The wealth of knowledge shared
My true joy in life is sharing knowledge. If I hadn’t gone down the path of architecture and construction I would have pursued higher academic accomplishment. In many ways, my unending curiosity about the physical, the natural, and the metaphysical still drives my life path.
Two thoughts come to mind as I write this.
First, I have always believed that we can’t own knowledge. The big mind of the universe knows all and freely shares the truth to anyone who humbly inquires. No patent or trademark or government or corporate obfuscation can ultimately hide knowledge from an inquiring mind.
Second, and this is far more controversial. No thought is truly unique. It has all been said and done before. In the recombination and application lies the creativity.
That being said, in my career as a carpenter, most of what I learned was either by the approximation of perfection (i.e., copying what was done before), or by being shown how to do it by a master craftsman.
In the era of the medieval guild, a young boy would be apprenticed to a craftsman doing menial tasks, such as stoking a fire for a blacksmith, rendering tallow for a candle maker, sharpening the woodcarver’s tools. The apprentice woodworker would work in a menial capacity for years before being allowed to make the first cut. The shorter lifespan of those times meant that many of the apprentices never made the cut, literally.
Helping my dad
As I young boy I would spend hours in my father’s shop watching him cut and sand and paint. I “helped” by doing self-assigned tasks such as organizing the jars of nails, screws, washers, brads – and the countless, fascinating things that Lenny kept on his shelves. Eventually when I was about seven, he had me help him with his Saturday tasks.
One of the projects was the yearly changing of the storm windows for screens. Each panel fit a different window and was marked by a circular metal number on each storm or screen and an identical one on the window jamb. The first floor was easy and done from the outside with Lenny climbing a wooden, paint-splattered stepladder. He’d ask me to hold on to the ladder’s legs as he removed the storm and installed the screen.
It was when we reached the second floor that things got interesting. Lenny would hang out the window by sitting on the sill and hooking the panels into the two hooks at the top. He needed me, little Nicky, to hold his belt while he hung out over the edge. To me, this was a challenge as well as a big responsibility, an honor even. I believe I was ready for the task, since he did not fall. I was beginning to learn to rely on strength and centeredness and trust as important tools of the trade.
My son helped me
When my path lead me to set building and stage construction, I took it upon myself to build a sub stage over the high school auditorium in order to create a more black box environment for the spring drama and fundraising event. Built for strength and designed for intimacy, it seated only one hundred patrons over an intricate reusable post and panel tiered array. My son Jesse (then in middle school) was always around for this Saturday construction either helping me or tagging along behind the stage crew in mascot fashion. During the first set up and final construction, he tightened the carriage bolts one more time. A very important job!
When it was erected, at each end there remained the need for a filler piece to close off the last two gaps on the stage wings. I asked Jess to figure out this eccentric trapezoid shape, leaving him to the task as I started to put the tools away. I didn’t give it a second thought. Maybe fifteen minutes later I heard, “OK, Dad!” He had laid out the cut lines on a piece of plywood using the chalk line tool, and it was ready for the cut. Jesse was eleven years old at the time, still too young to use the skill saw, so I made a quick assessment of his layout and cut it out. Many times in a carpenter’s career, you come to tricky cuts that are better left approximated and trimmed to fit out of rough stock than taking a lot of time getting it right the first time and possibly wasting valuable material.
After the cut we took it over to its place and dropped it in. The piece fit the first time! I had known that Jesse had math and technical talent but this moment showed me just how much.
The balance in teaching is knowing when to let your students fly.
Much of the learning we do comes out of the absorbent osmosis of knowledge transference from master to apprentice. Holding Lenny’s belt was a moment of empowerment. And I never forgot it later on when I had to hold on tight to a fellow carpenter’s belt or give him a hand up when he needed it.