To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.Leonard Bernstein
Does Gentle Reader ever feel tired, restless, or achy after a difficult experience? Do these symptoms ever progress to insomnia, headache, neck pain, backache, chest pain or even (heaven forfend, I need a fire extinguisher) untimely spontaneous human combustion? And do any of these symptoms persist even after the pressures that precipitated them are gone? If so, you may be a human, perhaps even one of those with a brain and a soul connected to your body.
In this article, your most humble and obedient servant will, as Tim the Toolman Taylor often did, dare to diverge just a step or two from the beaten path of tool talk to consider how tools and woodworking may help us mitigate the dangerous stress most modern humans experience daily. So hi ho neighbor, let’s have a conversation over the fence.
A Tale of Stupidity
I promise you nothing is as chaotic as it seems. Nothing is worth diminishing your health. Nothing is worth poisoning yourself into stress, anxiety, and fear.”Steve Maraboli
Allow me to begin with a true story, one of stupidity and toxic stress, just another fun day at the office.
Many years ago when the world was bubbling with promise, my head was fuzzier, my beard was darker and my waist was slimmer I was employed by a mid-sized Midwest construction company doing a design/ build factory for a Japanese precision parts manufacturer. Besides the construction of the factory expansion, the work included installing foundations for carburizing ovens used to create a hard skin on the steel parts they manufactured. I was tasked with marking out a concrete slab for core-drilling a series of pier foundations to support these ovens.
Everything went well, my layout drawing was approved, the slab was cored and piers were cast on-time. But when the equipment supplier’s salesman came to inspect the foundations he informed my boss they were spaced incorrectly. A disaster!
BTW, I was never told why my layout was wrong, but once the ovens arrived it was as obvious as the bill on a duck’s face that the manufacturer’s drawings didn’t match. In any case, at the time I was certain the foundations would need to be reworked, delaying installation of the ovens, and consequently the Owner’s production start, so I was sick with embarrassment at probably having delayed the project, and felt obligated to repay my employer the cost of remediating my apparent mistake. So between personal shame, the fear of potential schedule delays, and the thought of paying thousands of dollars out of my own pocket to make things right I was seriously stressed for about a week. Headaches, stomach aches and chest pains ensued forthwith.
My boss was a steady guy named Jim who heard out my profound apology while squinting at me like Blondie frequently did at Tuco the Rat, then snorted and called me an “ijit.”
Jim explained that if everyone who worked on a construction project were to be held personally financially responsible for minor unintentional mistakes, no one would do anything. And even if they were held responsible for their screwups, the construction company would then be obligated to pay them for everything they did right as a percentage of the project’s profits. And that wasn’t the arrangement.
Although Jim was gruff, even insulting, the results of his impromptu jobsite trailer therapy session were undeniable, providing me with necessary perspective, quickly dissolving the emotional stress that was crushing me, even relieving the physical symptoms I was suffering. And all without a couch! We all need someone like Jim.
When the crew that came to install the carburizing ovens entirely ignored the footings we had installed, but bolted steel “I ” beams to the slab instead, and then mounted the ovens on them I was shocked, even a little angry! They explained that’s how they always installed their equipment. And yes, all my self-recrimination and stress had been silly.
No doubt many Gentle Readers have learned similar lessons, but there’s a quote I’m fond of by Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of England during WWII, a former soldier and fearless leader who bravely persevered as bombs and missiles rained down around him, the nation’s cowardly bureaucrats and politicians hid like rats in rubbish piles, civilian women and children were being murdered, and his nation was about to be invaded by a brutal enemy, to be apropos to most (but not all) stressful situations:
When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.Winston S. Churchill
Since those halcyon days my philosophy towards life and work has changed.
I once vainly believed I could control the people around me, or at least those I was responsible for, but with experience came the realization that attempting to control people is like pushing cats towards a goal with a small broom while demanding they knit sweaters along the way. The truth is that I have never been in control, that I can never successfully make anyone do anything, and that whenever I try to, all semblance of goodwill and cooperation is lost as everyone scatters and stress levels skyrocket.
One can never successfully “herd” cats, but at best only “lead” them (and sometimes even people) to go where you want them to go, or to do what you want them to do, with fish in hand, an even tone of voice and frequent ear rubbing, if you know what I mean.
While I don’t push people nowadays, I frequently have Clients, mostly inexperienced, egotistical, mid-management types who don’t have a clue but are frantic to climb the corporate ladder, consequences be damned, who expect such counter-productive foolishness of me on their employer’s behalf. Without appearing to refuse or contradict, of course, I always try to find other solutions, but when this is not possible and the Client stubbornly insists on Marxist measures, I separate myself from such projects because I know they will not only fail, but will yield unpleasant consequences for everybody involved, including tons of shame and crushing stress for me.
Don’t get me wrong, construction projects involve coordinating the efforts of a lot people, and sometimes stern measures are necessary, but nowadays while I still plan, lead, encourage, monitor, track and report progress, remind, sound alarms, send warnings, chide, reward, and even contractually penalize when necessary, I don’t push.
So here’s your unworthy servant’s current philosophy about life and stress in a nutshell:
- Thoroughly understand your goals, objectives and responsibilities, plan how to accomplish them, be diligent in achieving them, and never blame others for your mistakes;
- Without exception, everyone makes mistakes, constantly, so be as kind and understanding as reasonably possible. If you’re lucky, they might just return the favor, but even if they don’t, it will help to decrease stress levels all around. They’re just cats after all;
- Don’t accept responsibility for anything for which you are not truly responsible;
- Although senior executives in both the private and public sectors frequently secure their high pay and lofty station by abusing the goodwill of others, no matter how cleverly or coercively they present it, don’t allow anyone to foist either their responsibilities, or their mistakes, off onto you (unless you agree to it in advance and they pay you oodles of money for the resulting stress);
- As taught by those Great Philosophers Lord Buddha of India and Red Green of Possum Lodge, always remember that life is suffering, all the time, and accept that Murphy will carnally poke you with his pointy purple pecker often and painfully, so don’t expect an easy time, and prepare Vaseline and bandages accordingly.
One last philosophical concept that I have found useful. In the West there’s the saying that goes “water off a duck’s back,” meaning nothing bothers you. In Japan they have a more colorful saying, one that many small boys have enacted, that goes “piss in a frog’s face.” To the duck it’s just another wet day in a wet place. To the frog, it’s just a warm shower. Since killing stress originates in the mind, the expectations of the duck and the frog are worth emulating. Seriously.
I believe that internalizing the 5 points listed above, perhaps urinating on frogs 𓆏 occasionally, and employing small remedies frequently rather than making big corrections too late, can minimize the need for Dr. Alonzo’s Pretty Purple Pills, those dreadfully unfashionable and scratchy canvas jackets with straps and buckles that chafe the crotch something fierce, and/or heart surgery.
Setting amphibian abuse, chest incisions and uncomfortable fashion aside for now, let us next consider one such small remedy.
Stress Reduction Measures
The criminal pharmaceutical companies and their well-paid “scientists” (aka “shills”) in the medical profession will happily sell you heaping pallets of pills to cure what ails you, but honest doctors frequently recommend less profitable, but no doubt more effective measures, including exercise, more sleep, vacations, music, reading, spending time with friends and family (even though they are frequently a cause of high stress), and hobbies. Some of these may work for you. I’ll touch on hobbies more below.
Many people like to imbibe a drop of grog at times to relieve accumulated stress. This is certainly the case here in Japan where people generally love demon rum but become inebriated easily due to an enzyme deficiency. But as someone who is frequently forced to spend time in the company of drinkers in business situations, I’ve concluded adult beverages don’t actually relieve stress but only make the drinker forget his problems for a few minutes as they worsen, turn him into a useless fool for a few hours, and destroy his liver forever. And don’t forget the injuries, traffic deaths, fights, jail time, divorce, poverty, suicides and murders cork-pulling always produces. Such an uplifting beverage.
One less-dangerous stress-relieving activity I can attest to is meditation, as in spending time alone in a quiet setting, without distractions, pondering simple questions internally without seeking actual answers. No, you don’t need to be a navel-gazing monk or smelly swami to do it, but you do need privacy and quiet, conditions often difficult to secure at home, especially since, regardless of her age, the female of the human species congenitally cannot tolerate the sight of a man being content while doing nothing, and will demand (probably in a cute manner) that he get busy following her orders. Thus it has always been.
But there’s another form of meditation your humble servant has found to reliably relieve stress, performed not in a hidden Shaolin temple or in a secluded grove, but still in a private, if perhaps dusty, environment.
The Holy Workshop
Although I once worked wood professionally, it’s only my hobby now. But I find it that, when done correctly, even meditatively, it can be highly effective at relieving stress. To do it correctly, however, a simple workshop is necessary, one without email, telephones or other distractions.
Big or small, light or dark, warm or cold, the design doesn’t matter so long as it has a door, even if it’s an imaginary one like that of the renowned radio News Director and anchorman Les Nessman (5 time winner of the coveted Buckey News Hawk Award, donchano). Once I close this door, no one but me is allowed to enter its sacred precincts or fiddle with the sanity retention implements (tools) housed therein. And that includes bench dogs and cats. But for it to be a serene, meditative, healing space, She Who Must be Obeyed and “The Spawn” must be ruthlessly conditioned to quiver at the very thought of removing my tools, and dread the consequences of chucking junk into or storing stuff in the holy workshop.
When I am in my workshop, I accept no demands to do this or do that. I don’t respond to email or the telephone, unannounced visitors ringing the doorbell, calls to dinner, much less demands to take out the garbage. It’s not that the holy workshop makes me rude and/or unresponsive, it’s simply that these distractions are lower priority than my health for a short time, and the restorative balm must be allowed to soak in, you see.
In this private space I work on my projects, usually simple woodworking or tool maintenance, using the woods I love in the company of the undemanding, sharp friends that reside, play dice and drink beer in the evenings in my toolchest. No schedules. No one to criticize or complain, no one to seek approval or payment from, and no one to please but myself. And while the fruits of my time here mostly go to others, in this bubble environment I only make what I want to make, when I want to make it, using the materials I want to use and tools that willingly link my mind and soul to the wood I am shaping.
But lo, one more thing is essential to the effectiveness of the holy workshop: When people ask me what I make in there, I always answer “wood shavings and sawdust,” for you see almost any other answer invites prying questions and ultimately stirs up invasions by curious people with too much time on their hands who will invariably request woodworking-related “favors,” responding to which will induce more stress into my ragged life. Oh, and when children ask me what I plan to give them for birthdays or Christmas, I pretend to sort through my tattered memory and then respond in a serious tone: “Do you prefer wood shavings or sawdust?”
In past years, this workshop has been a piece of old carpet laid for a few hours on a concrete slab in front of a dingy apartment for my shorty sawhorses and atedai to cavort upon. At other times, it has been a reed mat spread under quaking aspen or pine trees in a mountain glade. Most often it has been half or all of a garage with a workbench. Lately it has been a spare bedroom on the second floor of a small single-family house in Tokyo. Whatever shape it takes or amenities it may have, my workshop is for just me, my wood, and my tools.
Although it’s hardly worth the effort, perhaps Gentle Reader now understands the method to my madness when I call my beautiful, faithful, hand-forged tools “sanity retention implements.” I am convinced the time we spend together has, like water from a duck’s back, shed much deadly stress from my life, making my little workshop and simple handtools cheaper than therapy, tastier than Dr. Alonzo’s Pretty Purple Pills, and certainly more pleasant than heart surgery. I no longer use my tools to feed my family, but I’m convinced they “cure what ails me.” Cheap at twice the price, say I!
Let’s conclude this merry tale of mental illness with a final quote about Winston that Gentle Reader may find inspirational.
He was one of the finest orators of all time. And some of the phrases he used still resonate with us today, such as “Finest hour,” “Never surrender,’ and of course, “We shall fight them bitches.”Philomena Cunk para-quoting Winston Churchill
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