Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Salt On Watermelon; or, The Problem With Varnish.

Friday, March 2, 2012, 5:13 a.m.

I lie listening for the plow, knowing it was snowing when I went to sleep. The few cars (on their way to “the flatland” so it’s called, where nearly everyone in this canyon works), drive by at a clip, and so I reason that the front petered out, losing steam over one of the many passes. Later, I learn, it picks up and turns into the Midwest's first tornado warning of the season.

Light in shadows, move towards me as their makers go away. Counter-intuitive....like salting watermelon to bring out the sweet. Annie Dillard wrote of these shadows as ghosts, and maybe they are…or at least the principle is right: the body and soul going their opposite ways at the end.

The fore-casted six inches overnight, left me with only a dusting; grey, growing white in the aging half-light’s blue and black theatre set. It’s getting light earlier and earlier, with every day a few minutes buffered on each end, and I can see clearly now before 6:00 a.m. I dread springing forward in a few weeks when I will not be able to – when my six will be seven; and light will be dark. I look up, out the window past a half eaten block of suet, to see if it’s clear, but it’s at just that time that you can’t tell whether or not there are clouds. It’s hard up here; there’s no horizon. There’s no line of reason or balance; everything’s jagged, uneven, and unsure…trying to trip you up; get you to fall. With a limited view, you make an educated guess – it’s clear -- and move on. But you grab an extra jacket anyhow. Because up here, weather sneaks, you hear its leprechaun laughter just as you see it, crossing the ridge -- you’ve been had; caught -- with your guard, hands, pants down…as my sister had the habit of doing with camera in hand on childhood camping trips.


8:59 a.m.

It’s cold outside. Blue. Pure morning firmament loosely hung by outgoing clouds, piling up as a shar pei’s skin over the plains. My rod sits on the workbench, laid out. The wraps are still on, beautiful, rough, and ready to be sanded. I am an anxious person -- the dangerous mix of a busy mind and high standards -- and recently, I’ve had dreams wherein the wraps would not, in fact, still be on this morning; instead, I’d find do-overs...like the life Billy Crystal promised...waiting, do be done again the right way – the way intended before I screwed it all up. Unreasonable fears. But reason or not, they exist. And that’s fact.

Three x-acto knives and sheets of 1000-grit sandpaper are laid out neatly, as if I’m going to be performing surgery. I’ve never had steady hands. This worries me. Yes, I’m anxious. Last week while wrapping, Hal the cabinetmaker had warned me, “now, be careful when you sand those wraps...”
Frank had chuckled, “He...was a little heavy handed...”

“Had to re-wrap,” Hal said in the good humor that comes with time...“just be careful...”  

And after Frank had demonstrated scraping away varnish that had seeped onto the cane, cutting away bumps, and finally sanding until the varnish looked frosted, like windowpanes in January, he looked at me...and I knew...be careful...

After planing I took a deep breath, thinking I had passed the hardest, most nerve-wracking part; but then I had to sand the tips, and after that thought the same. And then there came wrapping. And now, there’s x-acto knifing a varnish glaze over silk thread. Rodmaking deals its hands, trump upon trump.

“Well.....I’ve been having some varnish problems,” Frank says a little shyly, into silence. “One of those things rodmakers don’t like admitting -- the first time it happens, you feel awful...a failure...” Your world falls apart. But everyone has them, varnish issues, and if you haven’t, Frank says, well then, you just haven’t built enough rods. Just like in a relationship -- if you haven’t argued about something yet, either you haven’t been together long enough or you’re just desperately boring and hold no opinions of your own. Once, a man and I stayed up a good part of a night trying to disagree. We knew it was coming, sooner or later, and so it might as well just be gotten to, dealt with, and moved on from -- together or separate as the case may be.

“Try me...” he’d said.

Ok.

“The overturning of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Your thoughts…?”

“Damn....you don’t go slowly....do you?”

“Nope...well, what’s the point in wasting time?”

Eventually we did find something, now I can’t remember where or what about, and it turned out he was still there the next morning.  

Disagreement...varnish issues...will come along in good time, after the honeymooning has worn off the white gold plating. But that, is when it gets interesting...for better or worse.

“There are two things we obsess over,” Frank says, “varnish and cork.” And now was the time for the former.

Early that morning, Frank adjusted the temperature of the PVC tube full of a new batch of varnish, and tested it out on a blank. Perfect. But the others, dipped while I was still sanding, turned wavy. “You see, the faster the engine pulls the rod piece up, the thicker the coat of varnish...but it’s always a toss up whether it’s the speed or temperature to blame.”

I must be staring blankly.

“It does make sense...eventually....”   

Counter-intuitiveness, again.

Salt on watermelon.

Looking out the window, eyes adjusting for cracks like dust on my glasses, past the medical marijuana dispensary and the Wal-Mart parking lot, to the sky -- which has seized up, into the color of an angry sea -- sudden sickness, practicing spring’s bluebird mornings and raven afternoons. Reminding me that soon, there will again be a time when I will see that color creeping over a cirque. At that time, it’s dreaded; but now, it’s longed for.

“Maybe that snow is coming...after all...”

Frank turns to look, then puts the visor of his magnification glasses back down.

“You know, the first time I heard one of the big-time rodmakers say they were having varnish issues, it was encouraging --- man, that sounds bad...”

“Nah, I understand, completely...”

“Just that...well, they’re human...after all!”

“Yeah...they have squeaks too....”

Squeaks -- the sound of fingers on nylon strings, sliding up and down and across -- caused me a great deal of grief and self doubt and wet lolling teardrops in college. They weren’t in the recordings of competition winners or touring artists, digitally re-mastered and airbrushed to have a perfect complexion. It was the musician’s version of the self image paranoia of young women -- unfortunately, I got to have both. Sitting in dark recital halls, light enough you could still see who was and who was not there, I would let out little sighs of relief at the squeaks and at the mistakes...sighs at the beautiful parts too...and now with 20/20 they’re one and the same. Humanity sneaking out -- rays of light behind a storm cloud - beneath a life practiced to perfection, polished until it’s too smooth to hold on to anymore.  

As a realist, I say perfection never happens; but my token optimist gene (passed down from my mother) says rarely. As creator, you know...you know where the mistakes are; even the ones no one else could ever possibly see. George Black wrote an entire book on the pursuance of it in this craft. Yet the pursuer is never quite able to catch their prey -- elusive in dress and definition. It’s always just a bit out of reach. Clawing away tufts of fur from time to time, making feathers fly here and there, but still -- we’re left hungry. Waiting. Wanting.

We keep on hunting…..perfection

…which, it strikes me, just might be the agnosticism of striving. Believing that details matters, even if you are the only person to see, because eventually, there’s the possibility that it will be gone over with an Eye like no other (The one in Lord of the Rings comes to mind); but you just don’t know, and so you aim at perfection, with doubt thrown in for good measure.

And I go back to Frank’s “it’s handmade” ethic; it is not a dismissal of perfection, but rather a very real assessment in defense of human hands. Their work may not be perfect, but it is real and true and good. My hands may not be as accurate as the lasers my sister builds, that go through flesh and steel and glass, but damn it, they have soul. And the wavers speak to its status.

In a linoleum floored classroom -- dirty cream, the color interior decorators like to call “eggshell,” with blackboards still on the wall instead of the web -- classes started at ten-past the hour, and there I learned about the philosophy of aesthetics. A few years after I’d taken that class, a man looked directly into my eyes and said, “Your face is crooked…do you know that?” (And that, dear men, is a way to ruin a moment, in case you were wondering). Yes, now I know that my face is crooked. Yet, I also know that nature’s crooked tree limbs, bent blades of grass, asymmetrical rock sides, and wandering rivers, are things we call beautiful. And I know that when people get “work done” it doesn’t look natural or beautiful – it looks symmetrical, even, and obvious. Uninteresting. Lines, marks, scars – these make tree bark, they make a face, interesting. These, hold the stories; the beauty, the truth, is in the nuances. The unobvious. That which you have to seek to find. Hollow chocolate Easter bunnies really aren’t fun unless they’re hidden behind grandma’s rose bushes.

A man named Jack comes into the shop, bringing me out of my head, needing to arrange pick up for his order of cane, to buy a ferrule, and to lament the status of the world’s cork.

“I’ve started using grade B…it ain’t that bad…you know, it works.”

“I suppose it’s under your hand most of the time anyway, huh?” I say, stopping to look up from the knife blade.

“Yeah,” says Frank, “but your name’s still on it…”

Touché.

And this, is why anonymity breeds inconsistency and half hearted attempts. It’s scary when people know who you are and to what and whom you’re attached. If no one knows what you’ve done, no one will know what you’ve failed. There’s much less pressure that way, un-named. Yet that is why we are – to be called out to at our heights and out of our depths. We need both. And that, is why we sign our names onto a piece of cane, varnishing into permanence. Anchoring us to a time and place and purpose.

Frank calls me over near the drying cabinet, “look at these…” In the right light, I see the variance in texture as he points, “I think we should wait…let me get this all ironed out…and save you the time of re-sanding.”

“Sounds good.”

Safely anonymous.

Until next week, when my name will be on it. When I will write it, as I’ve known all along I would; which is why, details matter.   


Listen to the story:

53 comments:

  1. Details do indeed matter a great deal. As for the pursuit of perfection, it calls to mind a favorite quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery: "La perfection est atteinte non quand il ne reste rien à ajouter, mais quand il ne reste rien à enlever." (Perfection in design is achieved, not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away."

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    1. Russell - Those are profound words. They're being written and hung above my desk, with many others. Thanks!

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    2. The essence of good writing. Thanks Russ!

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  2. I am glad you are sharing this experience with us. Your bravery in starting at the top like that is inspiring, and a helluva read.

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    1. OneBugBrandon - I kind of like the ring to that. ;) Thanks as always for the encouraging words...and for coming along on the read.

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  3. It's in the details are where the character lies.

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  4. "They say that nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they'd make up their minds" - Winston Churchill

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    1. Grizzly Wulff - Right? Utterly confusing...

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  5. With St. Patricks Day coming up and all, I heard part of an interview with one of the guys from The Irish Rovers. He says he is never happy with a recording unless he can hear the sounds of fingers on strings.
    I am amazed that you tackle so successfully things like rod building and fly tying with unsteady hands. You must have the breathing down!

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    1. Hart - I got to that point, eventually...totally agree with The Irish Rover. Makes it more real...there's a human, not a computer playing, after all. Unsteady hands make me pay more attention. In the end, it's a helpful thing. Counterintuitive. ;-)

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  6. "If no one knows what you’ve done, no one will know what you’ve failed"...a humbling sentiment, but perfect in every way.

    Can't wait to see your name on the cane...

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    1. Sanders - Humbling indeed...never ceases to freak me out. Thanks for stopping by, and hope you're settling in well to your new abode!

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  7. Better a crooked face than a crooked rod any day : )

    Another great episode Erin.

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    1. Dave - Tis true. :) And thanks as always!

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  8. Maybe you need to figure out a way to use your sister's lasers to build your next rod??

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    1. Tim - Hmm...you may have something there. I was just listening to a piece on NPR about a guy here in Colorado using lasers to measure snow depths. Gotta be able to figure into rod making some how, eh?

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  9. Words and craft and just all of it - serenely beautiful.
    Alan.

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  10. ...the dangerous mix of a busy mind and high standards...

    Dangerous indeed, but you carry it off oh so well. Another step in the path to stream nirvana...

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  11. Beautiful. Write that name with confidence. :)

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    1. Emily - Many thanks...and I will! *practicing penmanship this week! ;)

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  12. Varnish...... Spar? Any guess on mixture and if thinned? I'm learning right now about varnish as I've undertaken a fiberglass rod rebuild. I can hardly eat a sandwich around my house without eating dog hair, and now I'm guessing oil based varnish may attract said hair. I won't say it's keeping me awake....but it's keeping me awake thinking about it. Good luck with the dip, and can't wait to hear about and see the results.

    Also, crooked face comment....priceless. I've been that guy before. ha.

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    1. Rhythm Rider - No guesses...at all. Although I will find out and report back. Very cool about the re-build! I'd be frightened of the dog hair in my house too...it'd keep me awake. ;) And as for "that guy"...he did not meet a good end...so I hope your comment turned out better!

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  13. I enjoyed this so much, picturing in my mind's eye how close you are.

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    1. Howard - I am so glad you did...

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  14. I can't wait to see the picture of your signature on that rod, as well as your first trout caught on your first handmade bamboo rod using a fly that you tied just for the occasion!

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    1. Marv - So many things to look forward to, eh? Thanks so much for reading and for your enthusiasm! Much appreciated!

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  15. Lovely. Always moments of recognition and discovery. I find myself listening with a big smile on my face (which is also crooked, by the way.) Thanks.

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    1. Jim - Ah! We are in good company then...crooked faces have character. :)

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  16. Beautifully written! I'm with Marv, can't wait to see your name on that rod. Another quote from my collection: "Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark." - Agnes de Mille - (BTW-I work with your Dad.)

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    1. Laurie - Thanks so much for reading and taking the extra time to comment. I love that de Mille quote, "Living is a form of not being sure"...yes indeed! Thanks again, and say hi to my dad. ;-)

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  17. Just a small setback, sounds like you are at the finish line. Can't wait to wake up and see that you are posting that it is finished.

    I practiced today... in case you were wondering. lol

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    1. Master of Kung Fu - Good on you!!! Keep at it. And I will keep pestering. ;) Thanks for reading!

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  18. I have learned the hard way with finish on wood that sometimes the best thing is to stop and walk away

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    1. Anonymous - And take a deep breath....

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  19. Hi- I had read a couple of times,but had to find some quiet time to listen. Really enjoyed. I'm sure there are some "anxious" feelings entering this medium as well. It was really nice. A story naturally unfolded. You seemed to be loose and really letting it go. There were parts when you almost chuckled. The conversations real and believable. I was sitting in an armchair, almost a little sorry it was over.

    I find this anxious/perfection trait coupled with an eye towards the beauty of nature and imperfection very interesting. A gift, I think.

    "a shar pei's skin over the plains"...are you kidding me?....awesome.

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    1. Herringbone - Indeed, there are 'anxious feelings'...and thanks so much for making the time to listen...and for the good words. Your observations. You notice the nuances. Thank you. (And I can't believe 'share pei' entered my head! I've never liked them much!)

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  20. Salt on Watermelon, love it.
    I'm as anxious to see the finished product as Banjo is to see a spring flower.

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    1. Brk Trt - He is so anxious...and I think is perplexedly wondering why we don't go into the backcountry anymore. Soon...
      And thanks, as always, for reading!

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  21. I really am enjoying the longer weekly format, along with the audio to read along with. Thank you for all the extra efforts! A good friend gave me a cassette tape of Noah Adams', "Saint Croix Notes: River Mornings, Radio Nights," years ago ( when cars came with cassette players) that's become one of those things once you encounter them, you never forget those moments. Details. I learned from the cassette and the book that trout fishing should never be rushed, apple donuts go well with birdwatching in the snow with a thermos of hot coffee, you can love Wilson Pickett's, "Mustang Sally," as much as you love Samuel Barber's, "Adagio for Strings," at different times for different reasons. We'll be adding your stories to the collection....as soon as someone can show me how to do that :-)

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    1. finsandfeathers - The feedback on format is much, much appreciated. I'm so glad you're enjoying it. I loved reading of the 'details' you've learned...wise observations...truth at the heart.

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  22. "We keep on hunting…..perfection…"

    Lets hope we never find "perfection" or we would have nothing to get up for in the morning :)

    Excellent as ever Erin.

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    1. Tom - We always do need that carrot before us, eh? :) Many thanks.

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  23. Good stuff, Erin. Can't wait to that rod in action.

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    1. theliteraryflyfisher - Thanks for stopping by...and neither can I!

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  24. I admire your desire for perfection, but I offer this, some native american cultures always put a flaw in their craftsmenship.. a misplaced stitch, a missing bead.. a signature of humility that they are in fact only human, admitting that they are imperfect, much like this world and less than their creator- Im enjoying your journey. Brad

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    1. Brad - As much as I respect that tradition, I don't think anyone has to put a flaw in their work...as humans, it's just always there. At least in mine it is! ;) Thanks for reading!

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  25. You know, when I was reading this post I kept seeing "Frank" and I wondered....which Frank.. Now I see which Frank...the cane rod maker. I am a bit of a tenderfoot fly fisherman. But I have been getting around, ear to the ground, and at odd times things cross over and over...Frank is one of those. He took my youngest daughter, husband and myself on a day trip on my favorite little stream, Glacier Creek...right about run-off last year, when there was very little gin clear water. He took the place of another angler and we had his company for a day. What a treat, and what a day. We still talk about Frank, often. Working with three people on little creek that was a bit of bushwacking was busy for him. Class act. My youngest girl just loved that he helped her learn to catch brookies. Me too, that he taught me how to high stick. You are lucky lady to have his keen knowledge. Not too many can fill his boots...who knows, maybe when I want a cane rod, which I think about, I will see if you can make me one, and sign it with your name. Nothing like that step... Loved the post btw.

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    1. FisherGirl - That story is awesome. Frank is an amazing teacher, and I've always assumed that followed him to his guiding....and on top of that, he'a a "class act" as you said. We'll see about another cane rod. ;-) Thanks so very much for taking the time to read and leave your thoughts.

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    2. The day that he took us three tenderfoot fishermen out for our trip we stopped at a little table for lunch...and we spoke of families and time and working them all together...we spoke of moments captured and embraced, as our day was as a family. You see, my youngest lives in AZ for the last 2 years, married now, to an angler no less, and I miss her dearly. And I had a bit of a heart problem last year, so I started really putting that "heart" into my passion of fishing for trout on streams..as I realized that time it was a tickin'.... One might say I doubled up a little bit...didn't put things off so much. Frank said on that day, while we sat at the table, some things about time with his son fishing, and how much he liked it, and about families and us taking the time together like we were doing. It was a quiet reflection, in the forest, eating grapes and sandwiches, sharing a table and food with a man that had such knowledge of little brook trout, small creeks, and people...it was a moment that made the day. Then we went up the road and he took us into a canyon area of Glacier Creek, and my daughters face just lit up...the two of them in this canyon, a view in my mind forever. She was catching fish, and not with the angler husband that makes her nervous, but with calm, quiet, firm instructive Frank...

      Frank was giving us his all....then I found out that he had lost his wife 10 days before meeting with us and I just was touched. Never once did he share his heartbreak, it was all about helping us fish and being the guide. But the story with his son gave me a view into the soul of this man.

      That is what it takes to put life into cane...the soul...and he does that. You will be a fine student with such a teacher!

      Funny thing is later on in the summer I ran into him on the Upper Big Thompson, and he had a client, but he remembered me...and now you are making bamboo under his guide...funny how things come around, like a name. Then yesterday going into the Laughing Grizzly, and I think he guides from there. Life is full of funny little winks...

      Have a great week Erin...

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    3. FisherGirl - "Life is full of funny little winks"...I love how you put it that way. And I can't add anything to your words about Frank. He has a true soul through and through. A great week to you to, and I hope we meet on the water some day, in one of those "funny little winks"...

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