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Sunday, November 18, 2012


I snapped protective goggles over my eyes then leaned forward, carefully balancing my detail gouge on the lathe's tool rest. With my free hand I snapped the lathe's power switch into the ON position; the block of dark wood mounted on the spindle began to turn, slowly at first, then faster and faster, the revolutions transforming the wood into a hazy blur of barely restrained motion.

Brow furrowed, I slid the gouge along the tool rest, closer and closer to the spinning block, heart pounding, beads of sweat breaking out on my teenage skin. I took a deep breath and pushed the gouge that final millimetre, its tip scoring the wood with a screech, curls of oak and a rain of sawdust spraying in small arcs as I carved away the excess matter to release the bowl that my teacher claimed lay waiting to be released.

Hesitant at first, my confidence grew as the lathe's noise and the hijinks of my fellow students faded into the background, blocked out by my steadily intensifying focus. There was only the spindle, the gouge, my hands and most importantly, the dark wood. Second by second, I was writing my will upon the wood, whittling away at nature.

I turned my attention to the centre of the wood, resetting the lathe, switching to a hollowing tool to carve out the block's centre, friction heating the dark oak, my nostrils filling with the scent of burning forest. My eyes flicked to the old black-and-white analog clock high on one wall of the lab; only a few minutes until the dismissal bell would ring. But I was calm. With the bowl's cavity hollowed out, I was ready for the last step: fine-tuning the detail on the outer rim.

Just as I was switching tools, our instructor, Mr. Pottinger, approached, shaking his head. He yanked the gouge from my hand and I stepped back, startled, unable to mouth a word of protest as he examined my work.

"No, no, no," he said. "This is all wrong. Look, watch - "

And he slid the gouge forward, a little too hard, a little too fast. The bowl exploded into several large pieces and an innumerable number of fine chips. I stood in shock, staring at the now-empty spindle, still humming away obediently though relieved of its burden.

Mr. Pottinger shrugged. "Oh well," he said. "You'll have to start again from the beginning." No apologies, no explanations.

I was too deferential to the teachers I revered to protest. I swallowed my anger and humiliation and began again two days later. I finished that second bowl, and it remained in my parents' China cabinet for years, storing knickknacks. But all these years I've always believed the first bowl would have been better.


"Shyluk" said...

If you do the thing right the first time, you miss out on what you need to learn. You know by now that creativity isn't about doing things right. It's about learning how to do things right. That's a big difference that Mr. Pottinger taught you with his apparent indifference.

If you learn how to do something right, then you also figure out how to fix your mistakes, even when Mr. Pottinger isn't around to help. Maybe the first bowl wouldn't have been better, but you would not. Probably you'd have ended up as a drug dealer or a Conservative Party fundraiser, something icky and anti-societal like that.

AllanX said...

That first bowl was structurally unsound. Years later it would have exploded in your parent's china cabinet, potentially killing someone.

"Shyluk" (a) said...

Hence the cliché, "Like a bowl in a china shop (or cabinet)". I never understood that phrase until now.

Earl J. Woods said...

With reflection comes enlightenment! Thanks guys.