April 2010

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“It’s amazing how our lives are ruled by our stuff“… This comment from Butch, as we stood by the dock in South Caicos; we’d been discussing the recent loss of my own boat, along with everything aboard, being everything I owned. Looking back on it, I think a large part of how I was able to deal so well with the loss was that it was accompanied by a great deal of freedom. Indeed, the course of my life had been almost completely dominated by my stuff, at least over the past couple of years. I really had no idea how complete this domination was until after I’d lost everything.

Today, I find myself to be too-easily disturbed by stuff. Yes, I have a few nice things in my life, which I feel I’ve earned, and yes, I like to surround myself in as much comfort as I can reasonably afford. Living simply and sparsely in the boat and the bus taught me just how little I really needed, but only a profound and complete loss of stuff taught me just how much I was being weighed-down by my belongings.

I’ve recently moved out of my apartment. It was my first conventional living arrangement in several years, which afforded me both the advantages and burdens of accumulation. I was very surprised at how much crap I’d picked up in just over a year. It actually took me more than one trip in my little van to empty out my tiny bachelor apartment!

Now this isn’t meant to be a harsh criticism, but by way of comparison, let’s look at my ladyfriend. The one I’ve just moved in with. The one whose seemingly-endless piles of crap stuff are now surrounding me, covering almost the entirety of our new huge 1400-square-foot apartment. Don’t get me wrong; she isn’t a hoarder, some unreasonable collector, or a a sentimental nutjob. She’s not even particularly materialistic in character. It’s just that she’s lived in the same space for 13 years, a space with massive walk-in closets and copious area with which to fill with any and all sorts of memorabilia, art, and furniture.

In the time we’ve been together, I suppose I’ve just always assumed that some large part of that old apartment’s collection belonged to her two room-mates (one of whom most certainly is one of those sorts of inveterate “collectors”). Only when I saw the whole mass of it bagged, boxed, and so thoroughly covering the entirety of our new place did I start to get properly emotional about it all. I’m starting to realize that, as far as the “burden of stuff” goes, the only thing harsher than your own burden is that feeling of having been mantled with someone else’s stuff.

I look around me, and my soul is stunned to think that any one person can actually have so much. Whether fair and reasonable or not, my gut reaction is not to see it as “a person who has stuff”, but as “stuff that owns a human”; it as if the human has become this de-personified accessory to the collection.

Why is it that I react this way? I certainly don’t want to feel so disturbed by it, but neither do I wish to have such strong gut reactions flippantly dismissed. I take another look around, and decide to examine my own little corner of the apartment, and the few things I have here. How do I relate to them? What do my possessions really mean to me? What benefit do they confer that counters their burden?

I start and end with a set of simple questions: which of my belongings have I possessed for the longest time, and how has my relationship with that item changed over that period of time? How has that relationship changed me? How do I react to the notion of discarding that item?

The item in question is a threadbare black nylon daypack. It’s bleached a little purplish from use and exposure. The elasit closures are stretched and dangling. The waist-strap has been raggedly cut off. This is my “haul-bag”; the cheap surplus-store bag I used to haul my groceries home, on foot, when i had the bus parked some ways out of town. I guess I’ve possessed it for 8 years. It replaced a green cotton canvas bag that I’d picked up in Guadalajara 8 years before that. That green bag was discarded in the wastebasket at a local coffeeshop (The Beanstalk, to be precise) after I’d dropped it and broken the small bottle of olive oil it contained; bare and worn, and now soaked in oil, it was an appropriate disposal.

This black bag was one of the very few things I took with me when I stepped up off the boat mid-Atlantic. I’m fairly certain it’s the only object continuously in my possession for longer than 2 years. It’s been on all sorts of cross-country (and cross-ocean!) trips with me. It was the only bag I took with me on my last trip back to BC, my last trip to Mexico, and my only trip to NYC. It’s a lousy bag, and I can’t admit to particularly loving it, but I feel like it has earned the right to burden me.

I look back at all the other piles and piles around me, and can’t begin to fathom how so many items can have ever earned their right to burden anyone else in such a similar fashion. Of course, I shouldn’t extend my values to other people this way, right? Or does sharing a home with someone give me a little leave to indulge in these reactions? It’s hard to say, especially since all this shit stuff has yet to be properly sorted and stowed.

Already, I can tell that my ladyfriend is feeling more burdened than she has in years; she’s being confronted by her stuff in a more full and complete fashion than she can recall. I want to be more supportive through this process… but I can’t shake the feeling that the real solution is to simply step away from it, let it all go, take her hand, and lead her away from it.

JB dragged me to a garage sale this morning. Newport is a fine venue for a garage sale, as it has such a long and colourful history, and is populated by an army of characters and collectors. Despite this, I tend to avoid such sales like the plague; I have had a bad habit of collecting junk myself, and largely try to avoid any added temptations.

Today, however, and of course I find something worth the trip. I found a Kalliroscope “Pocket Viewer” for a dollar. In the original box, with the original paperwork, but sadly missing the small rotating ball-bearing base. This was a neat find for me; I’d had never before seen one in person, or even in colour, but had long wanted to encounter one.

It all started years ago. My mother passed to me a copy of The Last Whole Earth Catalog, the actual “Last” one from 1971, #1160. Like a paper version of a Google search, the Whole Earth Catalog was an incredible inch-thick 11″x14″ tome, primitive, direct, and optimistic, championing “access to tools” within its pages.

In that particular issue, some articles and items were singled out for special mention. This was signified on the page by an image of a Kalliroscope next to the piece in question. The Catalog itself offered two Kalliroscopes for sale; the small hand-held globe version, and the thinner rectangular “Pocket Viewer” that I found today.

It’s hard to describe what a Kalliroscope really looks like, what it does, or how it does it. I’ve tried to find videos on-line, but haven’t found any good ones. Likewise, the website of the original inventor/manufacturer isn’t particularly helpful. Technically, the Kalliroscope is rheoscopic fluid suspension of microscopic crystalline platelets sandwiched between glass sheets. Practically, it’s a ridiculous little gizmo that you just hold and stare at while it does all this swirly cosmic stuff.

The memory of that Catalog and the inspiration I gained from it while I lived in the bus stay with me. It’s a happy little throwback to a time when sentimentality was forefront in my life. Now that I’ve lived through bitter cynicism and am now entering a strongly pragmatic period, it’s probably healthy to hold on to a few of these positive reminders of previous ages.

I’ve had a long-standing interest in traditional sailor life, art, and culture. This style of artwork has an amazingly wide appeal. In the popular media, artists such as Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy have been really capitalizing on this as well. The culture they promote is, to my eye, an idealized expression. George S. Eisenberg’s cultural expression is not so idealized; it’s the real deal.

I’ve recently begun working with George, looking through his massive collection of letters, drawings, and memorabilia from his time aboard a WWII destroyer from 1942-1945. In the coming weeks, we will be bringing a new and exciting presentation of his work to a fresh internet forum. It’s a thoroughly fascinating and compelling look at naval wartime through the eyes of a lifelong artist, explorer, collector, and sailor.

George S. Eisenberg’s website exhibits a broad, if shallow, slice of his artwork and writing throughout the years. There’s some of the sailor work, as well as illustrative pieces from magazine and book covers, original paintings, lithographs, production studies -he drew the first drafts of GI Joe for Hasbro- and much more. Take a look!

I recently had an interesting exchange with my dear stepdad, concerning old tools. Specifically, the repair of old tools versus the purchase of new ones. He’s been trying to source some basic repair parts for palm sander, and having poor luck at home, has me helping to import some.

Sad but true, those same simple repair parts -themselves being foreseeable wear items, not at all a cause for tool replacement- will end up costing about as much as a new tool would. Me, well, I’m a bit of a self-annoying tool-snob; I’d probably just replace the sander. On the other hand, I completely agree with the principle of a repair. In practice, I make part of my living with my tools, and the downtime and annoyance of a repair isn’t usually worth the savings. The latest greatest best and fastest tools are almost always more than I ought to afford, but doing self-employed on-call yacht-repair work, I can’t really afford anything less.

Rarely, some sort of sentiment takes over. I’ve worked in several shops, both amateur and professional, that included in their inventory one of those ancient 3/8″ B&D electric drills; you know the ones, with the heavy cast-aluminum housings, lousy ergonomics, and arm-ripping low-speed torque. They tend to look like crap, with paint and chips and mangled cords, but have somehow managed to keep running years past any modern expiration date. They almost always come with a story; Dad’s cousin’s first drill, the drill that spun out that broken easy-out, the only tool that could tackle that cross-member bolt…

I have one survivor of my own. When I bought my last boat, I found a suspect-looking old Makita GV5000 in the bottom of a locker. The sander had seen some water and had the remains of a few cockroaches stuck in the vents. It squealed horridly, but ran. I ended up sanding half my keel with it, then used it to polish all my stainless pipework. A few years later, when I was being picked off my foundering boat mid-Atlantic (thanks again, captain & crew of the MSC Malaysia!), that same cruddy old GV5000 was one of the few possessions I managed to come away with.

Last winter, I started a job that required a whole lot of disc-sanding. I dug the GV out of storage and gave it a spin… the horrible squeal was back, worse than ever. Well, by this time I figured that the sander had earned some love, so I took it for the 20-minute drive to the nearest full-service walk-in industrial tool repair center to see what we could do. There, a very friendly gentleman patiently explained to me that a full set of bearings and brushes could be ordered, but that the cost of the repair would end up totaling almost half the cost of a brand-new upgraded GV5010. While I needed the tool for work, the repair was a lousy deal, and the replacement was more than I could afford. In the end, I did as I had a few years back: I blew out the brushes with compressed air, hosed down the bearings with teflon spray, and just kept working the tool. It quieted down and made me money for 5 weeks. I still have it.

Lately, I’ve been trying a middle path with factory-reconditioned tools. I’ve had excellent luck with these, purchased through online merchants. Usually, they come with all the usual accessories, cases, paperwork, etc., as well as a complete warranty. The real difference is in the cost, oftentimes half that of the same tool new. They way I look at it, it’s like getting your own tool repaired, except with a new warranty. Buying reconditioned comes with some shortcomings; there may be far less selection available, and some reconditioned tools may not come boxed. My reconditioned DeWalt tools come with an unsightly “R” hot-branded into the plastic case, which I can live with.

Ultimately, it shouldn’t be about the tool, but about the work, about the job. I believe that in the right hands, excellent tools lead to excellent results. However, given skill and patience, that old tool can do just as well.