroundings are forcing the twenty-first century male to adjust or be undone. Every once in a while someone writes a book or an article to that effect. One I have not read but seems to be an unusually sympathetic examination of the plight of modern males is Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. I used to write letters to Jeff about this back in the ’90s. It occurred to me many years ago that technologies that have transformed work — technologies mostly invented by men — have effected a ruinous parallel transformation of the male psyche, or rather of the landscape that that psyche inhabits. By this I mean chiefly the separation of men — and women too, though I can’t recall any women I know ever complaining about or even acknowledging this — from any true sense of self-agency. An apt if comic example from one of my favorite books, Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, which Marni directed my attention to last year, are the faucets in restrooms that no longer have levers on them. I don’t know if women’s restrooms are similarly fixtured or if so, what women feel about this, but I have seen grown men reduced to rageful impotence waving their soapy hands underneath these “water-saving” devices, which are supposed to detect when you need another splash but often seem to be looking down their own drainholes or otherwise occupied. Crawford notes that the frantic thought goes through the traditional, solution-oriented, engineer-man’s mind: “why wouldn’t there be a lever on this thing?”

This is the kind of subtle encroachment on a man’s dignity that causes many to lapse into apathetic ingestion of reality TV, or perhaps excessive and compulsive trimming of the edge of the lawn. Our work life, and so many little things pecking at our sense of empowerment all day long, amount to a world quite different from the one that we started out in.  

Don't squish this groove. Air vent is visible under my finger along top edge of this rubbery component of the feeding system.

This business of tightening things is another example. One of the things I learned about The Art of Tightening at the knee of my very manually capable father was the concept of screwing things “hand tight”. I still remember the confusion I felt when I first asked Dad how tight and he said “oh, you know, just hand tight.” Did that mean as tight as I could comfortably tighten something with my hand or as tight as I could possibly tighten something with my hand? It was a mystery. One of The Mysteries. It was a rite of passage to eventually understand what hand tight meant, and not understand it intellectually but in my body. 

In its most basic sense hand tight meant a degree of torque that lay (it almost goes without saying) somewhere between still freely spinning and moveable further only by the use of tools. I learned that there was a sweet spot, and I learned it early, and I learned it by doing it with my hands on the innumerable bicycle, train layout, tree fort and other “shop” projects that childhood life on my street occasioned. There were of course many situations that required tightening by tools (and induction into the distinct and more advanced mysteries that tools presented), but for a large portion of life’s twist-tight operations, hand tight was your go-to solution.

But mastering hand tight had implications as well for non-material, not-physical problems one encountered in growing up. The nerve-wracking situations of “not-too-little and not-too-much” and “you’ll just know” — situations that tended to paralyzed me with fear because of the ease with which it seemed one could err fatally in either direction — lost some of their bogeyman terror as I became conversant in the art of hand tight. Human relationships often needed an intervention or tweaking that corresponded to hand tight. Moving forward with intellectual tasks often required evaluations in a hand-tight mindset. Hand tight was a way of being in the world.

When I go to put the lid on a baby bottle, my goal is to prevent leakage, which means it must not spin freely — that’s just a basic, intuitive rule — and yet I don’t want to tighten it so tight that Angela can’t remove it later. The sweet spot (so I thought) is easy to find. And yet…it’s wrong. What I’m hearing from Angela is that the sweet spot that I now know intuitively, unthinkingly, is wrong. It’s too tight. It will result in system failure. Angela is telling me that the lid must be tightened only to, and not beyond, a degree that for all my life I would have called “too loose”. The new technological plastic age of microvented bottles means that “hand tight” is now “too tight”. The sweet spot has shifted.

This is not a little thing for a late-20th-century male and I’m having some trouble adjusting. Why would anyone make a bottle — I mean a feeding system — whose lid is meant to be too loose? Is hand tight becoming a thing of the past? I feel like a giant, grunting and pushing and using too much MIGHT. Obsolete might. Blundering, anti-technology might. I am a mighty man and my might is excessive in the new world.

I am lucky I am married, and to such a gracious Goldberry who knows where the new sweet spot is. “Hon,” I can say, handing her the baby bottle. “Will you tighten this?”

Update 8/29/2010: The photo is too hideous, too hideous, so I’m only linking to it rather than posting it directly in here, but a package arrived on our doorstep yesterday containing the following gift, addressed to Angela from Marni: click here to see.

Puttin’ the realness in

It has frequently occurred in my life that I will pass by an opportunity or service being offered an hundred times, noting to myself that I would rarely if ever make use of that service or product and wondering how such a person or business can continue to operate when the service or product they offer is so manifestly uncompelling, later to discover a need for just such a service or product and then be unable to find it.

I used to wear what I have always called “tennis shoes” all the time, Reebok’s classic white during my thirties and New Balance in latter years. Hard leather shoes, what I call “man shoes”, have always hurt my feet. If I had to wear them for a wedding, I was irritable and couldn’t wait to get out of them. My company’s dress code is Seattle Software Startup; T-shirts and sneaks by summer and fleece and sneaks by winter, jeans the year long. But I decided several years ago that I wanted to look my age, not like someone trying NOT to look his age.  I thought I’d try to find a comfortable pair of man shoes, at least for my workday, and I landed in a pair of brown Rockport Margins, size 10.

I have lived in these shoes ever since. They’re unbelievably comfortable, and I walk a lot so I’m the one to ask. In my travels around the city I have never felt like I had to get them off my feet, in fact never thought about them at all, except, when passing an angled glass doorway, how dashing I look in them.

About six months ago I realized that my Rockports were starting to look pretty beat up, and it occurred to me to go looking for a sidewalk shoe-shine man. I’d seen several over the years, or maybe I’d seen the same guy on different occasions. They’d be sitting on a low stool against a wall and as well-dressed professional men would walk by they’d say, “hey, brother, let me brighten those up for you!” After I started wearing my Rockports, the offer was extended to me. If I was not in a hurry I smiled and said no thanks, and if I was I ignored their pitches. Now that I could see myself availing myself of the services of a shoe-shine man, I reasoned that it would be easy to find them precisely because it had lately been so hard to avoid them.

Months went by, however, and I saw no sidewalk shoe-shine men. I walked everywhere looking for them. Or rather, everywhere I walked I kept an eye out for them. I had a visual memory in my head but couldn’t remember which street it had been on. I stumbled across a photo on Flickr of an old man who, according to the caption, used to sit at First and Pike, near the Market, but the photo poster couldn’t remember seeing him around in a long time. Others suggested I step into Nordstrom’s, Seattle’s  famous upscale clothier, because they had a bank of chairs there where shoe-shine men operated. But I didn’t want the shoe-shine factory experience. I didn’t want to read the paper in a chair while someone worked quietly on my shoes as though I were not attached to them.

I wanted a sidewalk vendor. Because that’s how I roll, that’s why.

Today on my lunch break I came out of Barnes and Noble at Seventh and Pine, where I’d been doing research on an author I thought I might want to read (in the end, not), and my cell phone rang. It was my wife, Angela, to remind me that I’d be on my own for sustenance tonight, since she and my daughter would be getting home late from some friends’, and would I mind drawing a bath for Mara around 6:30? Just past Sixth Avenue, while I was focusing on Angela’s words to translate and log the salient data (“eat solo – bath 6:30”), I became aware that someone I was passing on the sidewalk seemed to be shouting at my feet.

It was a shoe-shine man, sitting on a stool (I assume, or a bucket; his jacket covered it so I couldn’t see it). He was a middle-aged black man, with a close-cropped grey beard, lean face and brightly sparkling eyes. He had a metal shoe post in front of him. Around him on a blanket or cloth he had laid tubes of lotion, brushes, rags, tins of Kiwi polish of various colors, and other tools of his trade. From the ground up, he was dressed in a pair of black shoes (Echoes, he said) that shined like the chrome on a limo, black trousers, a black shirt or sweatshirt, a long black coat, and a black cap. He looked like a crow, perched there, and he made the movement of a crow with his head when he cawed at me.

“Shine!” he was yelling, as though he might induce my scuffed shoes to change their appearance merely by commanding them verbally. “Shine!” he yelled again. “Right here, brother. Shine!”

I stopped and turned, finally noticing him fully. “Oh, honey I gotta go. I just found a shoe-shine man and I’m going to get my shoes done”. The man heard what I was saying and started reaching for his gear as I signed off.

I asked him how much.

“Aw, man just give me a tip,” he said. “Something. Anything. Five bucks. Just help me out.”

I asked how long it would take. I was already late back to the office.

“‘Bout a minute and a half. Just want to shine them up for you.” He patted the shoe post and I put my foot up in front of him. He squirted some Cadillac Boot & Shoe Care leather lotion on the toe and started working it in with his hands, which were strong and dark and creased.

Anything you do good, brother,

you do with your hands.”

From this moment on he did not stop talking. He spoke in a pleasant mix of descriptions of his process, assurances and exclamations, and paraphrases of what he’d said the instant before. I don’t recall a lot of what he said at first, because I was a little preoccupied with trying to figure out how I should comport myself during this transaction. Physically, I mean. What I should endeavor to have my bearing look like. I’ve said before that while there are plenty of blacks in Seattle, I haven’t mingled with a lot of them. The Seattle brand of racism is polite disregard. My awareness of this gives me an absurd Woody-Allenish neurosis whenever I’m in company of color, a fear that no matter what I do, I will do or say something offensive. In this case, I doubted this man was thinking about black or white, but rather brown, the color of my shoes, which he was trying to bring out with his lotions and sprays. But I was hyper-aware of how things looked to passers-by. I felt a discomfort in standing over someone who was working at a lower level, and attending my person, as it were. The thought of people ministering to your very person, your body or clothes, as though you are a king, or a god — well, it’s a little creepy.

Thankfully, in this country it’s a service someone offers and that you pay for, not a dishonor loaded onto the backs of the oppressed. But then again, standing tall there as a black man toiled beneath me just had that sort of lordly feel, and after all, we did have slaves in this country. I wondered what to do with my hands. It was a gorgeous day that made me want to breathe deep and place my arms akimbo, but that felt as though it might look impatient. I tried resting one hand on my upraised thigh and the other in the pants pocket of the leg that was straight. That felt better; it brought my shoulders in a little. It helped that we were conversing, or at least I was listening. He needed only the merest promptings to continue.

“See that? You know what I’m doing? This here, you know what this is? I’m bringing out the natural color of the leather. See that? I’m working it in like that. I’m working it into all those little cracks and places. That’s gonna put life back in the leather. Make it last. I do it by hand. That’s the right way. Some people think they can do this with a brush. They just brush it in. But that’s just superficial. Anything you do good, brother, you do with your hands. See how I work that in? I’m puttin’ the realness in.”

First he worked the Cadillac lotion into the leather, massaging and spreading and lifting flaps and laces to cover all parts of the exterior of the shoe. Then he spritzed the shoe with something. Then he passed a stick of black polish around the edge of the sole. Next he put the brown Kiwi polish on, again with his fingers, then mixed some tan in as well. Then while that was setting, he did the same to the other shoe. While that one was setting, he took brushes and a rag to the first one. He chattered the while.

“It goes backwards. Business is actually better in the winter. People start wearing shoes again. Stop wearing tennis shoes. I work until 5:30 or 6, you know, people gettin’ out of work about that time. And I get people at lunch time. I figure I work six or eight hours, I’m done. But I like to put my hours in. Especially now. I got to work a little more for the holidays coming.”

I asked him his name. “They call me Shoe Shine Eddie,” he replied. “But you can leave off the Eddie and just call me Shoe Shine. I’ve been shinin’ shoes for nineteen years. I’m always out here. This is my spot. Either here or down there in Pioneer Square. You know where them clubs are? The J&M that just closed down? I go down there. Right on First. First and Washington. Here’s First. And here’s Washington. I’m right there by the J&M. Or by the Bread of Life. I shine shoes over at Occidental too. It’s allright if I get a little black on the brown part. I’m gonna be brushing that. It’s alright. It’s going to be just the right mix of color. This is the brown. I’m putting that color back in. This is about as brown as a shoe should be.”

I said I bet he could tell a lot about folks by their shoes. It was cliche, I knew, but he loved it. His hands stopped moving and he looked up sharp and smiled. “Hohhh. You got that right. I can tell a lot about a person by their shoes. I look at your shoes, now. You get a lot a walking in these shoes. You might be like a reporter or something.”

“I am a writer.”

“Ah, you see? That’s close. That’s the thing about it. I don’t think about it too much, I just say it. And I might be wrong, but I say it anyway. You see this? This is a little bit of tan. I work that in after the brown. Not too much, just a highlight. I know that brother you’re talking about, but he ain’t there no more. First and Pike, that’s right. But he passed on.”

After brushing the shoes, he snapped a grey-brown rag taut and then dove in with it repeatedly, then away, as though he were shining the hood of a cobra — one stroke of the rag each time. Here his whole upper body leaned in quickly and he voiced a loud “hooph” sound, a sound that made people turn and look.

When he was done, the shoes gleamed as they had never gleamed before. I thanked him and gave him a fin. He asked my name and then used it several times while telling me once more the various street corners where I might find him.

I need to do some research on what a fair price is for a shoe-shine because I have a feeling I underpaid. Eddie was really working, and it wasn’t any minute and a half, more like twenty minutes. And he knew his stuff, or at least he put up a convincing bluster. But the bottom line was, the shoes looked good. Walking back to the office, I felt underdressed.

In search of trains

Angela left Friday for a women’s retreat with some of the ladies from church. Unlike me in my reluctance to join in the reindeer games of the tribe of menfolk, my wife is actually inclined to participate in what other women in her world are doing and she really looks forward to the twice annual getaways to Whidbey Island, which leave Mara and I blinking worriedly like orphaned quail. She left a plate of freshly baked cookies, which now mirrors the desperate faces of two people missing Mommy. And it’s only Saturday afternoon.

Actually, I exaggerate. Mara and I have learned to make the most of these occasions. And Angela left us some pea soup.

Today Mara and I decided to go in search of trains. Real ones. Big, working diesel engines. We always see at least one train when we go to Carkeek Park to hike in the woods, play in the playground or mess about on the beach. That was our first destination. It was a chilly day and there were many clouds, but there were also these patches of blue sky, which permitted cascades of sunlight to bless into the world herebelow, momentarily lighting up part of the green bluff between Ballard and Edmonds, as though picking through the foliage to find the best fall color.

"It can't be seen," said Mara about the treasure she was burying at Carkeek. I was surprised at her dramatic use of the passive tense.

"It can't be seen," said Mara about the treasure she was burying at Carkeek. I was surprised at her dramatic use of the passive tense.

We found the usual (and always surprising) number of rocks that look stunning at the water’s edge and not so stunning at home. We also found a small but entire periwinkle shell. It is rare to find one that is not broken, and the only other time we found whole ones, they were occupied by very crabby tenants. Naturally, we brought it home.

But we did not find any trains. Oddly, not a single one came in the hour and a half we were there. But not to worry; we had other tracks up our sleeve, so we headed south. We stopped for blueberry pancakes and biscuits and gravy at a pancake house that we didn’t even know existed, and which was a delightful surprise to stumble on for big breakfastheads like us, and which I’m not going to describe because Angela might read this and Mara and I are planning to take her there as a surprise.

After brunch we motored south across the Fifteenth Avenue Bridge in Ballard and got off at Emerson, then hooked into the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad industrial labyrinth that sprawls between Emerson and Dravus and centers around a large roundhouse. NO TRESSPASSING signs were posted. I hadn’t really expected that we would be able to drive right up and get out of the car and climb onto locomotives, but I thought there might be someone around in a hardhat that might be kind to a dad and kid out appreciating the railroad. At the very least I figured that some fast talking might prevent me being made to “taste dirt” by Homeland Security and my child being handed over to CPS before we could have a looksee.

I should pause to note that my appreciation of large, exhaust-belching behemoths of the Industrial Age, the age I blame for many of society’s present ills, is mysterious to me and possibly hypocritical. I know that the railroad barons were crooks, and that the issuing of huge grants of land to railroads in the service of “Manifest Destiny” (don’t get me started) helped create many land-use problems that endure today. And locomotives are thoroughly unsustainable — they don’t, after all, burn corn oil.* Still, I just love trains. I think it has something to do with the way they go. Running on tracks parallel to but just beyond our world of cars automatically gives even the grimiest and noisiest of them the aspect of friendly guardians. You glimpse them from the back seat of your parents’ Ford Galaxy 500 as a child, a smudge of rusting metal between buildings or trees, and you sense the slow movement through an intuitive analysis of distances and positionings that accounts for your forward motion and the speed at which buildings and trees appear to be moving past you. Or suddenly they are running alongside the car, full throttle, and you wonder how something so huge as a freight train could have sneaked up on you like that in the middle of Nebraska.

The roundhouse was curled with its back to us, so we couldn’t see the turntable, and I was leery about nosing around on a property whose owners forbade tresspassing clearly and explicitly and in writing. But a sign saying that “all visitors must check in at the office –>” seemed to suggest that visitors were not unheard of, which was a tick in the plus column. We found the office and went in. A woman in an orange vest and a man sat behind a counter, just like at a dentist’s office. There was a monitor in the corner that showed what was going on out in the yard from a camera way up on some pole; lines of tracks, some with hoppers or tank cars on them, stretched away in the distance; the orange and black locomotives of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (now officially shortened to “BNSF” — the KFC of over-the-rails commerce) sat with their headlights on, but nothing much moved. Three burly guys in orange vests and white hardhats stood in front of the counter talking to the two admins. One of these, an elderly guy with silvery beard and moustache, saw Mara walking in next to me and said, “here’s the new employee.” Mara slid behind my legs.

The section we stood in has its six doors open at the far end. The office is the small extension at the top of the building.

The section we stood in has its six doors open at the far end. The office is the square extension at the top of the image. Image purloined from Microsoft Virtual Earth/Bing Maps.

While the five concluded their business I picked her up in my arms and held her and pointed to the locomotive I could see through the window in the door between the office and the roundhouse proper. I imagine the people who work here don’t call it a roundhouse, even though it has the classic roundhouse shape and function. They probably say “shed” or “shop” or something.

Presently the man behind the counter asked if I needed something. I uttered my hope that we might get close to the turntable or some of the locomotives, though we knew everyone must be very busy. 

“Closer than you are right now?” he said, and scrunched his face to indicate that was unlikely. Silverhair, who seemed quite gamesome, said to Scrunchy, “You want me to give them a tour?”

“They’re not PPE’d,” said Scrunchy. I recognized the acronym, and said “oh, we’d need personal protection equipment, right?” 

“I could give ’em mine,” said Silverhair.

Lady seemed about to go for this, but Scrunchy worried it down by the weight of the rules. By way of concession, he said we could go through the door and stand just inside it. “They’re bringing one in right now.”

I thanked them and carried Mara through the metal door just in time to see number 1573, an orange and black hood unit, pull into the far-rightmost of six bays that this part of the roundhouse held. We missed the shop door opening and closing, and it was a good fifty feet away off to the right, so we only really saw the front of it glide forward and stop.

There were five locomotives in this portion of the roundhouse, four hood units and a switcher. The switcher and two of the hood units had the orange and black paint scheme of the new BNSF. One of the other large engines was liveried in Burlington Northern’s old green and white, and the last wore the blue and yellow of the old Santa Fe line. The floor where we stood was elevated above the tracks and the locomotives came forward in a slot or bay that allowed maintenance workers to walk around them at the level of the doors and platforms. A staircase in front of us, its metal rails painted yellow, led down to the basement, which, if we could have visited it, would have been a strange place of nothing but large wheels and fuel tanks. Above us, metal beams suspended from the cieling held what I took to be winches and hooks for moving large generators and stuff around. I don’t know if winches are really involved or if generators are among the items hoisted around in this place, but I’m out of my element here. The word “generator” is the only noun I can think of that sounds heavy and industrial and like something a diesel engine might have as a major part. Similarly, when I open my box of words for painting the picture of heavy industrial work being done, there aren’t many words in it besides “winch”.  Sad, but there it is. I stand in a cavernous room chock full of real objects that do real stuff and have no language to describe what I see. For all I knew, every item in here had a specialized name like Pulasky. I had my camera with me but didn’t even want to ask if I could snap a picture, lest the admins begin to wonder if I was really a clever OSHA inspector, bringing the kid along as a ruse.

Spying on the work crews.

Spying on the work crews.

The air had a slight haze and the place had the flinty smell of a smithy — metal and fire, or rather greasy parts and electrical sparks. I asked Mara what she smelled, hoping that by activating a conscious olfactory registration she might be able to remember this event all her life. Me holding her. The brightly colored locomotives. The hardhats. When she’s sixty-five and I’m a hundred and eight or gone, she’ll have this vivid memory and say “My dad must have taken me to a roundhouse.”

“Smoke,” she said.

Mara didn’t want to leave. We took it in for awhile. One young man in overalls (and his PPE, of course) worked in darkness in the cab of the green and white locomotive directly in front of us. His flashlight bobbed around. After about ten minutes we walked back into the office and asked where we might go to see the trains moving around. Scrunchy was doubtful. For one thing — he moved a joystick or some keyboard keys and the view on the monitor panned around the yard — there wasn’t much going on. One shift was just coming off and another going on. For another, “they” had been “tightening up” around here with “stuff like that”, meaning we were officially unwelcome to poke around.

I said I understood, but couldn’t help asking, “if we’d brought our PPE, could we have had a tour?” referring to what Silverhair had said earlier.

“He’s supposed to be doing some work,” replied Scrunchy with amusement. “The guys that volunteer for one thing are usually trying to get out of doing something else.”

We quit the BNSF property and drove back out onto Emerson, but we circled the switchyard along various back alleys. At one point we got out and stood on a bridge watching an orange-clad work crew spread some gravel that was being deposited at the north end of the yard. I was surprised how little security there was in some areas. On the unfenced western edge of the yard, right next to a dead end road that anyone can access, a line of locomotives stood with their engines running.  We could have heisted them and been halfway to Kalama before anyone knew about it.  

We considered it...

We considered it...

I haven’t given up on the idea of wrangling a tour of the roundhouse for Mara someday. It has to be possible. I’m sure that high-level railroad functionaries’ kids get to ride locomotives right onto the turntable. But I learned today that it might be a good idea to carry a vest and hardhat for me and small versions for Mara in the car. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I’d been able to say, “Oh the PPE is no problem, we’ve got our own. We’ll be right back. Come on Mara, let’s go get our helmets on. We’re going to have a tour!” 

*I’m not positive this is true. In fact as soon as I wrote it a memory, perhaps a phantom one created just now, seemed to worm into my head of an article about trains that run on corn-based ethanol (and anyway, cf. Hamlet, Horatio, heaven and earth).

Matt attempts to live in the moment…muffs it.

The Downtown Seattle Association puts on a series of outside concerts every summer, and many of the events are at the Harbor Steps just up the alley from where I work. Angela and Mara braved the traffic and the heat to come downtown today and fetch me on my lunch hour. We walked over to the Steps, which have a large level space like a piazza midway up, ordered sandwiches at an adjacent deli, and found a place to sit just in time to hear the Dusty 45s start their show of Americana, Rockabilly and red hot Swing.

Givin' it up for the Dusty 45s.

Mara cheers for the Dusty 45s.

Most of their playlist were their own compositions, but they opened with Herb Alpert’s The Lonely Bull, which kinda put the crowd on alert that these guys were for real. The band was a lot of fun and the crowd was appreciative. It didn’t take long for people to start swing dancing in the space in front of the stage.

Angela and I could not dance together because we couldn’t leave Mara alone in the crowd, but a lot of Angela’s friends in the partner dance community tend to show up wherever there’s good dance music for free, so she danced with some of them. She also coaxed Mara out for a couple of swing numbers. I was really feeling it and would have loved to get out there, and Angela would have let me go fetch someone to cut the rug with, but I really only like dancing with her. We’ve got some moves, she and I. I contented myself with being outside on such a lovely day and hearing great music. 

Mommy and Mara cut it on the Steps.

Mommy and Mara cut it on the Steps.

I was starting to think I might have to go over to the sponsor booth and buy one of these guys’ CDs, but I didn’t have to. The lead singer, trumpeter and guitarist Billy Joe Huels, challenged the crowd to name a song in three notes and said that whoever guessed first would get an EP of their music. He blew three notes. They were three that I recognized, and in my mind I correctly identified it as another Herb Alpert composition, but Angela’s hand shot up and she nailed it as A Taste of Honey. Little did the challenger know, Angela would have guessed any Herb Alpert tune on a single note. They played the rest of the piece while Angela went and collected her prize. 

One of the lines the band sang today, and made us chant back, was “chase that dream!” It was from a song two of the bandmembers had written many years ago when they’d decided to throw caution to the wind and be full-time musicians. That story went deep into me. I sometimes feel that part of my soul wanders off while I’m shut away at my desk during the workday, and I grind away a good share of my mental energy turning it over in my head whether I’m selling myself and my family short by playing it safe and simply bringing home the biggest income I can manage.

So hot he's breathing fire!

So hot he's breathing fire!

So it’s bittersweet, but I thank God for little breaks like this (and — I should add — for the fact that I work for a company that doesn’t mind if I take a long lunch to go watch a concert with my family). I don’t know if they make up for forty hours of my life every week, but to paraphrase my friend Jeff, we can’t all be rockers,* and until I’m ready to plunge into some other adventure, lunchtime concerts and other escapades like this help me keep a measure of sanity.  

For a finale, Billy Joe had the end of his trumpet lit on fire. The crowd enjoyed this. I did too. That’s the kind of stuff you can do when you’ve tossed away your fears and followed the still small voice inside.

*Jeff actually said, “yes, Matthew, we should all be dairymen”, by which he meant emphatically that we cannot all be dairymen. This was during a discussion wherein he found himself exaspirated at my use of the agrarian life as the baseline for assessing how we as individuals and as a society are faring.

Fools rush in

My brother Ben is a FOOL. He won’t mind me saying that because FOOL stands for Fraternal Order of Leatherheads. This is an organization of firefighters who find a common identity in excellence. They emphasize training and safety, finding and insisting on the right way to do things as opposed to doing things the way things have always been done for the sake of not rocking boats. Their trademarks are bushy moustaches (firemen can’t wear beards because beards catch fire) and traditional leather helmets, which are heavy, rather than the lighter plastic modern ones. They are rowdy, and they are mawkishly emotional about each other and about their brotherhood.

They are a brotherhood in the true sense. Almost a cult. These are not the firefighters, my brother says, who fight fires to collect a paycheck, and are really working on some other career on the side more interesting to them. They are not even the very good professional firefighters who are competent in every way and reliable at all times but who leave the job behind them when they go home. The Fools are men (and women, I think, technically, if not actually) who eat, sleep and breathe fire. Ben says that for Fools, firefighting is not their job, it’s their life.

When I think I've had a rough day at work, I picture my brother. On the other hand, he doesn't consider this work.

When I think I've had a rough day at work, I picture my brother. On the other hand, he doesn't consider this work.

My brother, who is president of the Alaska chapter, admits the Fools are a controversial organization within the firefighting community. Not everyone appreciates being forced to be either a firefighting maniac or looked down upon as not really a firefighter’s firefighter. Also, the Fools tend to cause trouble because they question the way things are done. An example, Ben tells me, is the issue of “pushing air”. It used to be that getting on the roof and chopping a hole in it was one of the first things you did in attacking a fire, but this practice has been supplanted in recent years by pushing air and using foam. In this method, firefighters put huge fans at the door of a building to pressurize the space, then pop a window in the back, and the flames get pushed out the window. Then you go in and put the fire out with foam. At least that’s the theory. But the Fools here in Washington State started pushing back that the problem with pushing air is that it doesn’t let the heat out of the building, and you can’t successfully or safely fight a fire without getting the heat out of the building. Firefighters were getting burned because they went into a space that may have temporarily had the flames blown out of it but was still a deadly oven. Ben tells me that his colleagues here in Washington have successfully turned things around to where they are now “getting back on the roof” in every situation that allows it and they are back to using good old water instead of foam. I don’t know if this is true — you could look it up — but that’s an example my brother gave.

Ben was here Monday with his buddy Brent, who is also an Alaska Fool and also a large, jolly, mustachioed firefighter. They were on a layover on their way home from Portland, Maine, where they’d just had their annual convention. They ate a lot of lobster, held training competitions, speechified about the need to reduce firefighter deaths through training and discipline, and many got drunk and pillaged the town (“pillage” may be a strong term, but they’re mainly there to meet each other and party). Firefighters are beloved everywhere, and I think a lot of it has to do with their temperament. They generally have good energy. I would think a man as large as Brent with a horseshoe moustache cascading down both sides of his mouth would scare a little kid quite into the coat closet, but he got down on the floor, asked Mara about her princess dolls, and they were soon playing together. 

I love my brother, and I admire him as I admire all firefighters and soldiers and others who don’t seem to be adversely affected by the knowledge that once you’re dead, that’s it. Game. They seem to be able to “spend” their lives in the service of an ideal, truly spend their lives — even if it means crossing that threshhold and spending all of it, forever — as opposed to “hoarding” their lives.

I have a lot of ideals, drawers full of them. I don’t know any that I would die for. I think sometimes that I’ve been hoarding my life all my life, that I have yet to find the thing for which I would spend it. I believe — hope — that if someone I love was threatened with danger, and risking my life could ensure their safety, or even provide a chance for  their safety, I would be able to lay it down, spend it. I hope so. At least I FEEL that way about my family, my friends.

I find this photo alluring in a lot of ways. The man on the left was Ben's

The light unites them as the darkness surely envelopes them. The man on the left was Ben's battalion chief, who died of cancer some months ago. This image takes my breath away because it registers absolutely no barrier between the two men. It has to be that way when you trust someone with your one and only life. (Photo by Jerry Carpenter.)

But at that point it’s not even an ideal anymore. That’s just love. These Fools run into burning buildings because they see it as their moral duty to protect not only people’s lives but their property, too. It seems crazy to me. Crazy in a way I really look up to. Not because I believe someone’s car or piano is worth my brother’s life, but because our lives are all being spent, right now, all the time, and it might as well be FOR something. The one who hoards his life, as the master said, really loses it, because he doesn’t see that ultimately there is no hoard. The coin can’t be kept. So the question becomes, what am I trading it for?

Resistance may be futile, but it’s dashed hard to come by, too

“A man walks down the street, he says, Why am I soft in the middle now? Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard?” –Paul Simon

You’re not going to enjoy this post. It’s a bummer all the way through and ends on a grim note. But it’s time to talk about the gym. Working out at a facility specifically to stay fit and healthy, I mean. This is really a sore spot with me, and I’m fixin’ to tell you why.

We joined the YMCA some months ago. Angela just needed some way to get some regular cardio, and the Y has a safe, fun place for kids to play while parents work out. It’s not cheap, but I figured I would start working out too, since five years sitting at a desk moving mainly my forefinger has been making me pasty. I’m certainly not overweight for my six feet and an inch, but I feel… well, soft, lethargic, like my blood just isn’t moving around my system very well. Prior to this job I never went very long without finding myself employed in the vicinity of steep hills to climb (survey crew), something heavy to carry (survey crew, nursery work), something fast to chase (horse wrangling) or fresh air (all of the foregoing). But time is catching up with me, and the mid-section waxes doughy, if you’ll allow me some mixed metaphors.

Care for a stroll? The resistance you need without that disturbing change of scenery. Image heisted from

Care for a stroll? The resistance you need without that disorienting change of scenery. Image heisted from

So I went to the Y today for the first time. I belonged to a gym five years ago, while I was alternately unemployed and freelancing, and it was the last time I felt physically healthy.

But here’s the problem: I’m philosophically agin it. I’m opposed to the very idea of working out at a gym. Not the idea of lifting weights and bodybuilding as a hobby. To my lights, choosing to turn one’s body into Conan the Barbarian by means of levers and weights seems vain, but not pathetic. I can see it as a legitimate pastime, if that’s one’s thing. But to go to this place regularly because its the only place where my muscles can encounter resistance, because if I don’t go my muscles will atrophy and my cardiovascular system will languish, because if I don’t go I will wither and die — that strikes me as a stinging indictment of  white-collar work culture.

Try as I might to think modernly, I can’t help but measure everything against the yardstick of life as a subsistence farmer (or anyone who uses his hands in labor or craft). Consider: the farmer gives himself to the toil of clearing, sewing, weeding, and reaping and the toil gives back to him physically. His body, soul and mind are all exercised and nurtured by the work. In this sense, the work itself does not cost and in fact adds to the worker’s well-being. (Clearly, it also kills him in the end, because we wear out, but no one gets out alive anyway, and we’re not talking about the end, we’re talking very much about the middle.)

By contrast, white-collar desk work — wait, I should pause here in case my friend and direct manager Michael reads this and clarify that my work, when I’m doing it, is actually pretty fun and engaging; I’m good at it; I work with brilliant guys whom I admire and learn a lot from; and I’m very grateful in this economic climate to have a job at all.

An modgothic instrument of        ? Yes, but it's also the white collar professional's last hope against entropy. Image filched from

The white collar's last hope against entropy. Image filched from

As I was saying, however, white-collar desk work offers only a mental workout and money. But the mental workout doesn’t occur in conjunction with a physical workout and is not centered on the cycles of the earth’s own labors, so it merely exhausts the mind without putting anything back. And what you trade for the money is a lot. I’ll leave it for individuals to assess what cost to the soul there is in leaving one’s family in one world and stepping for ten or more hours into a completely separate and other world, a daily ritual we are pressured to think of as normal but one that is really a recent development, a gift of the industrial age. For me, the spiritual cost is high. I become isolated in my tasks, and if it weren’t for the fact that I work with such great people at a small company, I would be in a peck of soul trouble.

Physically of course, it’s a disaster. My postures sitting at my desk, riding the bus or driving a car, and sitting on the couch (because I haven’t got poop to do much else at day’s end) are all identical. You have a middle-aged guy slouched over something… just swap out the mouse for the remote, or the remote for the steering wheel. There is no physical exertion in my work except carrying my cup of decaffeinated Bigelow French Vanilla tea from my desk to the meeting room (which has no windows in it, lest I be accidentally nourished by some flitting view of leaf or bird). It’s as though white collar work is a kind of  non-medium like the vacuum of outer space, and in leaving work I have to readjust to the earth’s atmosphere like a returning astronaut, my knees wobbly and my heart sluggish because there has been nothing, no gravity, to offer resistance to my body. 

So I go, like countless others, to this facility and trade the money that cost me so much of my time to earn, and spend yet more time, to get my physical health back. And that’s my objection, right there. I shouldn’t have to do something in addition to my work to keep my body healthy. The work should provide that for me. But the work of a modern professional paper pusher does not.

So I enter the gym. I pay. I harness my body to the machine.

And I’m still not feeling any connection to the soil from which I was formed and to which I must eventually return.


The Great Seattle Gargoyle Hunt