Do you have any regrets? Me neither, just that I turn 42 next week and I may as well have been born yesterday, except for these joints, and this liver, and these guts, this personal reputation, and these neuroses. The goals, the bank account, the prestige, the professional respect are are a tabula rasa! Hoorah!
Arnon Kartmazov is a blacksmith born in Siberia, raised in Israel, educated as a linguist, and trained as a bladesmith in Japan, where he had been studying the language. Interviewing him for my Portland Monthly piece on the bladesmiths of Portland, we got to talking about careers, since he made a switch from professional to tradesman year ago, and I’ve been trying (for years) to switch from tradesman to professional.
Arnon may have started life as an intellectual, but now looks the picture of Russian worker, despite being perhaps the most cosmopolitan person I’ve met. In a black hoodie, black fleece hat and black jeans, he alternately lounges and sits forward in his office chair, depending on how intense the thing he is trying to get across is, gesturing, nodding, raising his eyebrows to make his point.
I’m good at languages but just because you are good at something doesn’t mean that’s the thing you enjoy the most. Smithing came harder to me than linguistics. I had to work much harder. I’m kinder perhaps. A British writer once said ‘everybody gets the fate they deserve by the age of 40.’ So hopefully by a certain age one realizes who one really is.
Yikes! Things are not looking good for a forty-one-year-old struggling writer. How does one decide what to do with one’s life, were one considering a switch? Like Arnon in his thirties, I’ve long felt a duality in what I want to do with my life. What is the highest use of myself? I am like the prisoner who, having served his time, has finally been freed, but I’m eyeing a liquor store to knock over.
“Calling” might come as an epiphany, according to Arnon:
I remember the day I decided to do it very clearly. I was apprenticed to this guy, a swordmaker, in Japan. I was apprenticed to this guy part time, but then I became full time. And we were forging a katana, and it was a really hard workday. It was hot as hell. I climbed out of the hole, they forge in a hole. You know, they dig a hole in the floor and they put everything on the floor, you stand in the hole and your forge is here, your anvil is here, your power hammer is here, your trough of water is here, so it’s all like around you—it’s just around you and it’s all just at waist height.
It’s hot as hell and you pump the bellows by hand. Eventually, done with the piece, I climbed out.
I sprayed water on myself and drank some. The house was on this hill, and you could see the ocean, and his wife brought us some tea, and it was dusk falling and I could see some fruit bats flying out to feed, and I said, ‘ok I’m gonna be doing this for the rest of my life.’ And I couldn’t postpone it anymore.
So the other day, as I was waiting for my coffee at the ridiculous bakery/coffeeshop near my house, I saw a guy in the backroom rolling sausages up in pastry dough, for these delicious little pigs in a blanket they make. He’d clearly made thousands of sausage-stuffed pastries in his time there, and expertly rolled one after the other, placing them neatly on a half-sheet pan bound for the backstock. I felt a pang of envy, regret perhaps, over these truly silly (but actually delicious) pigs in a blanket.
Many of my neighbors hire landscapers, which I find ridiculous. Why own a home, if you aren’t going to partake in the only joyous task associated with homeownership? I often think that landscaping for a living must take the joy out of it, and landscapers don’t likely keep gardens at home.
But back in the late fall, I was out working in the yard, and the neighbor’s landscapers came by to work. One of them struck up a conversation with me about the vegetable garden I was tearing out. His own vegetable garden had done quite well that year (of course it did), and he ended up with plenty of extra to preserve. And we talked about cleaning up the garden, and hardscaping, and the year’s weather patterns and so on as we worked for the next fifteen minutes or so. Then they got in the truck and left, to go work on another yard. I had never considered that I could enjoy working on other people’s landscaping all day, and still enjoy my own. I should have, since I know at least one landscape professional who also keeps an immense garden.
So I waffle, and hedge, and procrastinate, imagining that being on my feet all day will still feel great in ten years (it really might). Meanwhile, I am building a backlog of years to regret down the lane. But by the time I come to that point, regret will be not only futile, but unnecessary.
Take it away, Arnon:
You can’t regret, things happen when they happen. We would become who we are at a certain time, things happen when they happen. I regret certain things. The school I went to or the choices I made, but you can’t, you were someone else.
It’s like, I had to fix my goddamn power hammer. It’s a forging tool, right, and I messed around with it for like two months, and it almost killed me. I couldn’t get any help from the manufacturer or the distributor or anything and this design flaw made it almost impossible. And I need it and I can’t afford to spend another $20,000 to buy a new one, and eventually I had to do some drastic stuff. I had to take a torch and cut a hole in it. It’s impossible. It’s a nice machine and your livelihood depends on it, and you take a torch and you just cut…cut an ugly big hole right through the frame. Who does that? It’s like imagine you have a Porsche right? And you need to change a spark plug and you realize that the only way to change a spark plug is to cut a hole in the body, would you do that? Right in the goddamn hood. Would you do that? You might have to.
Me (a Dumbass): Yeah, but a Porsche is a different thing.
For me it’s the same. For me this is my baby if you wish. This is my livelihood. This is an extension of myself. It’s like my hand or my hammer. It’s how I make my living. This is how I get the joy out of every day, and then it doesn’t work. So it’s like OK. Well what do you do? Well this is what you do: You take a fucking torch and you cut a great big hole and you get it fixed and then you weld it back up. And if you were really persnickety you spray some paint and all is good. But it took me a while to get to that point. So do I regret that it took me a month or two fucking around with ineffective techniques, in essence? Not really because it took two months for me to drop all this sentimental BS, and now I’m just a slightly different person, a person who can do that without hesitation now. If it happens again, what do you think I will do?
It’s like, have you ever been in a fight?
Me (weak and ineffectual): Yeah.
Well it’s like I was a pretty soft boy that was back in Siberia. You know, I come from a family of intellectuals, reading books listening to music that sort of thing, and I go to school and with rough siberian kids. You know how hard it is punch somebody the first time around. But it takes a certain amount of thing to get harrassed into a mode where… it’s like ‘well this seems to take care of business.’ Blam! First blow maybe not so good, but maybe the second time you do a little better, but you cross that threshold, It doesn’t matter how effective or ineffective you are, but you get tired of being bullied so you push back. So I’m a different person now. Do you think I regret all these weeks of getting thrashed? They said I could have punched them right away. No I couldn’t have. I was someone else and you are someone else.
And I got to participate in this conversation, IRL! We were sitting in the office in his shop, and it’s all very gritty, surrounded by medieval weapons and little steel and iron jimjaws. This does not happen to you when you are behind the restaurant line. Occasionally a winemaker or a farmer might acknowledge you, there in your element, the same one you sweat in every day, getting berated by sous chefs, trading barbs with some bitch-ass broiler cook, parrying with the front-of-the-house. There is always the beauty of what you have in your hands though. These gorgeous radishes and duck breasts, and the scent of citrus reducing on the flame and the whiffs of white truffle blowing from the walk-in whenever someone opens the door, make every day something to savor, in memory at least. I used to dream about finessing things toward the heavens (tall food days).
But these conversations, and getting to explore the thoughts of these people, and various landscapes and ideas are what brings me back to this laptop. It’s a huge sacrifice though: to give up living in the physical world all day, every day, so that on some days I might live (experientially) bigger and more immediately than I probably could through labor. To be continuously defeated by the tedium of trying to think in an impossible situation (thinking at the distraction box is like building a fire in a rainstorm) is ultimately the price to pay for that privilege.
So Arnon, Murray, Justin, Ian, and Trent, and even you editor Marty, I thank all of you for the opportunity to broaden my experiences so frighteningly wide. I’ve just got a commission for another story, that I am not at liberty to discuss, and I have some ideas to pitch.