Look on your work, ye Mighty, and throw it away…

Sand stream

Monk at work. (The scarf is a sneeze guard.) Click to enlarge.

Recently I watched Buddhist monks labor over a sand mandala meant to celebrate the deity Green Tara, who embodies the feminine characteristic of compassion.

A mandala’s elaborate overall design is traditional, yet unique to the site and the situation in detail. Rendering one in sand involves carefully applying grains from the mouth of a narrow funnel called a jamphur. Rubbing the side of a full jamphur with an empty one generates a controlled vibration that dispenses the brightly colored sand, a few grains at a time. The sound of the jamphurs in action builds and fades like the buzz of cicadas.


Loaded with pigment, each of the hollow tools, when tapped or scraped, releases its contents precisely.

The sand mandala that I saw under construction was the product of scores of monk-hours over the course of a week. The intricate display was destined to be erased when finished, its mingled sands ceremoniously strewn onto the nearby Wisconsin River in recognition of the impermanence of life.

Mandala detail

Note the texture of the white border, like icing piped onto a cake. Notice too how uniform the layer of green sand appears.

As an artist, I was not surprised that it pained me to consider the fate of this beautiful work of art. I’d be tempted to try to preserve it.

Compassion is fine, of course, but being nonreligious, I think the act of destroying what had been so painstakingly assembled says much more about the humility of sacrificed ownership.

For many of us, this is an unobtainable ideal.


Tribute to the junk drawer

Junk drawer, as of 4/10/13

The undisturbed contents* of my kitchen junk drawer, as of 4/10/13 (click image to enlarge).

It’s the place to drop your to-be-sorted-later pocket debris.

The place to check for anything that isn’t where you thought you left it.

The place to look one last time before blaming your spouse or children for your frustration.

The junk drawer, that holding pen for stuff that doesn’t have a home of its own, is usually in the kitchen. Of course, the longer you live in the same house, the more you need auxiliary junk drawers. Eventually every room has one, and only if you’re lucky or the victim of a natural disaster does the proliferation end there.

It’s the last refuge of disappointment and the unfailing wellspring of minor surprise.

The junk drawer, where items that were once possessions before they vanished might–after you’ve given up all hope or even any remaining need–just might reappear, allowing you to celebrate their loss of usefulness.

Are you willing to show or confess what’s in your favorite junk drawer? Do you have a different name for this essential repository?

* Contents as of 4/10/13:
1 box strike-on-box kitchen matches
1 phone charger (only one!)
1 computer cord with two male mini-jacks
1 metal shoe horn
1 department store receipt
9 loose rubber bands, assorted sizes
2 emery boards
2 dead compact fluorescent bulbs
1 ziplock bag containing assorted rubber bands
4 pizza coupons
1 Chinese restaurant delivery menu
1 pair eyeglasses, old prescription
1 wooden pencil
1 tube lip balm
1 unopened pack chewing gum
1 book paper matches
4 packets cut-flower preservative
1 ziplock bag containing 4 mini-screwdrivers
4 unidentified house keys, one with leather tag labelled “Iowa Falls & Osceola Iowa”
1 mechanical pencil
3 small binder clips
1 sandwich shop gift card of unknown value
1 bottle auto touch-up paint
1 plastic harmonica in case
1 tape measure/key chain combo
3 wrapped anise-flavored candies
1 plastic potato chip bag clip
1 pair velcro fasteners, adhesive-backed
1 unidentified car key
1 halogen mini-bulb in box
1 three-prong outlet adapter plug
1 one-point Scrabble tile (U)
1 small metal snack-bag clip
2 Allen wrenches
2 paper clips
2 bobby pins
1 picture hanger hook without nail
1 Christmas tree ornament hook
1 “child-proof” electrical outlet plug

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Railing against imperfection

For most of my editing career, I relied on typesetting professionals to copy fit and make text changes. Each round of editing generated a new proof, which often led to further changes.

Offending railing

The offending railing.

The artists and typesetters I worked with were unfailingly gracious with my repeated attempts to “perfect” a story with corrections I thought essential. However, they made it clear that three proofs should be enough to finish the job. My asking for Proof #4 was pushing our friendship. Proof #5 was stretching the social contract between us. And as for Proof #6, well, I better bring doughnuts.

As a result, far too many imperfect articles left my hands because I finally ran out of the nerve to beg an artist to provide one more missing comma.

Not so with self-publishing. If I were counting “proofs” for this post, I’d hit double digits trying to correct every last imperfection. Online, I could–and would–always be willing to make another change.

So it’s especially frustrating when, in regard to non-editorial projects, I’m prevented from fixing that “one more thing.”

Take the new kitchen railing I recently installed. I ordered the parts from a local custom builder, and spent the better part of a day putting it up. (Never having done this before, it was measure 10 times, drill once. Oh yeah, and go to the hardware store twice.)

After seven hours, I was worn out and willing to overlook a number of imperfections that I was sure no one else would notice. (Can you tell how the ends of those balusters aren’t perfectly flush with the floor?) So I didn’t pay as much attention to the final step as I wish I would have.

Twisted rosette

The twisted rosette, a mockery of perfection.

See where the railing attaches to the wall? In my haste to finish the job, I drove nails through that oval rosette without aligning its wood grain vertically. As you can plainly see, the rosette is 6 degrees from the perpendicular.

Big deal, you say. But it’s forever. I can’t fix it, not without risking major damage to the wall or the rosette, or both.

So now I’m reminded of the flaw every time I use the stairs. As many as a dozen times a day, I’m mocked by my failure and forced to face the truth that all that stands between the job as it is and perfection is the equivalent of a Proof #21. And alas, that ain’t gonna happen.

Such is the degraded life of an former editor, thwarted by reality.

Is laziness a uniquely human trait?

Today I watched a sharp-shinned hawk fly low over a field toward a lightpole on the far side.

Instead of flying to the pole’s peak, the hawk stops beating its wings 20 yards away. Spread wide and tilted back, the wings act like a kite to convert the hawk’s forward momentum into lift. With no further expenditure of energy, the hawk rises quickly from its flying height of 10 feet to 40 feet. It settles on the top of the pole as gently as dust, proof of the precision of its calculation.

How did this mere bird learn the principles of aero-dynamics behind that maneuver? Experience, of course, but experience guided by considerable intelligence.

Here’s another example: A dog retrieves a stick longer than itself by biting it in the middle. The heavier end drags awkwardly on the ground, however, making it hard to carry. Without hesitation, the dog shifts its jaws inch by inch toward the heavier end of the stick until it reaches a balance point. Problem solved.

Can we speak of these animals as having a knowledge of physics? Or is the ability to do the least amount of work mindlessly innate?

At any rate, we’re fooling ourselves if we think that humans are uniquely lazy. Or even very good at it.

On the contrary, we clearly don’t have enough sense to prefer the most efficient course of action. For example, considering our invention of bureaucracy, we might be the only species that makes more work for itself than is necessary.