Monday, November 30, 2009

Levels of satisfaction

There's something incredibly soothing about working in a closed pottery studio by yourself. With the exception of Lucky the parrot giving an occasional screech and the gas furnace kicking in every so often, the only sound you hear is the rotating of the pottery wheel.

When I began this hobby about 10 months ago, the creation of a coffee mug that was more or less cylindrical was an accomplishment for which I was proud. Never mind the fact that it was too small, too short, and not exactly round; if I was able to finish said cup, it usually found a home in my cupboard.

But now that I've been at it for a while, I've been informed by the owner of the pottery studio that it's time to put childish things aside. According to her, you've arrived at a new plateau, if you're able to discard (or at least recycle) the clay forms that don't turn out at least close to the original vision. Certainly there are exceptions. If you start out going in one direction and through some deformity y
ou arrive at a totally different piece, but one that has some level of excellence in its own right: mission accomplished. But if you start out throwing a mug or a coffee cup and after 15 minutes you know that you are just having an off day, it's okay to slice off a mutated form that's developed on your wheel and start anew.

It's a new level of satisfaction you've attained when you can screw up, discard your current piece, and take something positive away from the experience. Each small incremental step-up that you've taken helps to build your overall expertise. The mug you started which morphed into a poorly fashioned bowl which just wasn't right, goes back into the used clay bag for subsequent drying out and wedging.

Being an engineer, I find myself thinking in percentages. What percentage of the items I'm fashioning on the pottery wheel are discarded versus those I retain. My ability to increase the retention versus discarded percentage will be a clever indicator of my advancement in this craft.
I have no desire to keep a running total on paper but it's not too difficult to gauge percentages on a
day-to-day basis. Whether other potters do this or not I do not know; I hope not. One of the things that I enjoy about pottery is the escapism factor. I can take off my engineers cap for just a couple of hours and regress: I'm a young boy who's allowed to get dirty again and whose mother just rolls her eyes and smiles. That's what little boys do; they get dirty.

I've been known to start a hobby, get all excited and busy with it, and then discard it after giving it a halfhearted try. This is not unlike my father whose short term excursions into painting, breadmaking, or basketball lasted for a short lengths of time. I have discovered that my attention will last longer if the hobby is designed with convenience in mind. That is, it must be easy to get to and easy to get out of; it won't hurt if the overall energy of the place is positive.

So far so good. Want me to make you a bowl?

Friday, November 27, 2009

The approach of winter

We who live in Milwaukee love to talk about the weather. Good, bad it's all the same but I definitely feel that the trajectory of the discussion is different than in many other American cities.

I'm not at all sure that citizens of other non-Midwestern cities are so intent on taking "the glass is half empty"he approach to the onset of winter. I doubt very much that the people in Dallas, Los Angeles, or Asheville, North Carolina takes such a delight in commiserating that the snow is ready to fly. Or could it be that a different type of precipitation or the relative level of humidity is the discussion du jour in those cities? Do their morning conversations go like this: "hey Harry, it's going to be 90 today and it's gonna be 90 for the rest of the week too. What say we head up north somewhere to take a break from this overbearing humidity".

But I live in Milwaukee so I interact with people who live in that city. It's never exactly that "the sky is falling" unless you're listening to the local weather reports, but it does sometimes seem that the main topic of conversation is what poor weather we have. And, unfortunately, it's contagious. Like the flu that goes around every year which keeps the students and their parents locked up in their houses drinking plenty of fluids, when the first words out of somebody's mouth have to do with the amount of snow that fell last night or how many degrees below zero current lead is outside, it's not too difficult to breathe a sigh of submission and agree with the negative aspects of our geographical home turf.

Let me be clear about one point. I love Milwaukee! I've lived here for about the last 20 years; there's lots of things to see and do, it's close to a really big city (Chicago), which is pretty easy to get to, has almost no traffic and real estate prices are nowhere close to what they are on both coasts.

But I do sometimes have to admit that I'd rather be somewhere else during the months of January, February, and March. The analogy to our fellow mammals, the bear, is not too far off the mark. It seems that we bulk up our insulation starting at about Thanksgiving. Shortly thereafter, we start thinking about hibernation and planning all the things that we can do comfortably indoors. Sure, we venture out a bit to socialize with our friends or to go to a day job but it's not unusual to drive down a Milwaukee Street on a cold winters day only to find nobody visible to the naked eye. Upon further review, you may be able to locate some unhappy motorists kneeling down next to the site of their cars shoveling snow away from the tires. And of course you're going to see the die-hard dog walkers or crazy joggers who have more important fish to fry than just throwing in the towel, staying in and watching a video.

My parents have been snowbirds for about the last 10 years; spending spring, summer, and fall in a small city in lovely Pennsylvania on the Susquehanna River while retreating to the eastern shore of Florida to wait out the harsh four months of winter time. The stroke that my father experienced two years ago put the kibosh on that situation. My mother, who would describe herself as petite, doesn't have the energy nor the attitude necessary to assist my father in Florida by herself. She reminds me regularly that Vero Beach (the next city over from the city where they own a condo) is full of life, youth, the arts, and is a damn nice place in which to live. She does acknowledge a bit of selfishness in her suggestion but tries to convince me that once my wife, dog, and I get down there will absolutely love it. Ain't going to happen! I've been to Vero Beach and although it's not a bad place, it's not the place for me. As our friends George and Angela suggested "you should always have friends younger than yourselves. That will help keep you young.". Vero Beach doesn't meet that criteria.

So my wife and I (and our dog to a lesser extent) keep looking for our own winter retreat. Last year was our first exploratory mission; this year we boldly go in the same general direction. It seems like we've put a virtual thumbtack in North Carolina as a place which possesses many of the geothermal and geographical charms that we might just be looking for.

But, at least for the time being, Milwaukee is definitely home. Sometimes my wife and I look at each other and say "what the hell are we doing here". But then the sun comes out, the winter jackets come off, and spring is in the air.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Wanting something bad enough

I am an on-again, off-again smoker. I'm not particularly proud of it, but it's the truth. I know it's bad for me; I know it makes me feel horribly; and I know it's a bad example to the people I know and love. So, should I just throw up my hands and say "hey it's my life" and let the chips fall where they may?

I think my main problem with giving up smoking is that, all things considered, my health is pretty good. I'm a bit overweight but only by a few pounds; I don't really exercise but I walk our dog and I walk up and down five flights of stairs virtually every day. My diet is not perfect because I eat out virtually every day for lunch but I rarely have "real" junk food. Last time I checked, my blood pressure was pretty good. Except for a few aches and pains now and then and for pulling out my back maybe once a year and for the occasional attack of sciatica, I feel okay.

So the main problem is: I don't feel bad enough to quit smoking. How ironic it is that I feel compelled to wait for my body to give up the ghost before taking direct action. If only I could extrapolate five, 10, or 15 years down the road to the point where a doctor or my spouse would truly convinced me that giving up tobacco is a wise and necessary thing to do. But the enjoyment I received from my five or 10 cigarettes a day, especially those enjoyed with my coffee in the morning, cause my brain to look the other way while my nostrils in my mouth inhale the tobacco smoke.

It's always been somewhat of a pet peeve for me that "the powers that be" refused to acknowledge that there's actually enjoyment derived from the inhalation of tobacco smoke. They are so consumed with describing what happens to your body: your lungs, your heart, your throat, your respiratory system that they fail to remember that smoking is a fun thing to do. I suggested to my wife, the filmmaker, that a documentary showing the positive aspects of smoking might be well-received and might even assist her and me in giving up the death sticks. But no: it's not to be. Some of the filmmaker might need to take up the task.

And the fact that smokers have been virtually ostracized from the public indoors causes said smokers to bandy together and form their own clique. Non-smokers sometimes feel awkward or even ostracized themselves trying to join said clique because those guys are having so much fun puffing away. It's undeniable that the five or 10 minutes one spends smoking and socializing in a smokers circle is enjoyable and relaxing and something to look forward to even as the nicotine urges one on. If only non-smokers formed a different clique whose main rule would be that tobacco is forbidden; that might eliminate one of the main reasons to smoke; perhaps the main one.

So we stumble through, trying to figure out small methodologies to either cut back or eliminate this dreadful habit. The problem is that once you've been smoking for a while, some of your good friends may very well be added and heavy smokers and to eliminate some of the time that you spend with them almost feels like punishment. What to do? Find new non-smoking friends? Grin and bear it and just continue to go out for a smoke and not partake. Continue hacking away until you literally cough up a lung or dropped dead of a heart attack?

I choose not to give up hope, but I also choose not to give up cigarettes... just yet!

Friday, November 13, 2009

why pottery is good for me

I am not a patient man.

Given a choice between having it next week or next year, I'll take it last week and thank you very much. This aspect of my personality can be irritating to my friends and family and exasperating to me. I tend to paint pictures with broad strokes and I think one of the reasons of that approach is because the smaller stroke seems to slow down the overall process.

More times than I'd like to admit, I've started a project only to have it end never coming to fruition. It's an annoying trait and I'm working on it.

So it's all the more surprising that I've found I'm quite enjoying a new hobby: ceramics.

When Brooke and I spent January and February of this year in Asheville North Carolina, one of the people that we interviewed for our next thing was Lori T. Lori is an experienced potter and has her own pottery studio where she throws pots, trains potter wannabes, and brews a mean cup of tea. Her faithful dog Lesa, generally stands guard from her corner next to her foot powered Potter's wheel and I found that working in Laurie's studio was both engaging and soothing.

My wife, Brooke, was happy that I discovered this new hobby and so, when we got back to Milwaukee in March, she gifted me a class in ceramics at a local pottery studio: Murray Hill Pottery located on the fashionable east side of Milwaukee.

Unlike the Laurie's studio which tended to be a little slow since she was just getting it off the ground, Murray Hill Pottery often is a bustling, energetic place to get your hands dirty. At the time that I started my adventure with Murray Hill, I hadn't really made the decision that pottery was a hobby that I was going to embrace. I knew that I enjoyed getting my hands filthy, but I certainly wanted to learn how to throw mugs and bowls on the wheel before possibly exiting a hobby that might turn out to be only temporary.

When one works in pottery not only is patience a virtue, it's a necessity. Unless you own your own potters wheel, kiln, glazes is, and all the other accoutrements necessary to indulge in this hobby, the time it takes to go from soft clay to drinking coffee out of your cup is going to take at least a week and may take up to a month. Let's go through the various steps:

First, you have to take a pound and a half of your favorite clay and turn it into something that looks at least, mostly, like a coffee cup. In this regard, experience is going to play a major part. If you're just starting out on the wheel, it may take you 10 or 20 near misses before something that resembles a coffee cup is produced. And now the fun really starts:

It's rare that you're going to have a mug that doesn't require some sort of trimming. This often involves letting the mug set out exposed to the air or wrapped loosely with some plastic until it's what's called "leather dry". This can take anywhere from hours to days to weeks, depending on the temperature of the studio and the humidity of the air but it's typical that a piece of pottery will be ready to trim 1 to 3 days after it's thrown. This is a somewhat subjective state of dryness for the clay where much of the water that was mixed with the clay has evaporated. The piece of pottery is referred to as greenware. It's still soft enough to be manipulated, cut and trimmed but it's dry enough so that it's easy to handle. This is the state in which trimming generally occurs. So, trim your mug, will you?

So now you have something that looks kind of like a coffee cup without a handle. Got to put the handle on. This can be done in several different ways: 1) if your studio has some sort of extruder, you can produced the handle that way. It generally involves selecting a die, filling up some sort of tube with soft clay, and forcing that soft clay through the hole in the die creating a ribbon of clay that can be tried and molded to look like a handle. 2) You can a handle out of a slab of flattened clay. It's quite easy to do actually. Take some clay and flattened it between two flat objects until it's about a quarter of an inch in thickness. Then use a sharp tool of some sort to cut out the handle of your dreams. 3) The last method of creating a handle is more than a little pornographic. It starts by molding your clay into the form of a large carrot. Using your hand and a small amount of water you pull a handle out of the carrot. The actions that you used to do this are humorous, embarrassing, and quite fun to watch. After spending 15 minutes or so creating a very functional handle for your mug, you might need to go outside for a cigarette.

At this point, we have an object that looks like a mug but it's a bit on the soft side. Sometimes you want to let this sit around a little to let it get a little harder by being exposed to the air, at which point you can you can present it very ceremoniously to the kiln.

Ceramic objects are generally fired twice. The first time, it's called bisque firing; the second firing is glaze firing. The bisque firing prepares the object to accept glazes, which color the object and often provide a smooth, food-friendly coating.

Pottery studios usually don't have kilns running day and night; it's too costly. A typical kiln firing is going to last upwards of 12 to 15 hours and use mass quantities of electricity. To make this as economical as possible, kilns are often loaded only when the studio has a load of earthenware that fills up the kiln. Depending on how busy your studio is, the firing might be every week, every couple of weeks, or even just once a month. Murray Hill Pottery usually does a bisque firing and a glaze firing about once a week.

So the item comes out of the bisque firing. After it cools down for a day or so, it is ready to be glazed. Careful application of the glaze is important for the item to come out looking professional. To ensure that excess glaze does not roll off the item and damage the kiln, wax is applied strategically to your ceramic items. The wax tends to resist the glaze and allow a small foot on which the item can sit in the kiln. Application of this wax is a careful procedure and counts as one more small step in your creation of the ultimate ceramic object.

After the item is waxed, glazing can begin. Many pottery studios have a multitude of glazes and each glaze gives you a color and/or intensity for your finished product. Glazes are chemical mixtures that are applied in liquid form to the object by by accurately painting or dipping the item in the glaze.

Once the item is glazed, time for the second firing or time to wait again.

Finally, the finished piece of pottery emerges from the glaze kiln and announces its presence to the world. Time to take it home, show your spouse or kids of your newest triumph, then make a pot of coffee to ensure that the item can hold your favorite beverage.

Total time elapsed: 1 to 4 weeks pending if you catch the kilns at the right time.

As I remember, the reason that I started writing this blog entry was to show you why pottery is good for me. After viewing all the steps necessary to create the finished object, it doesn't really make sense that an impatient person like me would find the creation of said pottery satisfying. To get around some of the time constraints, I've developed small tricks: always having several pieces of pottery in any given stage can help. But I've also found that my very presence in the studio tends to lower my stress levels; regressing to my younger self by allowing myself to play with mud, finding the inner artist in me when I really didn't think existed, and watching my progress in this hobby by comparing the evolution of mugs from barely usable to pretty darn reasonable has been very satisfying for me.

I've experimented with several hobbies in my life and not all of them have stayed with me. Ceramics, I hope, will not be one on that list.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

how good is your personal service?

I'm really not that green, but about two years ago I went out and purchased a scooter.The scooter wasn't really anything special; it was shiny and red and ran adequately without using too much gas.I used it quite a bit the first year and quite a bit less the second year, and here it is November 1 and my little scooter is in storage for the winter. The Milwaukee winter.

But let me take you back to my experience of buying this scooter.

My day-to-day travels in Milwaukee take me down Water Street frequently. Along the curve where Water Street turns into Brady Street, there's a little store called MotoScoot. If you know the curve you may know the store.

Prior to purchasing my scooter, I passed the store many times and would see employees and potential customers milling about outside looking at their future methods of transportation. So after I convinced my wife that a scooter was a reasonable thing to own, I had a good idea where I was going to make this purchase. I showed up unannounced one quiet, summer afternoon and was greeted by a friendly but busy store owner. He certainly seemed to be juggling quite a few balls and, from the looks of it, he was keeping all of them up in the air. He identified me as a potential sale and did, indeed, spend some time letting me know why his was the store from which I should purchase my scooter.

Personal service was his motto: he stressed this and tried to convince me that personal service was the best service. In hindsight, I should have been more quizzical about what he exactly meant by personal service. I had no doubt that he was sincere in his offer of the aforementioned service, but shortly, and after the sale was finalized, it did seem clear that, as far as I was concerned, his personal service was a pipe dream. Now I'm not saying that he did anything illegal or even immoral, but my hopes were that personal service might actually have some sort of follow-up to it. In the two years since I've owned my scooter I've not had a single call asking me how my scooter was operating or if I needed anything to make my scooter riding safer or more enjoyable.

The one thing that my wife will tell you is that I'm a big mouth. I often exceed an acceptable decibel range. But I also let people know what I'm thinking about stores and service providers; both positive and negative. I've been known to take up pen and paper to let a restaurant owner know exactly what I thought of their service. I'm also quite vocal with my friends and associates about wonderful food experiences or if a auto dealership has let me down. As an aside, Acura of Brookfield has always treated me wonderfully and I often use them as the gold standard as to how to treat customers. My point of all this is: treat me well am going to tell people about; treat me poorly and I'm going to tell even more people about it.

So what does personal service mean to the people at MotoScoot? I'm not sure, but to me it certainly doesn't mean good service.

But more importantly, in this economic time, good service is good for business. If the storeowner had followed up with me after the sale, I would've had a much warmer feeling about him and his store and when it came time to put some money into my scooter, he would have been a shoe-in to get my business. But now he has let that relationship degrade and I feel absolutely no personal loyalty toward him or his organization. Earlier last month, I noticed a new scooter store in Riverwest. It's more convenient for me anyway and I have no negative feelings toward them like I do with the other business so when it comes time to fix my light or get a tune up, I'll probably send my business their way.

It strikes me as being very Darwinian at its core but that's okay. Perhaps, companies that don't know how to support their customers should go away.