When I finish teaching a class at a woodworking school, there is always a debriefing. The owner asks me how the class went. Were there rough spots? Things that could be improved the next time? It’s standard “let’s be responsible adults” chatting.
That is never the case with Marc Adams, who runs the Marc Adams School of Woodworking in central Indiana. I started teaching there 15 years ago, and every debriefing conversation has been shockingly intimate, personal and cathartic.
Marc and I are about as different as two people can be in the way we see the world and approach woodworking. Yet we get along really well. We are both hard-driving, Type-A family men who juggle our love for our work with our love for our wives, kids, compatriots and craft.
So on Friday, Marc called me into his office after I finished teaching 17 (!) students to make an American Welsh Stick Chair and we went through the regular motions. Marc dropped my paycheck on the floor to ensure it didn’t bounce. He asked how my assistants (Doug, Eric and Will) did. Then he started into deeper stuff.
“So you’re a writer, furnituremaker, publisher, teacher,” Marc said. “So what…”
I braced myself to offer the answer I always give to the question, “So what are you, really? A writer? Furnituremaker? Publisher?”
I even opened my mouth to start forming the words. But the question I was expecting didn’t come.
“So what,” Marc asked, “makes you happy?”
It was like someone had punched me in the gut. I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that question. I sucked in a big breath and thought about it for a half-second.
“I like to build furniture based on my research and write about it,” I replied.
“Is that what you do?” Marc asked.
“Sometimes,” I said. I then started explaining where my income came from, but that wasn’t the answer that Marc was seeking. So I ended my vomiting of my 1040 with, “Sometimes, I get to do that.”
Marc nodded. And then he moved onto other stuff.
On the drive home, I put on the saddest album I own, Magnolia Electric Co.’s “What Comes After the Blues.” Sad music and the open road always opens my mind.
— Christopher Schwarz
27 thoughts on “Unexpected Question”
Those are some profound words, yet so simple in theory.
Hey Chris, Thanks for showing the soft sensitive underbelly. Jason Molina + Steve Albini is a pretty raw ride home. Thanks as always for sharing the humanity.
So did the music lead to any insights?
All of us can benefit by reflecting on Marc’s question. Life is short and no one knows how much time they have left or when their capacity to do what makes them happy will disappear.
As a retired clinical psychologist I have an opinion about this issue. As a child in the 1940’s and 50’s we were taught that we should primarily measure ourselves by our deeds: whether they were moral, ethical, useful, productive, etc. There was a shift in the 1960’s and 1970’s that I believe was promoted by then emerging personal growth movements. Currently many high functioning Americans now measure themselves and their work by how much they are doing what they “really want to do.” I think that it is largely inappropriate goal, if taken to such extremes. If you go through a day, simply watching other people working in stores, factories, etc. and ask yourself the same kind of question “Are they doing what really makes them happy” you might gain some perspective on this. Also, simply put, we appreciate our experience of happiness because we also experience not being completely happy. If I were in your position I would be mindful of how much, through the many things that you do, you’ve given people the opportunity to see woodworking, tools, etc. very differently and, in the process also helped them develop new skills.
Maybe the question could be “what makes you satisfied?” I get a lot of satisfaction moving the lawn. A bit of a chore but when done there is the satisfaction of a job well done and a tidy looking house. At work there is a quiet satisfaction of a job well done and having made a difference. When you cut to the line and it’s straight (one day!) there is satisfaction of a skill achieved. If you come home to a happy home you are happy! I wonder if people aren’t satisfied any more with mere satisfaction?
Chris said that sometimes he gets to do what makes him happy, (but sadly only sometimes = my understanding).
The other times when you (Chris) don’t get to do things that make you happy (or happiest), many of us appreciate a lot, and you should know it:
1) When you fill the role of a public intellectual fearlessly (though I’m sure you didn’t aim for it) by challenging shallow thinking, putting forward fresh takes and demystifying concepts in your design, woodwork and writing;
2) When you do to the multitude of mundane tasks, and shoo-off detractors that snap at the heels, to build the community that makes up the Lost Art Press that we value a lot;
So: many thanks for the great things as well as for the little things you do that go unnoticed each day. Let this widely-felt appreciation help you feel good about all of them.
I didn’t see teaching in your short list of happy. After spending 30 years making a living doing pretty much one specialty, I spent 10 years teaching that same specialty. I learned an amazing amount about “my specialty” while I was teaching and because I was teaching. The teaching also seemed to make others happy—which was kind of a payback for the folks that taught me.
Short questions often yield long answers…and the best for long after the question has been asked. There’s something deeply meaningful about living the question.
“There’s something deeply meaningful about living the question.”
“Life is the most difficult exam. Many people fail because they try to copy others, not realizing that everyone has a different question paper.”
We make *ourselves* happy……..
That’s an intense record, I always trip on it going through my vinyl. Should I put this on? Am I up for it? Capping off this piece with that detail really focused your emotional state for me. More people should listen to Jason Molina’s music. His Songs: Ohia “Magnolia Electric Co.” record is my favorite.
Rise moon on the shores of the seas
Shine on the distance between me
and the last thing I see
Let it be me helping
Let it be me honestly
Let it be me working
On being a better me
I think that you must have had a happy week at Marc Adams school of woodworking then.
Thanks for this post, Christopher. It’s a wonder. The gentlest question, in the context of 17 years of reliable friendship and care, can land so deeply as to have the physical effect of a gut punch. I’m hoping the gentleness and care of the inquiry inspires the same in your consideration of its personal meaning for you. ✌🏼
“Sometimes, I get to do that.” That’s the space I live in now. I think as long as we know what makes us tick, and we get to do it sometimes…hopefully that’s enough? I guess it has to be, right?
There are aspects to everything we do that are less enjoyable while other things are more enjoyable. I think that it helps to remember that we are serving specific people in what we do, even in the things that are less enjoyable to us.
That was a very big question for one with so few words in it. Did you clear your mind and figure out the answer young grasshopper? Just looking for a yes or no.
(Thanks for music tip. Ill have to check out that album. I always toss on Miles Davis’, “Kind of Blue” when I’m in a funk.)
Buddy – truly, the cornerstone of what you do is build what you research about. I always look forward to a new ADB project, discussion, and plan – or a new Roman Bench and etc. Everyone does. Please don’t forget that.
As one of the students last week, I was perfectly willing to give up some of my income in order to do something I thoroughly enjoyed. Obviously there’s a limit to that exchange, but I don’t know where it is. Anyway, excellent class, Chris. Thanks.
As one of the students last week, I was totally willing to exchange some of my income to do something that gave me joy (and serious hand cramps). Obviously that exchange has a limit somewhere, but if you can afford to pay the piper, you might as well call the tune. Anyway, thanks for a great class, Chris.
My dad, all he did was work. I loath him for that.
If I am lucky enough to have time to contemplate a little before I die, I will never wish I could’ve worked (or accomplished) more. I will wish I had spent more time with my family instead of doing anything else.
I’ve spent the last 16 years or so, to varying degrees, hating what I do for a living. For most of it I was able to rationalize the sacrifice with the consolation that I was the sole provider for my wife and four children. I was doing it for them, or at least that’s what I told myself. But in the process I had become a person that I don’t like and very often, neither do they. I can’t blame them. Whatever I was doing for them, did not make up for what I was doing to them…or to myself. But the seemingly simple answer, make yourself happy, doesn’t offer much help. My parents did little for me and everything for themselves. They were happy but I was not. In an effort to not repeat my parent’s mistakes, I made other mistakes of my own. Other than circumstances and events beyond our control, our lives are largely driven by our decisions. Maybe happiness is also a result of those choices. On the other hand, maybe happiness is a choice that drives our lives. I don’t know but I think I need to find a new road and a new song.
“What makes you happy?” is the wrong question if your looking for the meaning of life.
Thank you for your honest sharing of this question and your truthfully contemplating it.
It seems there is a synergy between many people involved with hand tool woodworking and being skeptical(or at least questioning) about the “fruits” of post modernism.
I’m a huge fan of that Magnolia Electric Co. album. Not a more fitting state to put that one on. I think the Trials and Errors live album is my favorite of his. I’ve jammed to these two on more dark rural rides home than any album probably.
I’m asked that question often. My only response is that the questioner in relation to his own life knows no more than the questioned.
That’s a heavy question. “What brings you Joy?” Is a question you can contimplate on for quite a long life.
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