Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Learning Patience from Craftsmen

I recently wrote a piece about the reliability of tradesmen. At the other end of the spectrum is the frustrating eccentricity of skilled craftsmen. Craftsmen perceive time differently than most of us do. They are not much interested in arbitrary deadlines – a project is done when it is done. They communicate through their work, not through emails or phone calls. If one wishes to own a product made by a skilled craftsman, one must learn to be patient.

For example, Susan owns a kayak paddle that was custom-made for her by an extraordinary paddle-maker. Because she has arthritis in her wrists, he made it as light as possible (18 ounces) and fabricated a shaft with a smaller than average diameter. It took him awhile to complete it, but Susan loves that paddle. It is bit fragile, and 18 months ago the shaft broke just above the blade. I tracked the maker down (he had moved from California to Hawaii) and he offered not only to fix it, but to improve it. I cut the blades off, shipped them to Hawaii, and waited. And waited. A full year I waited until he finally secured the part that would make it better than before. Despite my pleas, there was no way that paddle would leave his shop until it was the best paddle he could make. I sincerely hope that it never breaks again.

Then there is the case of my best ukulele, made by John Kitaris, a gifted craftsman who also lives in Hawaii (which seems to be a Mecca for eccentric craftsman). The first two he made for me suffered reverse bowing, which made the strings buzz, so he put a lot of effort into getting this one right, upgrading me to beautiful koa wood.

I contacted a highly-recommended instrument repairman in Madison and asked if he could install a pickup in the ukulele for me. He could, but insisted on using only the pickup specifically recommended by the maker. This pickup is manufactured for John in Korea, and he normally allows them to be installed only by one of his authorized shops, none of which is anywhere near me. This plunged me into the skilled craftsman Bermuda Triangle: the guy in Madison would not do the work without a pickup from the instrument’s maker, and the guy in Hawaii only checks his email once a week then promptly forgets what he read. After two months and seven increasingly desperate emails, I finally received a reply that read in its entirety: “I thought I sent that to you.” Another two weeks and several unanswered emails later I am still waiting, and likely will for some time to come. Like I said, you must learn to be patient.

When your sink backs up or your furnace goes out, you need a tradesman who will arrive as quickly as possible. But ukuleles and kayak paddles do not carry a similar sense of urgency. When I finally get the pickup – perhaps this month, perhaps later – I will take the instrument to Madison, where the skilled craftsman will do the work when the spirit moves him. When I finally get it back it will look and sound beautiful and I will appreciate it all the more because I had to wait. One day a guest will admire the instrument and ask about it, the poor fool, and I will smile softly and say “let me tell you about that ukulele…” All things that are finely crafted have stories woven into them.

Postscript: UPS just pulled up with a box containing two pickups, six sets of strings, and no invoice. I will send one pickup back and insist on paying for the other. Craftsmen: they frustrate you, they delight you, they leave you scratching your head...

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