Fresh Steel

IMG_0968A glance at the thermometer yesterday morning showed -16F.  It was a good day to continue working in the shop, sharpening and tuning hand tools.  Sharpening plane irons and chisels is therapeutic for a mind like mine.  It asks me to slow down, to reorient my sometimes “squirrel in the road” thought process, to focus.  It is mindfulness practice with really sharp objects.

There is a ritual associated with this sharpening meditation.  The bench is cleared and the workspace prepared with the means to the end.  A coarse diamond stone is placed on the left should it be needed and two Japanese water stones in steps to the right; one to sharpen, one to hone.  A bottle of water to lubricate the stones, a rag to clean the tools between steps, and a scrap board for tuning are placed close at hand.

Then the tools themselves are chosen, planes first, chisels last.  Dust, memory and a careful drag of the thumb indicate which need sharpening and a swipe on the test board is used for triage.  The sharpest of the lot is the first to go through the process.  Bringing a tool from “pretty sharp” to “scary sharp” sets the standard.

The plane is then disassembled by removing its lever cap and iron assembly, leaving the frog exposed for inspection and cleaning.  That this finely crafted tool has a key component labeled a frog is a thinly veiled attempt to break my concentration – to which I sometimes succumb.  With the iron in hand it’s time to put steel to stone.

Both visual and tactile senses are brought fully to bear as the stone is stroked by the iron, carefully maintaining the angle to be sharpened,  watching the slurry darken to indicate progress.  A wipe with a rag and a feel with the thumb reveals a slight burr on the back of the iron.  Fresh steel has been exposed; the essence of sharpening.  A few strokes on the fine stone, front and back, to hone the sharpened edge completes the process.

The plane is then reassembled and tuned; the tuning board presiding as judge.  The iron’s exposure and bias are adjusted and readjusted until the plane sings across the board and offers up a uniformly thin shaving, a gossamer slice of grain.  An inward smile, a nod of satisfaction accompanies the placement of the plane back in its till for safe keeping.

And so with the others.

And so while the wind factored chill into already frigid air, I found refuge in a task.  Protected by walls and a sense of purpose, a day passed warmed by the mindful engagement of stone and steel.


The (Upper) Case for Style

It’s revealing of me that when I received my copy of The Elements of Style from Amazon the other day, I all but ignored the other books in the box.  My first copy – the one that got me through college – is probably still in my possession, but it is such a small book that it can easily get lost in the stacks unless it’s kept near at hand.  As can, at least in my case, its contents.

For those not familiar with it, The Elements of Style, in fewer than 100 pages, provides a “…summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.”  While it is primarily a reference book, a rope to reach for when you find yourself caught between a rock and independent clauses, it is much more.  Now more than ever, in this time when our modes of communication all but command us to ignore grammar and style (think texting and 140 characters), The Elements of Style offers a clear path back from the edge.  And I mean clear.  When Strunk says,

“Vigorous writing is concise.  A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”,

he does not qualify the instruction with, LOL.  The rules of usage and principles of composition are presented clearly, in the active, affirmative voice.  This confidence is not arrogance.  It is, as Charles Osgood notes in the Afterword, born of sympathy for the reader.

Grammar and style are to the written word what civility and courtesy are to the verbal exchange.  The case can be made that our norms for communicating are simply adapting to our changing technologies,  but as a middle-aged curmudgeon in training, I still find expressions of good style and form refreshing, and I’ll cling to The Elements of Style for just a few decades more, thank you.

Olivetti Who?

It’s Christmas Eve and I’m typing the first words of my first blog and you’d think it’s Christmas morning.  It’s almost 6PM and the UPS guy just dropped off another box of books, and I just handed Arlo some birch kindling to chew and let him out into the deep snow. You’d think it’s Christmas morning.

So what’s this Olivetti reference all about?  It’s meant to establish that the content of this blog will be decidedly analog. I’m no Luddite (I’m typing this on a Macbook Pro and I’ve even been known to listen to a book instead of turning paper pages) but there are times when I want to at least slow the machine down. This will be a place where I will do that.

Ramblings about books I’m reading, stories I’m writing, trails I’m hiking (with one dog in particular) are among likely topics here.  Hemingway said “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” (he used an Underwood, by the way).  Let’s just see where this goes.

Another reason for the Olivetti reference – one of the best living authors in America today, Cormac McCarthy, typed all or most of his novels on one Olivetti Lettera machine. That’s somewhere north of five million words. Something tells me this Macbook will crash well south of that…