2.27.12 (Beauty, hm?)
Today I met a couple in Yokohama and I asked them what beauty is in Japan, what qualities it has. The wife answered first: she said what is well made is what is beautiful and that a sense about beauty and craftsmanship is communicated from generation to generation. She showed me a large collection of exquisitely crafted dolls and kimonos. There was a stillness to them that opened up. One kimono looked like flat beige at first but after a few seconds these intricate hand-woven patterns became visible, mostly as texture and the light and shade texture makes; it felt like your eyes adjusting to near dark. Then her husband answered: “Beauty in Japan is based on nature. There is the belief that the gods are in nature. That is the origin of this idea.” I asked whether all nature is beautiful or only certain kinds. He said, “Nature that is very free, that allows us to be free.” He said that space is important: often, beauty is one element surrounded by large spaces. “The imagination fills the spaces. To most people, space is nothing, space is empty. You have to have some ideas to understand space.”
Later they try to translate a Japanese word approximating “aesthetics”: the sense of beauty, the characteristics of beauty, finally, the focus of beauty.
6:39 am • 27 February 2012 • 1 note
2.15.12 (Techniques: Kanna 1)
Using the kanna is kneeling work. The piece you’re planing gets secured against the stopblocks on the workbench. You kneel at the foot of the bench on a thick blanket. Straight back, bent slightly over the piece, no breathing. Right arm held against the side of the body and left arm moving where it needs to. Planing and sharpening use the same body movements, with different body positions and different materials. The R.H. holds the kanna’s top just before the throat—the hand position’s the same as for hanging up a wall-mounted phone. The L.H. goes at the back of the kanna: pointer and middle fingers behind the blade, thumb in front, resting on the blade, ring finger on the back, pinky wherever feels comfortable. You pull the kanna over the piece and past it, into your stomach. The pull starts out slow and accelerates to the end.
My teacher says that you know a carpenter’s skill by his shavings. A good carpenter makes thick, long shavings so thin you can read text through them.
The kanna’s difficult because it’s sensitive to variations in pressure and position. Once the actual pull starts feeling familiar, the next step is to control the plane well enough to make six flat, perpendicular faces. Flat’s easy but perpendicular’s hard. My planing tends to slope down on the right side so I have to compensate by imagining I’m pressing harder on the left. That usually gives me an okay face. It feels like I’m sending my brain out of my head and down my left arm at the kanna, like I’m pressing down with my brain, not my muscles. I don’t know why it feels that way but it’s helped so far. Sometimes a board gets so lopsided on the left or the right that the imagination fix doesn’t work. Then, the solution is: plane starting at the surface’s higher edge, keeping the kanna flat, down to the level of the lower edge. You’re creating a new perpendicular surface and pulling it down to the level where the mistake ends, the mistake’s lowest edge, and erasing the lopsidedness in the process. Each pass makes wider and wider shavings. A board can also get lopsided back to front. The solution for that problem’s the same idea as the lopsided left to right solution: start at the higher end of the piece, keeping the kanna flat. Here you’re also making a new flat face and pulling it down to the lower end’s level: you’ll produce longer and longer shavings with each pass as the new flat face gets longer.
There are three methods for checking that the piece is square. First, you can look at the four vertical faces that are perpendicular to the one you’re planing. Trapezoids mean the face you’re planing isn’t square. That method’s just for estimating. Second, you can use a try-square, thick side on a vertical face, tilted and held up to the light—just like checking the dai. You’re looking for any light shining under the try-square’s skinny side, the side that’s resting on the surface you’re planing. The third technique is to use the try-square to draw or score a line all the way around the piece, one line on each of four faces. When all four faces are perpendicular, the last line will end where the first line started.
Learning to use the kanna’s interesting because, maybe for the first time, careful attention doesn’t help. It’s not enough to decide to be careful. Like, I can decide to measure well: I just take more time and concentrate better and think about looking and holding, and that’s all I need to do. I measure well. But with the kanna, all I can do is try my best with each pass, evaluate the mistakes I made and try again. Mistakes usually have to do with squareness. The problem is, though, that each pass takes away material—so correcting a mistake makes the piece smaller, and correcting one mistake often leads to another mistake, so you’re correcting and recorrecting and overcompensating and undercompensating and by the time you end up with square faces, your piece is a lot smaller than it was at the beginning. The first time I tried to make a piece square, a pretty big block, I made so many mistakes that I planed it until it just…got too small to plane, and then I stopped. The second try went better. I ended up with a square piece but I took away probably eighty percent of the piece’s mass.
Not being able to decide to be careful is an odd feeling: I don’t have any control over the technique. I can be as deliberate as I want to be, I can think whatever I want to think but it’s my body that has to do the work and right now my body doesn’t know how. I guess that means I have to just trust that my muscles will learn, the more I practice. Trying to understand and speak Japanese feels like a similar problem: I can’t make it happen, a lot of the time the rate of speech is too fast and my brain isn’t familiar enough with the sounds to make sense of them before they stop, but somehow—it’s a mystery to me how it’s happening—I’m understanding more and able to speak more, slowly. It’s frightening to let go and trust your body or your mind to figure out what it needs to do. It puts me in a weird position w.r.t. my like identity, I guess, to say, “I have to give my brain enough time figure out what it needs to do.” Like, what is the “I” in that sentence? I’m used to trying and knowing I guess. This process feels more like waiting.
4:55 am • 15 February 2012
2.13.2012 (Tools: Kanna 2, pedagogy and shaping the dai)
The first kanna I used was the dai na oshi kanna, a short kanna that’s used only for shaping the bases of other kanna. Its blade is almost perpendicular in the base. That’s because harder woods take blades at steeper angles and kanna bases are made from hard woods. Mine are red oak. (Also!: looking up red oak on Wikipedia I found out that red oak is so porous you can blow smoke through a flat-sawn board, end to end.)
A kanna’s base (“dai”) isn’t perfectly flat. A flat base would mean too much friction with the board that’s being planed. Instead, the base has two curves, a hair’s width deep, one before and one after the blade. My introduction to the kanna was shaping the base with the dai na oshi kanna. That seems like a great pedagogical idea: all at once I got to learn how the kanna feels, how a kanna’s base works and how to maintain the kanna’s base.
The dai na oshi kanna is a small kanna. It fits in your hand. Dai na oshi kanna shaping is sitting work. You sit with your right leg bent—your left leg can do whatever it feels comfortable doing—and brace the kanna you’re going to shape against the sole of your right foot, one short end against the foot and one short end held in your left hand. You hold the dai na oshi kanna in your right hand and make many short, curved passes over the dai, usually turning the dai na oshi kanna toward your body as you cut. Small shavings, thin. You flip the dai over when your foot or hand gets in the way. The dai na oshi kanna’s blade is set to take away as little material as possible. The cutting edge is basically invisible, eyes level to the base, but you can feel the edge with your thumb, carefully.
There are two models for the dai’s curves. For finishing kanna, the dai touches the board at two horizontal lines, one at the front edge and one just before the blade. The finishing kanna’s shape picks up the board’s flatness and communicates it to the blade. The blade just follows along. The base behind the blade doesn’t need to touch the board. The planed board, the board behind the blade, is a hair lower than the unplaned board in front of the blade, where the front of the base meets the board. For the back of the base to touch the board behind the blade (B words! Get your b words here, cheap!), the back of the base would have to be lower than the front of the base—the back of the base would have to be on the same level as the blade. (That is, it would have to be set up like the two tables on a jointer, if that’s a helpful image.) That’s a problem, though, because the blade’s height changes each time it’s set in the plane, changes with each cut—as long as the base’s back end is at the level of the blade or higher, you’re okay, but if the back end is lower than the blade, it’ll push the base up off the board in the front and the blade’s path won’t be flat. To avoid that problem, the back of the dai is set higher than the front of the dai—it shouldn’t touch the board ever, and it won’t interfere with the blade’s path.
The roughing kanna’s dai touches the board at three horizontal lines: one at the front of the base; one just before the blade; and one at the back of the base, behind the blade. Because the back of the base is still higher than the blade—the blade’s always lower than the base, or else it won’t cut—it shouldn’t interfere with the cut. It’s good to have a stable place at the base’s back end, though, because it makes the base’s flatness longer. To think about how the two bases work, I tried imagining a gravel road, and first running a long slat over it, then a piece of mulch. The mulch’ll change its angle more dramatically than the plank. It’s shorter, so it can fit down into the troughs and crests along its path: wobbly. The plank will move more smoothly over the gravel. It’ll tend to ride over the crests without dipping into the troughs. The roughing kanna works like the plank and the finishing kanna works like the mulch piece. Another way to think about it that’s been helpful for me is that the roughing kanna’s a tool with a lower resolution than the finishing kanna’s.
Shaping the kanna’s base with the dai na oshi kanna happens in two steps. First, you make the base perfectly flat. Then, you shape the dai’s curves, according to the type of kanna you’re working on. I have a small, thin stainless steel ruler in my toolchest that I use to check the base while I’m shaping it. To check for flatness, you place the ruler’s long skinny face on the base and tilt the ruler toward you so it’s resting just on one edge, holding the kanna up to a window. Light shining underneath the ruler’s edge anywhere means the kanna’s not perfectly flat. You have to check for flatness all the way along the horizontal axis, all along the vertical axis and at both diagonals. Actually I’m not sure about checking the diagonals. My gut tells me checking two dimensions, horizontal and vertical, should be enough to account for checking the flatness of a two-dimensional surface? I can’t imagine a shape that’d be crooked on a diagonal but flat on the horizontals and verticals. I guess more measuring never hurts though. Seeing those chinks under the ruler is hard medicine: back to work, little narrow eyes glaring at you, bright.
11:30 pm • 12 February 2012 • 2 notes
I’ve been trying to work on alphabetization recently. I’m not sure how alphabetization’s working exactly except that there’s like an attention to structure or order that has to do with how the word’s spelled or how it sounds, like the structure gets determined by a concrete feature the word has. It’s also been a hilarious and great chance operation to look at alphabetical lists in non-English languages, translated. Here’s a sample from a Japanese/English dictionary—these words are all adjacent: brisk, to turn back, light brown sugar, punctually, locust, key (or, “long squealing sound”), kiwi, madness, motive, daring, humble, embarrassed, platitude, painstaking, disgusting and cute at the same time, to be terrified, soy flour, burning smell (or, “imminent military action”), shrill, gaudy, bone of the ear.
It’s been helpful to try alphabetizing poems by each line’s first letter. One effect is, it highlights how much work each line does, or to what degree a line’s a unit that can exist on its own. Another effect is, it highlights how rhythm and sense are related. Here’s an example, from W.C.W. First, here’s the original poem:
The Widow’s Lament in Springtime
Sorrow is my own yard
where the new grass
flames as it has flamed
often before but not
with the cold fire
that closes round me this year.
I lived with my husband.
The plumtree is white today
with masses of flowers.
Masses of flowers
load the cherry branches
and color some bushes
yellow and some red
but the grief in my heart
is stronger than they
for though they were my joy
formerly, today I notice them
and turn away forgetting.
Today my son told me
that in the meadows,
at the edge of the heavy woods
in the distance, he saw
trees of white flowers.
I feel that I would like
to go there
and fall in those flowers
and sink into the marsh near them.
Then, here’s the poem alphabetically by first line (I added punctuation to try to follow the new syntax the poem has but it breaks down in the middle—there’s a “he” that comes out of nowhere and I couldn’t find a good way to fit “I lived with” in without turning it into “the phrase ‘I lived with’”):
The Widow’s Lament in Springtime
And color some bushes
and fall in those flowers
and sink into the marsh near them
and turn away forgetting
at the edge of the heavy woods.
But the grief in my heart
flames as it has flamed
formerly. Today I notice them,
for, though they were my joy,
I feel that I would like
“I lived with”. My husband,
in the distance, he saw,
is stronger than they.
Load the cherry branches.
Masses of flowers.
Often before but not
sorrow. Is my own yard
that? Closes round me, this year,
that, in the meadows,
the plumtree is white today.
Today my son told me
to go there.
Trees of white flowers
where the new grass,
with masses of flowers,
with the cold fire—.
Yellow and some red.
It’s interesting how when the order of the lines changes the sense of the poem stays intact, for the most part. The lines seem strong on their own. In a new order a new syntax just shows up.
When the sense changes, the rhythm changes too. The example that stands out to me is the line “YELLOW AND SOME RED”. In the original poem, “some” means “some bushes”, and it gets stressed: “YELLow and SOME RED”. In the alphabetized version, “some” means “a little bit of”, and it’s unstressed: “YELLow and some RED”. How rhythm and sense work together’s been tricky for me to understand but that’s a change that makes sense to me and feels like maybe it’s pointing to a way to think about how rhythm can work in a poem simultaneously with sense, in a way that’s not just, like, mimesis or whatever.
1:46 pm • 10 February 2012 • 1 note
2.10.12 (Techniques: Body)
For a workbench the Japanese carpenters use a long, heavy, thick, low board with two small raised stop blocks at one end. You can raise the bench at one end—an inclined bench is good for sawing. Techniques get divided based on how the body interfaces with the bench and the piece. Kanna mean kneeling work, the saws mean standing work, the chisels mean sitting work.
There are no clamps. The piece you’re working is held either by the stop blocks or by your body. It’s intimate to work that way. Easier to feel how the wood needs to be worked, easier to feel imperfections in the tool’s setup or blade shape because the piece’s movement against your body changes. You have to move all around the piece to find the right position for working it. The piece is like the center of an amazing dance that your body draws many circles during. It’s like the exigencies of the tools and the shapes you have already and the shapes you need to make are all projected out onto your body’s position. You could imagine away the tools and the bench and the piece and even the working motions themselves and just watch how a carpenter positions himself—that’s all the information you’d need to tell exactly what cuts he’s making.
4:41 am • 10 February 2012