Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Enviable Object

One of the favorite tactics of modern advertising is to inspire envy by showing images of happy, successful people using a particular product or service. “Keeping up with the Joneses” has become a well-known phrase in our culture. But all of those products and services are mass produced and ultimately impersonal.

Many years ago, a friend of mine and his wife bought one of the chairs I make as a five year anniversary present to themselves. It was a particularly nice chair and even got exhibited as part of a national juried show in San Angelo, Texas. And, of course, it was absolutely one-of-a-kind. Most art purchases ARE one-of-a-kind. That’s an important part of the satisfaction in owning art.

My friends enjoyed living with their purchase, but it led to an unexpected and thought-provoking conversation with my friend’s two teenaged daughters from a previous marriage. You see, they liked the chair too, and found the courage to ask who would inherit the chair when their Dad died. This was a healthy man in his forties. Naturally, the question took him by surprise.

Initially, he was pleased that the two teenagers were so approving of his odd art purchase. Clearly, as a buyer, he had done well in their eyes. He was also pleased that they both wanted “art.” It showed that he had raised them well and that they valued worthwhile things.

What concerned him though, and the thing that gets me thinking too, is that nothing he had owned up until that point had been good enough to warrant his kids’ envy. Everything else he had ever brought into their world was just a functional “thing” unworthy of praise beyond its simple functionality. The house, the car, the appliances, the furniture, nothing else had given his kids the slightest curiosity about that [hopefully far distant] moment when they would have to sort through the objects of his estate.

As an object maker, a maker of “ART,” part of my ongoing hope is that I’m making things worth owning and using. I don’t make things destined for museums or bank vaults. I make things to enhance homes and daily living. As makers, and buyers, I think a little envy on the part of others is a good thing. The goal is not to make other people sad, or uncomfortable, but to show them that there is a hierarchy of things and that some things are indeed worthy of our admiration. I’m not tricking them into buying something easily purchased and just as easily thrown away. I’m getting them involved with family about important issues of value.

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Committee on Food

I am currently the heaviest I’ve ever been, so I can’t honestly say that what I’m about to tell you is any kind of a sure cure for unwanted weight gain. What it is, I hope, is some insight into the complicated thinking we do about eating and its consequences. I am also not a young man, so it has taken me a while to get this heavy, and to think these thoughts, and to find the time to think them through and write them down.

Whenever I am deciding to have something to eat there is inevitably a complicated discussion about it going on in my head. I refer to the various elements of that discussion, “voices” if you prefer, as the “Committee on Food.” I find that I have five distinct considerations in mind when I’m deciding to eat, and they don’t always pop up in the same order. For convenience sake, I’ll assign an order here, but your experience may be much different.

First, can I afford it? Free food jumps in value here. Whether “free food tastes the best” is true or not, sometimes perfectly good food options are simply out of my price range. That can be literal, as in I only have cash, and very little of that. Or emotional, as I’m not willing to pay fifty dollars for a steak at a restaurant when I can grill one at home for much less myself. The cheapskate in me won’t let me “waste” that much money, though I’ve certainly spent a lot of money on sushi from time to time.

 Second, can I make it myself? Regardless of price, some foods are best prepared by experts [see sushi above] and I have a hard time resisting expertly made treats. The gourmet in me wants to eat the especially yummy, can’t-get-it-at-home, foods. I have never, ever, been seriously tempted by someone else’s version of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That treat I do best at home. Come over sometime and I’ll prove it.

Third, am I hungry? I can eat when I’m not hungry, and sometimes we eat to be polite, or because it’s been the right number of hours since the last meal, or because trying to function with low blood sugar is a bad idea. But am I actually hungry? When you’re actually quite hungry almost any food seems like a good idea.

Fourth, is it “bad” food? Some foods will always be a bad idea, no matter who you are or how your digestive system works. I won’t name names here, but I can say that there’s a specific breakfast cereal that I used to love as a kid that was not good for the quality of the domestic atmosphere in the hours following. It doesn’t matter if other people are eating it, or if it’s free, or if I’m starving. For me at least, it’s bad food, and so no longer counts as food at all.

Fifth, is being cranky worse than eating too much, or putting on weight? Ideally, our individual moods and happiness are not dependent on overeating, but the process of under-eating often leads to crankiness and damage to the domestic tranquility. If eating something will lighten my mood, maybe that’s the greater good. It doesn’t have to be a whole chocolate cake, mind, but a timely snack might easily save a marriage. And so on.

Lots of reasons to eat something, or to not eat something. I hate the idea of needing to buy new larger clothes [see cheapskate above]. I also prefer moving more easily and getting approval from my doctor. And in all of these things I suspect I’m a lot like other people. The problem for me is that when the discussion in my head is going on about this food or that food, or is it time to eat again, I fundamentally enjoy food. The voices that say “NO,” just speak too quietly, or get drowned out by all the other voices approving the opportunity. And realistically, our bodies need/want food.

So, what can I do? I have found it helps to just wave off certain foods, even if they’re not officially “bad.” No ice cream in the house, or fried chicken, or chips. Some restaurants get the same treatment. I hardly ever eat fast food, and then only because I’m on the road and it’s what I can find. We also have fabulous restaurants in my hometown, so lots of perfectly normal places never even get considered. No point in considering them, I know I can do better.

I can also exaggerate what things are “too expensive.” When I’m attentive to prices at the grocery store, it’s easy to see how eating out costs more. I don’t begrudge the restaurants the money, but I can often appeal to my inner thriftiness to at least postpone the pleasure until some other day. And don’t get me wrong, good food is full of pleasure. Nutrients, and necessity, and health, but mostly pleasure. And that will always make it harder for the committee to tell me not to eat it.

I should say too that food includes drinks, especially boozy drinks with lots of calories. I remember a warning poster once that showed the equivalence between certain drinks and hot fudge sundaes. Like many people, a beer now and then is quite easy to agree to, but hot fudge sundaes seem like a pure surrender to weight gain. Looking at the equivalence chart, I’m afraid my thought was not that I should avoid both booze and hot fudge sundaes, but rather that I should substitute an ice cream treat for a casual beer more often.

Whether the choices you make are steak, sushi, beer, or ice cream, it seems that the main challenge is to be clear-eyed and intentional. Our choices have consequences, and pleasures, and the worst thing we can do is be absent-minded or thoughtless about the process.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Good Job

In the past, when households were more likely to have just one wage-earner, the idea of “the good job” would have referred to a job that was just better than some previous less desirable jobs. These days, when it’s far more common to have two employed people in a household, the good job often refers to the one that is providing the health insurance. Of course, the quality of “goodness” can be attached to many traits, and many of those are crucial to the functioning of a relationship in which one or both of the workers are also artists.

This issue came up at the International Wood-fire Conference at Waubonsee Community College in 2016. It was part of an overall discussion about the gender imbalance in wood-fired ceramics, and the degree of privilege required for anyone to attempt to build and maintain their own wood-fired kiln and shop. To put it bluntly, men can build these shops when their wives have a “good job” that provides a steady monthly income and the ever-vital health insurance. It helps too to have the down payment for land and materials.

For a few years now I have been the one with the good job. Not a great job, mind, but a steady paycheck, health insurance, paid leave time, and no need to bring any of that work home with me or even think about it past five o’clock. That last part can be vital because I’m also still a working potter and I very much need my evenings and weekends to do all the things that get inventory made and sold.

I’ve also fielded questions about whether or not being a full time potter would be a good job. I did that, for six years, and for most of that time my wife had “the good job” that provided the health insurance and the regular rent money. When she no longer had that job, our “health insurance” was MasterCard and Visa, and our rent payments were sometimes tardy. It was not good.

Being a full time potter can be a great job, but it’s also always TWO jobs, or as many as twenty-two jobs, all rolled into one life. The major split though is the half of you that makes the pots and the half that does the marketing, transporting, and selling. Even if you only sell your work through galleries, some part of you will have to handle the paperwork with those galleries, recruiting those galleries, and re-supplying those galleries.

And then there’s the part of you doing the accounting. Well, maybe you can hire an accountant. Or if you are very lucky, and very privileged, you’ve got a spouse that can do the accounting for you. Love them extra for their help.

Any job can be a “good job” compared to one that’s worse. Ideally, every job would be a good one, but that doesn’t seem to be how things work. Good luck with yours.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Contentment in Troubled Times

It's nothing new to get a bit reflective as we approach New Year's Day. In my case, I've also been just a wee bit too busy the last three or four months to pause to write, so I'm overdue. The fall semester is finally over. And so, it's time to look up and notice the changes of the past year.

For full time potters, or artists in other media, the day to day struggle to be both productive and businesslike, can make it difficult to notice much of the future (except for show application deadlines) and almost nothing of the past (except for tax records). In this way, any artist without children might be excused for failing to pay much attention to the passing of whole decades. Really, what has changed? Hopefully, the work has improved, and maybe the money has increased, but the making and the selling remain remarkably the same from year to year. It's a sort of seaside ocean scene with crashing waves and shifting tides, but always the same ocean of hope and opportunity, dampness and cold.

It, the art-as-business cycle, could be easy to take for granted, and easy to think of as much much too important. Well, this year, too busy for many things, I have still managed to notice my friends, and to value them more. Marriages have broken. People have moved to new cities. Jobs have been lost, and sought, and a few won. My friends have begun to feel like a small fleet of independent ships, some disappearing over the horizon for a while, some close by almost every day. A couple have sunk. I can't steer their ships for them, nor protect them from the weather, but we keep an eye out for each other, and take some comfort in each others' company.

They are among my contentments, and I am noticing those more these days, too. The past year has been full of dramas and suspense. But it has also been a time in which I have paid more attention to my contentments, the little things that can never make you happy by themselves, but which stitched together like a quilt, make life warm and cheery. Whatever you contentments happen to be, I hope that they increase in the coming year, and that you find the serenity to truly appreciate them.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What Things Equal

A few years ago I acted as driver for a friend who was going to a weight loss clinic. There were weekly weighings, etc., and special foods to be purchased, and a studiously lean selection of staff members in the lobby/waiting area. For the benefit of those of us waiting, there was also a big poster illustrating the weight gain potential of alcoholic beverages. I suspect it was aimed at college women in particular, but it compared beer and wine and mixed drinks to ice cream sundaes.

Now, I don't have ice cream sundaes very often. Like most people, I think of them as a fattening self-indulgence. But a beer or two, every now and again, is a much easier thing to say, "Yes," to. Which was the point of the poster. The equivalencies were a little disturbing. Booze is fattening.

Of course, being the independent thinker I am, I got something entirely different out of the moment. Looking at the poster, and thinking about my occasional beer, I thought to myself, "I should be having more ice cream sundaes."

Saturday, April 3, 2010


A couple of months ago I happened to start a list of all the types of employment I've ever had. I sort of startled myself, and I don't know what to make of the list. Of course, I didn't know what to make of it years ago when I read of all the jobs the author, Jack London, had held. Did it represent courage and adaptability, or a short attention span and an inability to maintain good employee/employer relationships?

I'll leave off the employments I never got paid for, like martial arts instructor, poet, and painter. And I'll only do a rough approximation of chronological order. But follow me for a moment, if you will.

Newspaper delivery boy
Library assistant [alphabetizing cards for my mom]
Kitchen drudge/dishwasher [an Orange Julius restaurant in Albuquerque]
Agricultural laborer [detasseling corn]
Summer Child Care/Nanny
Construction work [KU football stadium renovation]
Assistant Soccer Coach [Grinnell College]
Figure Model [for drawing classes, yes nude]
Linen Boy [Hospital worker, shifting laundry, both clean and dirty]
University Ceramics Lab assistant [KU and the University of Iowa]
Ceramics Instructor [children, adults, community center and College]
Full Time Potter
Home Repair Guy
Writer [essays]
Writing Teacher
Factory assembly worker
Loading Dock worker
Furniture Mover
Prepress technician [Allen Press, Lawrence, Kansas]
Pressman's helper
Access Control Officer [credit card manufacturing security officer]
Clay Supply Warehouse worker
Medical Supply Delivery driver
Proofreader/Copy editor
Art Museum Security Guard
Bus Driver
SafeRide Driver [free late night taxi service for college students]
Library Assistant
and now, a Manuscript Specialist at a University Archive.

I'd prefer to mark all the changes down to geographical moves and improved opportunities. Almost none of the jobs involved getting fired or laid off. And several were the sort of part time work you count yourself lucky to find when you're also trying to be a student. I suppose student is a job, too, though almost no one will pay you to do it.

The long and the short of it is that I've got a lot of story material based on diverse work experiences. And I have a hard time understanding how someone stays with the same job their whole working life. It either indicates a brilliance in finding the perfect first job, or a complacency about life that borders on the vegetative.

Paula Poundstone was right. We ask kids what they want to be when they grow up because we're still looking for good ideas ourselves. I hope my current new job [combined with my old interests] lasts a good long time. Stability can be a change.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I Believe I'll Trim Some Pots

What if Art could be thought of as a religion? I mean, it's something you can believe in, isn't it? It gives strength, insight, satisfaction, peace of mind, even moral direction. It requires faith, and dedication, and attention to others.

I say this because not all of us can be holy men (or women) or live our religions twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And when your physical sustenance must also come from the practice of your beliefs, how does that complicate or erode your experience of that faith?

I worked for many years as a full time potter and it had its ups and downs. I certainly could have been more 'faithful' in my practice, more savvy as a business owner, and better capitalized at its inception. Many parts of it were wonderful, and I'm still delighted to visit my good old pots at other people's houses. But living in poverty was too stressful, for me, and my family. And selling pots because you absolutely have to, sucks.

Now, I finally have a good job, away from the arts but in a worthwhile endeavor. And I can express my faith in the same way that so many others of us express theirs... on the weekends. For artists just entering the business of art I recommend finding something similar. If success at your art simply overwhelms your ability to find time for a second career, well bless you. But for others, life is more likely to overwhelm your art. Build a wall of practical success and let it protect the temple sanctuary of your art. I rather wish I'd done so years ago.