You Are the Problem

JA

When we released “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” in 2012, I was still teaching a lot, traveling to tool shows and talking at places such as Woodworking in America. So I heard a lot of comments from readers about Jennie’s transition from being John Alexander to Jennie Alexander.

Most of the comments were something like: “What’s the deal with that? Isn’t that creepy? Why’d he do that?”

I would bite my tongue to prevent it from blurting “$%#& you.” And so I searched for a way to respond without getting angry. Anger is not my thing.

One day during a class, several students buttonholed me on the issue of Jennie’s transition. I stammered and looked helpless until one of the school’s employees interrupted me.

I won’t name the employee because it might embarrass him. But I am forever grateful for what he said.

“Look,” he said. “If someone does something, and it doesn’t harm anyone, then what’s the problem? If you are bothered by it, then you are the problem.”

I now say those exact words every time people ask me about Jennie. Hell, I practiced it in the mirror a few times to make sure I could look people in the eye when I did it (I’m not very good at locking eyeballs).

Please note that I feel this way about a wide variety of issues that are on the left and the right. Don’t try to transform this human statement into a political one.

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. Don’t bother typing a hateful comment. No one will see it.

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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88 Responses to You Are the Problem

  1. Scott says:

    Great advice, thank you for a simple and correct response.

  2. tomdengler says:

    Chris…. you rock…. end of f@&$ing story.

  3. Adam says:

    Wonderful response and exactly what’s needed. Kudos!

  4. Michael Young says:

    That’s a summary of how I’ve always tried to live my life. It boggles my mind that so many people get twisted up over how some one else lives. You get to meet many more interesting people when you have an open mind and are wiling to accept people for who they are.

  5. Spot on Chris! She was an awesome person. Her gender identity should not offend anyone and if it does, that is their own personal bias and they should keep those negative opinions to themselves. I’m just sorry you had to post this, as it shows a complete lack of compassion for their fellow humans.

    -Peace
    Aaron

  6. bigdaddyssrt says:

    Well said…and thank you

  7. Kerry Doyle says:

    Good points, Chris.
    It’s difficult for us to walk in our own shoes, let alone somebody else’s. The subject was Woodworking, not sexuality.

  8. kv41 says:

    Thanks, Chris! Good job.

  9. pfollansbee says:

    There are only a handful of people who were as close to Alexander as I was. When the transition began, then-John called me up and told me what the story was. He was now going to be living as a woman, Jennie Alexander. I didn’t understand it, but I had a simple either/or choice. Either I dump this person over this, or I respect his/her personal decision to live that way. It’s still the same person, different name, different wardrobe and haircut. Simple choice in the end, not a big deal. Thanks for this post, Chris.

    • sirlurkcalot says:

      We have a saying around here ” If you can’t do anyboby any good, don’t do them ant harm”. John/Jennie obviously did a lot of people a lot of good and deserves respect for that regardless. I personally know three people who have taken the same extremely difficult road. Apart from the outward transition it is the emotional change that has been most dramatic. Each one is now so much happier in their life. I sincerly hope Jennie enjoyed a similar experience. While I, like most of us, live with a body I am reasonably happy with, and can not hope to understand why someone would take a path like this, I/we have no right to judge. Friends are friends, they give and need love and support. My deepest condolences to all Jennie’s friends and family.

  10. Brian Yates says:

    Chris, I hope you bought that man a beer, perfect sentiment and succinctly stated.

  11. obewank says:

    today is my birthday, and Chris your thoughts and comments are the best present of the day !! thank you….dale

  12. NR Hiller says:

    Love times 237.

  13. Lewis Ward says:

    Christopher, ‘ ““Look,” he said. “If someone does something, and it doesn’t harm anyone, then what’s the problem? If you are bothered by it, then you are the problem.”…
    Please note that I feel this way about a wide variety of issues that are on the left and the right. Don’t try to transform this human statement into a political one.’
    Excellent. I’m often in that space. Welcome, it’s often a great place to be, but sometimes feels like the hot seat. We maintain our integrity while we’re there.
    He’s a wise employee and kudos for you integrating the wisdom. A fiend took a course with Jennie (as John Alexander) is 1973 and built a chair-well before the book was published. I just remember he came back from a workshop with a wonky rocking chair. The wonkiness was no refection on Jennie.

  14. John W. Suessmann says:

    Tip of the hat to you sir. Thank you for your hard work. I have learned quite a bit from you. Thanks again!

  15. Jon Hershey says:

    One of most important things in life is to be comfortable in one’s own skin. Some people feel great with who they are from the start and others take longer to reach that point. I’m glad Jennie got to be herself in the end.

  16. Alden Butler says:

    🙂

  17. Mike Siemsen says:

    Jennie was a good example to all of us in so many ways.

  18. robmelby says:

    Amen

    Sent from my iPhone

  19. gdblake00 says:

    What I initially found weird was the transition from lawyer to chairmaker. But after thinking about it, to really excel at either occupation you have to put in a lot of research and have a nack for details. We have all benefited from Alexander’s work, which will continue to enhance the craft long after we are all gone. Pretty good legacy I’d say.

  20. Jerry Dye says:

    What a great thing to read on a Sunday! I hope it does some good.

  21. John says:

    I agree with and respect everything Chris and the other responders have said. But don’t we encourage students to ask questions in order to fully understand or have we removed human behavior from the acceptable conditions to ask questions about?

    Do we want people to fear and/or loathe that which they don’t understand or do we want to encourage understanding as a path to acceptance? Some accept without question, others need to understand first. Except for the name callers, perhaps that’s the real reason people are asking.

  22. Tom Bittnet says:

    If people are truly good human beings and not harming others then wrestling with their own demons is no one else’s business but themselves.
    I’m not a religious person but I know that I’m not qualified to judge anyone and will leave that to a higher power. She took the time to answer an email from me about using green wood to make shaker boxes. I was so grateful she answered! ( she didn’t know either). A fine person who would help anyone.

  23. Denise Gaul says:

    Kindness and respect, apolitical and always appropriate.

  24. Delightfully succinct comeback, definitely a polite step up from “why do you care?” Though I’m usually a bit more combative towards people who want to make this sort of thing their business.

  25. Bruce says:

    Amen. I would only add, “… anyone, [or anything], …” and the employee’s comment fits my own daily philosophy.

  26. Justin Tull says:

    this post makes me appreciate and respect you even more.

  27. rons54 says:

    I figured out a long time ago that it must be possible to load the wrong software onto the hardware. Admiration to those who live a full and productive life regardless of the extra challenges. Or perhaps because of them? When I think of it some of the worlds most outstanding individuals have overcome or at least struggled with “issues” of various types.

  28. Dean Hummel says:

    Brilliant as usual Mr. Schwarz!

  29. Clay Silsby says:

    When my daughter transitioned and became my son I had to look in the mirror and be able to live with the man/father looking back at me. As Peter mentioned above, “easy choice.” I never met Jennie Alexander. Her books, the public friendship that Peter and you demonstrated and the beautiful work which you accomplished together helped me see the man that I was. Your friendships and writings have been a frequent subject in our conversation about life, transitions and craft.
    Thank You

  30. Peter mentioned that Jennie was working on a 3rd edition of Make A Chair From A Tree. Any chance we’ll see you folks publishing that?

    • Jennie has been working on this revision for five years with the assistance of Larry Barrett, Jenny Boyd and a cast of others. We agreed to publish it and signed a contract. We will reach out to the family to discuss the issue when we have all recovered a bit. Everything’s a little raw right now to discuss business, I’m afraid. Apologies.

  31. johncashman73 says:

    There are lots of these things in this world I don’t understand. That’s life. But imposing my ignorance on others? That’s something I could never bring myself to do.

  32. Tate Hewitt says:

    Thanks for this.

  33. I dont did not know of Jennie (John) Alexander but a hole load of respect for being comfortably in her own skin.
    As I have found in this modern world people are quick to point a finger at the facade without having the facts.
    What to me is more sad is that another person who has departed from us taking with them knowledge and skills which they picked up after publishing about their pasion for understanding period furniture mechanics. A sad loss all in all and Chis you were right to stand up as were are a dwindling community even on this side of the pond and we should stand together.

  34. Joe Babb says:

    Thanks for posting this response. I think it could be applicable to other situations than the one you mentioned, and the idea of practicing in front of a mirror is a good one. Thank you.

  35. ejcampbell says:

    Nice post, but it seems so obvious it shouldn’t need saying.

  36. I took a spoon and bowl carvings class from Peter a few years ago at Roy’s school. Prior to the class, I recall her occasional comments on Peter’s blog. I never connected Jennie, the person making comments on Peter’s blog, to Jennie, formerly John, the author until after Peter’s class.

    Once I did, I realized I was learning skills from a community that values the craft of making things more than making a big fuss over how another person feels most natural within themselves.

    Rest In Peace, Jennie Alexander. Your words will live forever, and the mark you left inspires us to make.

  37. JPD says:

    Thanks Chris. Woodworking was/is a very male/hetero-normative world and posting things like this is a necessary step towards making it a more inclusive craft and community. RIP Jennie.

  38. Df says:

    I generally don’t comment on posts like this but I think you hit it dead on. Interestingly enough there was a story on CNN today about a church group at an LGBT parade in the Philippines with signs asking the community for their forgiveness for years of hate. Very up lifting. Keep up the great work. I have quite a few of your books

  39. Elliott Driscoll says:

    Chris:

    I run a program for people with addiction and some of them struggle with gender identity. Sometime last year I got in touch with Jennie and asked her if she would be interested in doing a lecture on her experience with it. She wasn’t interested, which of course is absolutely fine. It didn’t feel to me like she was on any sort of mission. She simply saw herself as Jennie, not Jon. Nonetheless she was a gifted woodworker and gave a lot to the field. I regret that I never hooked up with her as I was starting a nonprofit at the time and her input could’ve been really helpful.

    The nonprofit, DriscollWoodshop.org is aimed at helping those in recovery from addiction, which here in Baltimore there are many, to learn woodworking skills so as to develop a passion. Much like I’ve done. Being passionate mitigates against addiction. God knows we need passion.

    At the end of the day we will have Jenny’s picture up, and that will help many of our clients who struggle with various things to except themselves as they are, much like Jennie did.

    Chris, I give you credit for posting this. I can only imagine there will be some boneheads… But maybe not… Maybe we are making progress in understanding our own humanity.

    Gratefully,

    Elliott Driscoll Executive Director/ Board Chair Driscoll Woodshop Program A unit of Recovery Capital, Inc, a not-for-profit 501(c)3 Maryland non-stock Corporation

    Physical Address: Recovery Capital 140 North Kresson St, 2nd Floor Baltimore, MD 21224

    Mailing Address: Recovery Capital c/o Elliott Driscoll 8501 LaSalle Rd, Suite 115 Towson, MD 21212

    Telephone: 609 647 6779

    Website: DriscollWoodshop.org

    The act of “making” combines creativity, fine and gross motor skills, focus, simple math, physics, and patience to produce surprising results. “Making” beautiful and/or useful objects boosts confidence, competence, and hope.

    >

  40. Clifford Logan says:

    Jennie Alexander: May she Rest In Peace.
    Her contributions to the wood working world cannot be understated. She inspired and still inspires, thousands of people to pick up a tool and make shavings. For some, she inspired a whole another path in their life. Very few people can/will leave a legacy like that.

  41. Michael Christenson says:

    Trans issues aren’t really about woodworking, so maybe this subject shouldn’t get a lot of attention here. However, at this point, it looks like you only allow positive comments, especially those that praise your position on this issue.

    • mccracken157 says:

      Jennie was a woodworker, and trans. It was apparently enough of an issue that Mr. Schwarz felt the need to post another blog entry about the subject. Given the title of the post, my guess is some people posted recidivist comments on the matter.

      Also, its his website, and as he is not an agent of the government, he is free to limit speech in any way he so chooses.

  42. Rick Vanden Heuvel says:

    Thanks Chris for saying it. I was concerned that fuss or misunderstanding over Jennys transformation would muddy her passing.
    She was from the generation where coming out and admitting who she really was was not easy to do. I’m glad she finally felt comfortable about doing so before her time was done.

  43. Richard Mahler says:

    If there is one thing certain about being human, it is that we are not all alike, nor are we unlike in the same ways. Assuming that we are or that we should be puts a world of uneedful hurt on everyone. Everyone deserves to do what makes life most livable for themselves when it does no physical harm to others. If what makes a person happy does you psychic harm then you need to do some soul searching to discover why that may be. Accepting other people for who they are goes a long, long way toward your own happiness because life is a shared experience.

  44. Mia McDavid says:

    Well said, Christopher!

  45. You go, Chris!! People should be looking at the chair (or stool) not the sex, sexual preference, color, origin, et al of the maker. It’s just unfortunate you even had to post this blog in the first place. Woodworkers, too immature to respect these perimeters probably should not be handling sharp tools int he first place.

  46. Klaus N. Skrudland says:

    Fistbump!

  47. ianschwandt says:

    Influential people and the work they produce rarely fit into a mold that is easily understood by the proletariat.

  48. Thanks Chris…and Peter…and all here that commented in the positive…

    The spirit inside that actually touched those that knew him…(then her)…never really cared about the shell that contained it…We love Alexander either way and always will…

  49. Jay Froman says:

    Well spoken Chris. I, like you, like and dislike many things from both sides of the spectrum. It’s hard to understand sometimes, but that also takes time. Keep up the good work

  50. I never met Jennie. But I heard some of the comments when she came out. I heard some of the same when I came out. She was a hero of mine in more ways than one. I always felt like I waited too long to transition. Knowing she did it even later than me gave me courage.

    I was put in touch with her; and spoke to her. We talked about a lot of things. She helped me in a really dark time in my life; even though realizing I was a woman brought me great joy, life was still grinding me down. She made me promise to quit some bad habits. I tried and failed, but she was there for me. I put off calling her back, because I didn’t want to let her down. I wondered why my last brief email went unanswered, (this was a while back) and new I should have taken her up on that offer to call her “any time”. I never did; and now I realize it woulda been too late.

    I have a lot of thoughts about her passing. Things I don’t know how to articulate. But as a trans woman myself, I just wanna say; hearing thoughts like you’re expressing here, coming from a cis man who could honestly just ignore the whole thing, who doesn’t have as much skin in the game- it means the world. Thanks.

  51. Pre Modern Bloke says:

    The question is by what objective standard do you evaluate whether one is doing harm to others?

  52. erikhinkston says:

    Well stated Chris!

  53. Mike Schloff says:

    Thanks for sharing and setting a positive tone!

  54. Erik Hoover says:

    I appreciate this, Chris. Thanks.

  55. Tadd WIlson says:

    “…but you can love completely without complete understanding.” Norman Maclean

  56. You are also the solution. Thank you for speaking out Chris.

  57. c15571 says:

    Well said Chris.

    She was an accomplished musician, lawyer AND woodworker, as well as a devoted friend and amazing teacher. All of this while fighting demons that few of us can imagine.

    She is certainly one of my heroes and I will miss her even though I never met her.

    Through Peter Follansbee, Lost Art Press and the small but very active Greenwoodworking movement Jennie’s legacy will live on.

    TonyC

  58. Chris F says:

    Well said. I’m disappointed that you had to post this (I’m assuming as a result of some stupid comments), but sadly there are always people who can’t just live and let live. Gender dismophia must be such a hard thing to live with – I’m glad Jennie was able to live at least part of her life as the person she’d probably always felt she was. She clearly knew a thing or two about wood as well!

  59. boundboardbag says:

    fuck yeah.

    • Danno says:

      “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.” – George Carlin

  60. David Katz says:

    I wonder how many who read this blog feel like me, and who are asking themselves “isn’t there any place we can escape the identity politics wars for a few minutes every day?”

    Not even on the pages of a woodworking blog?

    • I wonder how many people participated in a woodworking class hoping to be spared bigotry and hate speech? I know of a few.

      • David Katz says:

        I have no idea, but this isn’t a woodworking class. This is a woodworking blog, where the editors and writers choose what topics to post about. The obvious answer to my question is “no, not on this blog will you escape the identity politics wars. If you don’t like it, you’re not welcome here.”

        Message received.

        • DT says:

          I guess you’d be equally offended about a blog post on a vintage car that was particularly important to the blog writers or to a post about the solar eclipse or God knows what else. If those wouldn’t upset you just as much as you appear to be bothered by this post then you need to analyze why that is the case.

    • andymckenzie617 says:

      For the people intimately involved in those wars, they can’t escape them for a single second. They live their lives knowing that, at any moment, they could be hassled, harassed, or assaulted for being who they are.

      “Reading about it online” doesn’t strike me as too much of a hardship, especially in comparison to what they’re living.

      • David Katz says:

        To quote C.S. Lewis:

        “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

        • Jim Dillon says:

          “Tyranny” seems a bit of a stretch for a blog you read by your own free choice, and the world is full of proof that C.S. Lewis was simply wrong in stating a robber baron’s cupidity may be satiated. AndyMcKenzie617 is bang on in his remark. As a teacher of woodworking, I have had to make in-class statements in favor of inclusion twice or thrice in 20 years of this work. I spoke up to try & relieve someone from the pressure of being in a space where they had been made to feel unwelcome because of their gender, so I see this as perfectly valid subject matter for a blogger who teaches woodworking. The woodshop has traditionally been thought of as a powerfully gendered space, after all, and challenging that status doubles the potential client base for classes, books, and blogs. My advice to you when someone robs you of a few moments of woodworking, woodworking, woodworking and nothing but woodworking to say “by the way, all are welcome here,” is to do what I do when yet another braying ass “leads” a whole room “in prayer”: take it as a chance to tune out for a few restful moments and empty the mind of all thought. Sure, all us sheep are on the Maoist train to PC re-education camps, but at least so far nobody is trying to confiscate our jack planes because they’re not gender-neutral!

  61. Tim Ward says:

    Gender identity is a complex issue and those of us who do not have to face it should be thankful for one less stresser in our lives. I never heard of Jeannie until these posts. She appears to have been a kind, knowledgable, and courageous person who had a profound effect on many accomplished people. More than most of us accomplish in our lives.

  62. Theron Ball says:

    Continue to do what you do Chris. How could you not? It is much appreciated, in this community more than others, to witness truth in the face of ignorance.

  63. david webb says:

    I support this position 100%. I had a question about the book/dvd and asked it online, Jennie called me on the phone to answer. Blown away. She answered my question and her only comment on the subject was “oh by the way, my name is Jennie now, not John”

  64. andymckenzie617 says:

    Beautifully said.

    I also want to add: One of the things I have loved most about the woodworking press recently is that I saw practically no commentary on this: Just, “Oh, yeah, John is now Jennie, Jennie is not his widow/wife/whatever.”

  65. mcdara says:

    Ok, so John had an issue with his gender. Let he who is without issues cast the first stone.

  66. Pete McKinlay says:

    I think that’s about as good a response as one can have to that particular line of questioning.

    I may borrow it in future.

    I have been meaning to pick up a copy of Jennie’s book- I will do that when I get home.

  67. Rachael Boyd says:

    Thank you for your understanding from everyone who has transitioned, it is never an easy thing for the people in your life.

  68. Nathan says:

    I think that it is possible to disagree with someone or feel uncomfortable with something they do and still treat them with love and respect. The world lost someone valuable. I think that’s the key point here.

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