“Make a living… not a killing”

James Michener’s epic novel on the settlement of Hawaii contains an ominous warning for would-be settlers planning to scratch out a living on some of the world’s youngest, still-forming land.  Just before telling the story of the first Polynesians and their unprecedented sea voyage in the 700’s to discover the Hawaiian Islands, Michener sets the stage for his entire book with two brilliant paragraphs:

Image result for michener hawaii imagesTherefore, men of Polynesia and Boston and China and Mount Fuji and the barrios of the Phillippines, do not come to these islands empty-handed, or craven in spirit, or afraid to starve.  There is no food here.  In these islands there is no certainty.  Bring your own food, your own gods, your own flowers and fruits and concepts.  For if you come without resources to these islands you will perish.

But if you come with growing things, and good foods and better ideas, if you come with gods that will sustain you, and if you are willing to work until the swimming head and aching arms can stand no more, then you can gain entrance into this miraculous crucible where the units of nature are free to develop according to their own capacities and desires.

On these harsh terms the islands waited.

Harsh terms, indeed!  But as I was reading this book during a recent two-week family vacation to Hawaii, I couldn’t help but chuckle at how easy our own journey had been compared to those endured by Michener’s characters.  Delta’s non-stop flight from Atlanta to Honolulu isn’t quite the same as doubling Cape Horn on a six-month journey from Boston in the 1820’s on an 80-foot brig.  And the thought of leaping from the “miraculous crucible” of the academy into any other sort of crucible wasn’t resonating either.  All I wanted to do was catch a few waves on Waikiki Beach and spend some unhurried time with my family.  Continue reading

More thoughts on a Woodworker’s Madness

Aldo Leopold

Before I began my last post on the life and work of Roy Underhill, I tried to write an essay about Robert Frost and Aldo Leopold.  The single stanza of Frost’s poem, “Two Tramps in Mudtime,” that Shirley Showalter included in a recent post sent me down this path, but connecting these contemporaries through the idea of vocation has been much harder than I expected.  In any case, I am convinced that both writers understood something about work, and the direction it was headed during their lifetimes, that sheds important light on the modern world and what we are called to do in it. Continue reading

The Meaning and Method of a Woodworker’s Madness

Roy Underhill: A Quarter Century of Subversive Woodworking
Roy Underhill – a subversive woodworker? 

The first time I ever saw anyone use a hand plane to work a piece of  rough-sawn lumber into something useful was in Tanzania, on the island of Ukerewe, in 1998. I was part of a decidedly unskilled — at least with regards to building construction — team of newly sworn-in Peace Corps Volunteers helping with a local Habitat for Humanity project while on our way from Dar es Salaam to our sites around Lake Victoria.

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Brick kiln on the island of Ukerewe, Tanzania.

The house we were helping to build was made from red clay bricks that were recently fired. The kiln was built right next to the house using soil that was dug from a large open pit.  The master carpenter overseeing the construction was incredibly patient, not to mention gracious, as he taught us to lay bricks.  The first exterior wall that we tried on our own needed to be taken apart and rebuilt by the crew of skilled masons working on the project. Our eight weeks of Peace Corps training had prepared us for a lot of things, but laying bricks was clearly not one of them. Continue reading

A heresy worth considering…

Image result for geek heresy images
Geek Heresy

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Kentaro Toyama back in February 2018 when he visited our campus for an engaging seminar on the role of technology in addressing social problems. Dr. Toyama is the W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan, and his 2015 book, Geek Heresy, articulates what I consider “hard won” insight into the role of technology in society and, more specifically, how technology impacts social change.

Toyama began his career as a computer scientist working for Microsoft in their research division.  If you have ever enjoyed the Kinect accessory in Microsoft’s XBox—the stereo imaging system that converts a player’s motion into real-time video game inputs—you are at least tangentially familiar with some of Toyama’s early research that led to the development of Kinect.  Ultimately, though, Toyama found this work unfulfilling and a far cry from the idealism of his youth that had drawn him to the sciences in the first place.  His original goal was to help solve the energy crisis. Continue reading

“It is not love… that makes a non-stick frying pan.”

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Beware of the non-stick properties of Teflon

The title of this post is a lyric from an absolutely brilliant song on Josh Ritter’s 1999 self-titled, debut album, entitled “Stuck to You.”  Aside from stating the obvious about love and Teflon,  there is a story behind this particular song that might, depending on how you read it, shine an interesting light on vocational discernment.   Continue reading

(Re)-reading Wendell Berry on vocation and community (part 2)

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From Look and See, documentary on Wendell Berry (2016)

I am afraid that some amount of doubt may have crept into this project since my last post on Wendell Berry and his definition of community.  My argument in that post was simple: it would be good if professionals, and those who train them, might spend at least a few moments thinking through the implications of Berry’s ideal community along with his critique on modernity — both are described in his 1969 essay, “The loss of the future.”

The doubt crept in after I took my own advice and re-read Berry’s 2014 essay, “Our deserted country,” which can be found in the 2015 collection entitled Our Only World.

The essay contains the following definition of vocation:

The idea of vocation attaches to work a cluster of other ideas, including devotion, skill, pride, pleasure, the good stewardship of means and materials.  Here we have returned to intangibles of economic value. When they are subtracted, what remains is “a job,” always implying that work is something good only to escape: “Thank God it’s Friday.”

Continue reading

(Re)-reading Wendell Berry on community and vocation (part 1)

Wendell Berry (Photo by Guy Mendes)
Wendell Berry (Photo by Guy Mendes)

One definition of  “community” that I have become fond of lately comes from a quote by Wendell Berry.  You don’t have to look very hard for a good quote by Wendell Berry about almost anything.  I could get lost on Berry’s BrainyQuote page and never find my way out.  The connection between vocation and community is strong throughout Berry’s work, but David Guthrie’s recent post, which highlights the many shortcomings of our academic communities, has convinced me that  Berry has something important to say about this connection.  My plan is to look at two of Berry’s essays, the first (in this post) published in 1969 and the second (next time) published in 2015, that contain definitions of community and vocation that may very well be… definitive.  Continue reading