Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Romance of Craftsmanship

A Constant Reminder of Purpose
I had the good fortune to be born in 1948.  I grew up in the decade of the 1950's and came of age during the 1960's.  I was a product of the Baby Boom generation, which had its ups and downs.

During the first decade of my life I sought out and read every science fiction book I could find.  My bedroom was filled with such authors as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Philip K. Dick and, most importantly,  Kurt Vonnegut.  ( I know he was writing later but I lingered on the genre...)

Every chance I had I went to see the movies and was inspired by the Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, War of the Worlds, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and scared to death by the Blob and amused by the Crawling Eye.  I still believe that Forbidden Planet is one of the best movies of that time.  After all, the monster was the Id!  How do you deal with that?

Naturally, my hobbies reflected my fascination with science.  I built sophisticated rockets.  I repaired electronic devices, I even built my own Heathkit tube tester so I would not have to keep running to the drug store to test suspect television and radio tubes.  The invention of the transistor changed everything.

During the early 1960's, when I was in Honors Physics in High School, we were required to submit a Science Fair project.  I decided to build a linear electron particle accelerator.  I have mentioned this before, but when I took top honors at the Science Fair and was selected to represent San Diego at the National Science Fair, I decided to go to Europe and ride a bike for the summer instead.  It is fair to say that my Dad was not pleased with my life choices.

During my entire youth the only things I built with wood were forts, made from salvaged materials.

However, the three months I spent riding my bike around Europe exposed me to museums and castles and the world of Decorative Arts that I did not even know existed before.  For the first time in my life I was thinking of the past rather than the future.  Living in Southern California all my life I thought the oldest thing around was the first location of the McDonalds.  Honestly there were a few Victorian houses in the older neighborhoods but nobody took them seriously.

So it was only natural when I returned to California and started my college education at UCSD,  that I would be interested in classes in History, Philosophy, Literature, Music and Humanities, in addition to the standard Math, Chemistry and Physics.  In the words of Paul Saltman, the UCSD Provost:  "We will educate you to become Renaissance Men!"

Like many before me, I got married while in college and managed to buy a small house.  To fill that house I needed furniture and at the end of the street was a used furniture resale shop.  I have already talked about buying and fixing these old pieces of history to help pay for my lifestyle.  However, I never considered any career but that of High Energy Physics research.  During the entire 4 years while I was at college, I worked 20 hours a week in the Physics Department earning minimum wage. In addition, during my Sophomore  year (1968) I took classes by mail while I worked 80 hours a week for the entire year at Brookhaven Labs in New York, assisting the team from the Physics Department on a large research project.

I still remember clearly the stark contrast between the "Summer of Love" and the "Year of Revolution".  In 1967 I enjoyed 3 months riding a bicycle around the historic countryside of Europe and in 1968 I suffered in the heat and humidity working around the clock in a large impersonal laboratory adjusting research equipment while the news reported widespread revolts across the globe.

In my mind, I decided it was more peaceful living in the past rather than the present.  The rational part of my mind keeps reminding me that not all of the past was pleasant, but I allowed the romance of the past to transport my sanity into another world.  I fell in love with antiques.

It was during this time that I read David Pye's incredible treatise, "The Nature and Art of Workmanship."  Since I had opened a small antique business buying, restoring and selling antique furniture, I wanted to more seriously research the field of Decorative Arts.  Although the text of Pye's book was esoteric and seriously intellectual in its treatment of Design, Craft, and Workmanship, I focused on the rather basic concept of "Workmanship of Risk" and "Workmanship of Certainty."

I was living two different careers at that time:  Antique Dealer and Research Physicist.  It was obvious to me by working on antique furniture that the pre industrial craftsmen took great risks with their materials and design to create masterpieces.  At the same time, the work of a research physicist was to eliminate risk as much as possible in collecting data that was reliable.  Many of the experiments we were performing produced millions of data points and if even a small percentage of that data was questionable, then the results could be considered worthless.

In fact, as it turned out, all the data we collected during the year at Brookhaven proved to be worthless, as an error in our preliminary calculations made the experiment itself faulty.  It was an eye opening experience.  To see how much time and materials had been exhausted in the search for the missing particle, and then to just throw out the IBM punch cards, like so much trash, made me look seriously at my life choices.

There were compounding problems with the career of a research physicist which began to make me think about my future.  I was exposed to radiation and dangerous chemicals.  I realized that nuclear waste was not being treated properly.  I knew that the development of nuclear power was the wrong solution, both for military and civilian uses.  I felt that I was part of a cult of scientists who believed that they could "control" the atom and that, unless you were also a physicist, you could not be trusted with the secrets.

It took about 5 years for me to decide which direction I wanted my life to go.  In the years between 1969 and 1973 I worked both jobs at the same time.  During the week from 9-5, I was a research physicist, and in the evenings and weekends I was a furniture conservator in private practice with a brick and mortar location, as well as a part time teacher of Decorative Arts in the Adult Education system.  I even managed to produce a 10 part television series for CBS during that time.

In April, 1973, I abruptly resigned my position from Maxwell Labs and walked out the door, leaving behind a guaranteed paycheck, paid health benefits and a retirement package.  In a real analysis, I was leaving a career of certainty and choosing instead a career of risk.  I have never regretted that decision.  Many clients over the years have said the same thing: "You are so lucky to be able to make a living doing what you want."  To me, it was the only logical decision I could make.

No comments: