Note: We are in the final stages of getting the printed copies of “The Anarchist’s Workbench” complete and ready for shipping. It will be soon, and I’ll publish the details here when I have news. You can, of course, download the whole book for free here.
I’ve been asked why I wrote this book. Was it to spite a former employer or a corporate publisher? Nah. That’s not me. If you’re looking for the Revenge and Vengeance Department, press 1 to talk to my wife, Lucy. Instead, I think I wrote this book to get this story out of my system so I could move onto the next phase of my life as a woodworker and writer.
One of my biggest personality flaws can be explained with this simple story. I asked a blacksmith to make me a metal planing stop. He insisted that the best planing stops were made from railroad spikes and that he would charge me just $20 for the thing.
The box arrived, and I opened it. I took one look at the toothy and crusty metal stop and said: Nope. I refused to install it on the bench, and so my first adjustable planing stop was wooden. It worked OK. But I had absolutely no idea what I was missing until I installed a metal one two years and five months later.
I wonder sometimes: What is my malfunction? I could have installed the metal stop in an hour. If it didn’t work, I could have made a replacement wooden one in a second hour.
This kind of crap – holding desperately onto something that works OK instead of taking a small step that could improve everything – is exactly what kept me immobilized in corporate America way past my expiration date.
From the day I entered the workforce as an adult in June 1990 until I said “I quit” to my boss at Popular Woodworking in 2011, I was intent on holding onto every job I had. Getting fired or laid off crossed my mind almost every day. And (even worse) that fear seemed to make all the important decisions in my career. A few highlights:
For five years I wrote freelance copy for the now-defunct Woodworker’s Book Club and poured that money into my workshop at home. My rationale: I wanted to be ready to work as an independent furniture maker on the day that I got canned.
It wasn’t the stupidest fear. Being a journalist these days is almost as irrelevant as being a wheelwright or the guy who makes coats from the foreskins of sperm whales (that’s a real thing, by the way; you know I wouldn’t lie to you re: whale dongs). But it did make me do stupid things.
My office at home was next to my daughters’ bedrooms, and while banging out meaningless monthly drivel for the Woodworkers’ Book Club, Maddy would beg me to play “Baldur’s Gate” with her on the computer. More often than not, I put her off in order to get the freelance work done on time. And so Maddy would wait for me in my office and she illustrated a little book (that I still own) titled “The Monsters of Baldur’s Gate” containing advice for us.
Yeah, even then I felt like a crap parent. But I rationalized that all the freelance work would save us from future disaster. We wouldn’t have to go back to the days when our checking account dipped below $100 every two weeks, right before payday.
Every month, I got a check from the Book Club. I put half away for taxes. The rest I spent on the tools I thought I needed for a one-bad-father furniture shop. For starters: a chop saw, drill press, spray finishing equipment, mortiser, compressor with many nail guns and a stupid jig for drilling shelf-pin holes. These weren’t tools I really wanted to own. But they were tools I knew other furniture makers owned.
I’m not a prepper, but I think this is what it must feel like to put away 1,000 gallons of potable water and 300 cans of beans for the apocalypse. As my shop at home came together, I began to feel less anxious about being fired. I was ready.
One day one of my woodworking friends shut down his shop and went to work for his wife. Despite his talents (he’s a better woodworker than I’ll ever be), the work had dried up. The phone had stopped ringing. He had all of the tools (even a Timesaver wide-belt sander that was bigger than my truck). Plus, he had the skills and 20 years of experience. But nobody wanted to hire him.
This freaked me out. Owning the tools was not enough.
I started trolling around for commission furniture work, even if it didn’t pay much. I decided I had to build a customer base. (Tools plus customers equals job security, right?) I began making Morris chairs and selling them on eBay. I started building pieces for my wife’s boss, hoping he would spread my name among his wealthy friends. I even dabbled in trimming out a kitchen or two owned by friends in Cincinnati’s Northside neighborhood.
So I was building furniture at night. On other evenings I was still writing copy for the Woodworker’s Book Club. I hadn’t picked up my guitar in years. And “Baldur’s Gate” remained unsolved.
One week at work I received two phone calls that seemed like a gift. Marc Adams called to ask if I would teach at his school in Indiana. Then Kelly Mehler called to ask if I would teach at his school in Kentucky.
I said yes to both. Becoming a woodworking teacher was another layer of economic protection. I thought: Even if this bad thing happened and those other bad things happened, I also had teaching. I would be impossible to snuff out.
This is the point in the story where it should all come crashing down. But it doesn’t.
One of the many reasons I started Lost Art Press was to have something else to fall back on – yes, another stopgap – for when I was finally fired at Popular Woodworking. That fear might seem irrational. My only defense is that magazine editors are flushed with more regularity than most people’s bowels. Every year at Popular Woodworking I attended four or five going-away parties at bars for colleagues who had been canned.
The horror always seemed to be just around the corner. Even if you had 10 or 12 glowing yearly evaluations behind you [Editor’s note: Or 19], there was a decent chance that you’d soon be at the Buffalo Wild Wings on Lane Avenue, drunk and with your car’s trunk full of your kids’ drawings. Which used to decorate your cubicle.
So I worked. April became a bad month and a bitter family joke. My youngest daughter’s birthday is at the end of April, and I missed it about five years in a row because I was teaching out of town.
OK, I know for certain that the narrative arc should now take us to the breaking point. It wasn’t, however, a made-for-TV moment.
I was teaching a workbench class at Kelly Mehler’s school in May of 2011 when my mom phoned me in the middle of class. I knew it was bad news. Her brother (my uncle), Thomas West, had just died. He was 71.
I wasn’t close to my Uncle Tom. Instead I had always been in awe of him and was too timid to talk to him at the rare family gatherings. He was the genius in the family and had a newsworthy career at Data General. Tracy Kidder wrote a Pulitzer-prize-winning book about him, “The Soul of a New Machine.”
After my mother told me the news, I sat down. A switch had gone off in my head that I still cannot explain to this day.
I finished up the class and got into my truck to go home. I stopped at the Shell station down the road from Kelly’s school to fill up my tank for the drive. I remember my hands shaking as I pulled the fuel nozzle from the truck.
I got in the car and called Lucy.
“I want to quit my job,” I told her.
“OK,” she said. “Come home, and we’ll figure it out.”
That was on a Friday evening. On Monday I turned in my resignation letter at the magazine. I think I was as shocked about the moment as my boss was.
All those years of preparing for the day – buying tools, building up a commission book, teaching, starting a company – none of that was helpful or comforting in that moment.
On my last day at the magazine, I loaded up the last of my tools. I plugged my phone into the stereo. It picked up where I’d left off in the morning with Superchunk’s “Learning to Surf.”
I should have quit years before I did. I know that now. The freelancing, teaching, commission work and publishing were all excuses. I thought: If I built this business, then I’d be ready. If I built that business, then I’d really be ready.
I had been ready for years but had been too chickenshit to write the resignation letter. I know this might seem like a “chicken and the egg” paradox, but I was an overcooked baby. I hid in the womb. And boy is my therapist gonna have a field day with this paragraph.
I drove home to my family and thought: Now I’m going to be a better father and husband. And I was. I picked up my kids from school every day. I was home for birthdays and graduations and the landmarks. I made dinner every night. (I still haven’t finished “Baldur’s Gate,” however.)
This, I thought, is the reward for escaping the corporate world: More time with my family and the freedom to run my own life. But I was wrong. The real reward would come seven years later when my father lay dying.
At some point in my life, the following piece of trivia got lodged in my brain: There’s sufficient evidence that the word “deadline” meant something fairly sinister in Confederate prisons during the U.S. Civil War. The “dead line” was literally a line marked in the ground to restrain prisoners. Cross the “dead line” and you would be shot.
This thought crossed my mind several times as I edited magazine stories and approved page layouts at the foot of my father’s hospital bed after his first cancer surgery.
I was in downtown Chicago in the middle of winter trying, with the help of my sisters, to get my dad through the procedure in a city that was a world away from our Arkansas home.
I was also responsible for editing two woodworking magazines, one of which was just about to go on press.
My boss had, with great grace, allowed me to leave town to attend my dad’s surgery. No questions and no complaints. The only catch was that I had to keep the magazine running. We couldn’t miss printing deadlines. That’s when things got royally screwed up and it began costing the company money.
There also is an unspoken rule at most media companies. If you miss hard deadlines, you will – sooner rather than later – be fired. No matter how good the content is that you produce, editors who blow deadlines are marked as difficult. And difficult editors are the first ones to go as soon as the magazine’s budget or reputation hits the tiniest pebble.
Among the consultations with nurses and doctors I wrote an article about cutting tenons by hand. I approved about 100 pages of layouts. I edited an entire magazine issue with my laptop perched on my knees. I made dinner for my sisters. And I drove my dad back to Arkansas with his colostomy bag on the floorboards of my pickup truck.
When we pulled into town in Fort Smith, Ark., it was late, and my dad was craving fried chicken livers. I looked at him over the rim of my glasses.
“Really?” I asked.
My dad – the guy who ate sprouts and whole wheat bread for lunch every day – wanted some deep-fried organ meat?
“I think I need the iron,” he said.
I pulled into a Church’s Chicken that had just closed for the night. In my hometown, white people don’t go to Church’s; we’re supposed to go to KFC. So, I know it freaked out the employees when a long-haired bearded white dude banged on the door asking for chicken livers. The manager came to the door a little wary. I explained my problem.
He started up the deep fryer and made my dad a double order. Which dad gobbled up before we made it the two miles to his house.
I got my father into his bed, where he fell asleep immediately after an entire day in the car. I wasn’t tired, and so I wandered around his house.
This wasn’t the house I’d grown up in, but it was filled with the things my dad had made. There were the Japanese garden benches on his deck – a design of his so perfect that I ripped it off for a magazine article years later. There was the weird glass-topped coffee table that was made from about 120 pieces of redwood that had all been bolted together using all-thread – no glue.
I sat down in the living room and tried to decompress after the journey. And I noticed something new and curvy on the other side of the room. I walked over to investigate. It was a heating register made from wood, but it was handmade, pierced and carved with lovely curves. Who does that?
I knew the answer.
When I was a kid, my dad had built (and finished) furniture while confined to bedrest after some spinal surgery. He taught himself how to veneer furniture, build decorative brick walls and design houses (two of his original designs still stand today) before he was 40. He took piano lessons in his 50s. Vocal lessons in his 60s. Cello lessons in his 70s. If he wanted to do something, he just did it.
And here I was terrified of missing a printing deadline.
My dad and I were usually close. You would think that we’d be closer because we both loved making things. But we seemed to see handwork through different lenses. While he loved making things – furniture, music, pottery – it was the reward or the release after his difficult and meaningful work. My dad was a family physician.
For me, making things was the difficult and meaningful work. He wanted me to be a lawyer.
After I quit my job at Popular Woodworking I didn’t see my dad as much. He was building a new life in Charleston, S.C., and I was trying to forge a life as an independent furniture maker, writer, publisher and teacher. And trying to be a decent parent (if not a decent son).
In 2016, dad’s cancer came roaring back. And that was when I knew I had made the right decision to leave the corporate world. After talking to my dad on the phone one evening, I said, “I’ll be there tomorrow.” I packed my bags and threw them in my truck. I didn’t ask anyone for permission.
I just went. I didn’t have any deadlines. Well, not for work.
When I arrived in Charleston the next afternoon my dad was impossibly skinny. He had converted to a vegan diet a few years before and was an insufferable evangelist about it, to boot.
“You hungry?” he asked. “I know a place.”
During my previous visit the “place” was a Vietnamese gas station that served zero meat, eggs or dairy. In fact, I think they waited for the vegetables to drop off the vine before harvesting them.
We drove north on the peninsula to a neighborhood that had been crime ridden for decades. He pulled into a parking lot that was awash in the smell of brisket and smoked pork.
“Really?” I asked.
“It’s going to change your life,” he said.
We sat down in one of the booths and waited for lunch to arrive. And I waited for him to tell me exactly how bad things were with his cancer (they were bad). I had left my laptop and my phone in my truck or back at his house, where they would sit for a few days.
And then I did something I hadn’t done since I was 5 or 6. I reached out across the table and grabbed his hand. He raised his eyebrows, smiled and nodded.
For the next eight months I drove to Charleston to visit him almost every month, taking turns with my sisters in taking care of him to the end.
Every time I packed my truck up for the trip, I had this same thought: I couldn’t do this if I still had a corporate job. So, during my visits, instead of writing magazine stories while my father’s health spiraled slowly downward, we watched “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” every night together. I made him dinner (he gave up on veganism at his doctor’s request; plus, he really wanted some brisket). And when he was feeling only half-horrible, we went to his favorite restaurants.
When he died, I was sitting on his bed with him and my sisters, singing his favorite Crosby, Stills & Nash songs. It’s a morning that I will always be grateful for.
I’m not saying that quitting your job will make you a better person. But it did for me.
Today I still work damn hard. You have to when you work for yourself. In fact I work just as hard as I did when I had to meet my corporation’s personal performance and financial goals, fearful of not being rated as “exceeds expectations.” (My reward for exceeding expectations? A 3 percent merit raise. Yup, I worked every weekend so they could reward me with $2,400.)
But now I can turn my work off like a water faucet. When I want to take my daughter to the art museum, I just do it. When I feel the urge to hike the Red River Gorge with my family, I make the reservations that instant instead of checking to see how many days of PTO I have banked.
And when I want to build a workbench, I don’t have to ask Steve for permission. I don’t have to submit the plans for the bench to a bunch of people who really don’t give a crap about traditional woodworking.
I just do it. And it’s on the following page.
— Christopher Schwarz
Off the beaten path, find art to buy.
8 Simple Changes to Green Up Your Home
Extra Art-Selling Advice