The Ball is in Here
“Artists in the far east have made a great deal of what they call “the controlled accident”; marvelous things which happen as surprises when an artist does not try to dominate his medium, but lets his medium itself do some of the work. And it is the art of trusting the medium to express itself along with your own contribution to it as an artist. When this harmonious relationship of man and nature is brought into play, we get marvelous little objects of this kind.”
I sauntered downstairs at 6am. After feeding the cat, I began to brew my coffee. Alexa’s dad, Francis, has an espresso machine, so I’ve gotten into the habit of making an americano every morning. I knew today was the day I’d tackle the project I’d been prepping, planning, and imagining for the last two months. Considering the lead up to this day, I was surprised I didn’t feel any sort of gitty anticipation while the machine squeezed out a double shot. After I added hot water to the crema topped espresso, I took a seat to read; my morning routine. I’d planned to begin the project at 8am as I didn’t want to wake up the rest of the house too early on the 4th of July. Therefore, I was in no rush as I savored my coffee and dug into Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta. Standing on the starting line of my project, I discovered fitting words from Yunkaporta:
“At the simplest level, when we hold a tool, our brain recognizes it as an extension of our arm. It isn’t really part of our body, but it becomes an embodied extension of our neural processes. At more complex levels, the meaning we make with places, people, and objects and the way we organize interactions between these things become an extension of our thinking. Through meaning-making, we effectively store information outside our brains, in objects, places, and relationships with others. This is how spirit works.”
Alexa joined me around 7:30am. She was dressed to do her training/dance party in the garage. We asked how one another had slept, gave a hug, and then she skipped away to do chin-ups and dance to J.Lo. This was my cue to take the final sip of coffee and begin organizing my tools and workstation. I laid out an old bed sheet on the front lawn that Alexa’s mom, Verna, gave me for the project. Then I snagged the sharpening stone and hatchet. The last thing I brought out was the block of pine wood and placed it down on the sheet. It had the shape of a rectangular prism and was about the size of a small footrest. Written on the block, in red ink, was “THE BALL IS IN HERE!” It was now 8am, and I was going to attempt to transform the block into a sphere. I removed the hatchet from its sheath and took my first chop.
Back in mid-May I began daydreaming about a video I had seen months prior from Fighting Monkey, a movement practice developed by the wife and husband team of Linda Kapetanea and Jozef Frucek. In the video, titled “The Cube of Rationality into Impossible Spherical Object”, they showed footage of a task they’d given students during one of their weeklong workshops. The group was broken into partners, and each team had a large cube of wood and a hatchet. They were instructed to carve it into a sphere. All the work was performed on the ground. In the video, Frucek describes the task after-the-fact and discusses some of the takeaways. He talks about how each block of wood was different. Some had more knots, and some had less knots; some were harder, and some were softer; and some were wetter, some were dryer. No two pieces were the same, leaving each couple with its own unique scenario. However, the students were not let in on this secret, so looking around it appeared everyone had the same cubed canvas. This observing and comparing continued throughout the project. Not realizing the nuances, challenges, and gifts within each unique block caused some people to rush, and others to give up. Frucek also talks about the lure of perfection. People would chop more and more off the wood, despite having a well-formed ball, in pursuit of unattainable perfection. As they chiseled away, the ball got smaller and smaller, leaving them with a tiny object that wasn’t necessarily more spherical. Frucek finishes his thoughts by describing the respect we have for the tools we create for ourselves versus tools we are given, “…if you create your object for practice, you are less likely to throw it… you are not taking that material as a consumer.”
I re-watched the video a number of times, and felt compelled to attempt the task myself. I believe I was inspired by my current living situation. It has been 17 weeks since we moved out of Brooklyn, because of Covid-19, to Alexa’s parents’ house in Northern Westchester. Their home abuts a nature preserve, so I have been fortunate to spend my days surrounded by forest. And during many of our walks I discovered neighbors working with their hands and simple tools on tasks like fences, garden beds, and play sets. Perhaps something about the scenery and these observations drew me to this project. I had never carved or sculpted anything, nor had I taken woodshop in high school or ever wielded a hatchet. However, I was determined to take a hack at the project, and I was going to do it alone rather than with a teammate within a group setting. Although the timeframe was unclear in the video, I committed to completing the project in one day.
When I told Alexa about my desire to do this project, she suggested I connect with a family friend and neighbor who is an artist and teaches sculpting. His name is Ron Mineo. Alexa contacted Ron and told him about the adventure I was planning to go on and sent him the video that provided the inspiration. This began an email exchange between Ron and me, and he became an informal consultant. He said the wood used in the video was pine, and suggested using the same, as it is a softer wood. I didn’t know the difference between hard and soft wood, but figured if it’s what was used in the video, and Ron was also suggesting it, then I’d follow the leaders. Coincidentally, a pine tree had gone down on their property in Vermont over the winter. He said if I could wait a couple of weeks, then he’d have his son cut a couple of blocks for me during his next visit. He added, “And, the price is right.” I accepted his generous offer.
While I awaited the wood, I began looking for a hatchet. In one of our email exchanges, Ron suggested a wooden handle just in case I wanted to sand it down to fit my hand. With that in mind, I went to the internet for a deep dive into the world of hatchet enthusiasts. I read reviews, watched videos, and perused blogs. I also reached out to a friend who is an avid camper and wooden spoon carver. I wrestled with all the options for a number of days before finally settling on a Husqvarna 13” hatchet. It was highly reviewed, an acceptable price ($47), and I found it to be an aesthetically beautiful tool. I placed my order, and a day later, June 2nd, I received an email that it had shipped. However, in the same email, I noticed the expected delivery date was between June 19th and July 7th, and there was no tracking number available. I crossed my fingers and hoped it would arrive sooner rather than later. Then I ordered a sharpening puck; both Ron and my friend said the blade would need some TLC during the project. I’d never sharpened anything, so I turned to YouTube for education.
Within 20 minutes of starting I was already thinking, “How am I going to get through this?” Simply striking the wood effectively was challenging for me. Because I’d never used a hatchet, I was trying to learn on the job. This made the idea of eventually shaping the wood feel like a distant fantasy. I also realized that I could not do the whole thing with only my right arm working. I could already feel fatigue in the hand and forearm, and some small blisters developing on my fingers and palms. So, although I was already on what felt like a steep learning curve, I threw the weaker motor-skilled left arm into the mix. I found myself chopping the easier, softer, and with the grain parts of the block with the left arm, and the harder, knotted, and into the grain parts of the block with the right. I accepted what the wood was offering me. Now, both hands were sharing the misery, but this just meant the blisters and tenderness grew slower. Thankfully I had some athletic tape nearby, so I wrapped the parts of my fingers where I could feel the blisters forming.
I didn’t plan it, but I ended up working around the wood; constantly turning the block. As opposed to completely sphering one side, and then working the other side, I just took small bits away at a time so the whole object became rounder on all sides equally. I began from outermost parts of the block, the furthest from the ball; the edges and corners. I’d work one edge or corner, then rotate to another. Once I got all the edges and corners shaved down a bit on one side, I would try to make the other side look the same. This felt daunting because no matter how round I got the edges, I could still see corners. However, the method was efficient, and it allowed me to switch arms regularly.
I found myself in a myriad of shapes and positions as I pursued routes to work with, and around, the wood. I knelt on one knee, sat on both knees, stood up and hinged, sat cross-legged, sat straddled, stood straddled, and even held the block down with my foot. It was as if I was performing asanas from a Bear Grylls yoga DVD. Within all the shapes I continued to switch between the right and left hands, and, on occasion, I chopped with both hands on the handle. Eventually I learned that the more above the block I was, the more gravity pulled the blade down for me. Learning to collaborate with the forces of nature in this way saved a lot of energy. I played the upbeat, and gravity played the downbeat.
I worked from 8am – 12pm with only a couple of stops to use the bathroom. At noon I broke for lunch. The day before I had made a liver recipe that was topped with a delicious medley of crumbled bacon, onions, and mushrooms. The liver had been eaten, but there was leftover medley. So, I tossed it on a plate along with leftover brussels sprouts and broccoli, heated it up, and added an egg on top. After the pit stop, I brewed a coffee, and re-taped my fingers while I sipped. By 1pm the hatchet was back in hand.
I got an email from Ron saying that the wood had arrived. Alexa and I drove down the road to his house for the pick-up. When we pulled up, I could see the wood resting in front of the garage. Ron and I stood across the driveway from one another for a while and discussed the project. He pointed out the two blocks he had for me. One was narrow and cracked, on it, in red ink, he’d written, “PRACTICE ON THIS ONE.” (I did not heed this advice.) The other was wider, didn’t appear to have any cracks, and was still holding onto its bark on 4 of the edges. He said this was “the one”. On it, also in red ink, he’d written, “THE BALL IS IN HERE!” I agreed.
Two weeks after the shipment email, the hatchet still hadn’t arrived. I emailed the seller to ask when it would be delivered, or if they could provide a tracking number. They replied that because it was coming from Europe (which I wasn’t aware of until then) there was no tracking, and it would arrive within the next three weeks. I crossed more fingers.
One evening, as I was brushing my teeth before bed, I overheard Alexa’s brother, Chris, on his weekly Zoom call with his friends. He has a crew he grew up with in the area, and during the lockdown they got in the habit of doing a weekly call to catch up and play Cards Against Humanity. I overheard one of his friends say, “But, why? What is the reason?” Chris replied, “Its more cerebral than just cutting wood. It’s a metaphor for life.” He had watched the video, and was telling them about the project. Every time he tried to explain his interpretation, he was interrupted by one of his friends saying, “I don’t get it.” Or, “What does this have to do with movement?” To his credit, he was putting up a touching defense for me and the project I was so excited about attempting. However, his friends were relentless, and could not wrap their heads around spending a day chopping a piece of wood into a ball. The next morning Chris, not knowing I’d eavesdropped on the discussion, asked me to send him the video. He explained he needed to send it to his friends who were bewildered by the project. I never told him I had been a fly on the wall the night before.
In the two months leading up to the project, I ended up in similar situations with people. Everyone wanted to know why I wanted to spend a day hacking away at a wooden block. To them, it had to have a specific reason, it had to make sense. In the beginning, I felt like I had to defend and explain myself the way fitness folk put a video of a movement online and have to define it, put it in a box, but often leave out heaps of unspoken value; as if a movement only has one or two benefits. The same went for this project; I was trying to give a reason. Why do it on the ground? Why do it without anything bracing it? Why not use other tools as well? Is this a movement thing? The truth was, I saw the video and found it fascinating. It was a game, and all games have constraints. In fact, the constraints are what make a game intriguing. What’s exciting is not so much what you can do, but what you can’t do. Eventually I found myself replying to inquisitors with a simple: “It seems like an interesting game to play.” I know people who play video games all day, but no one demands sense or reason for Call of Duty. We just happen to live at a time when things are so fast and bright that we struggle to imagine chopping wood to be a game. For this kind of game, there needs an explanation to justify the struggle, discomfort, and potential suffering. “Ah, it’s a metaphor for life! I understand! Now you may carry on.” However, I wasn’t expecting grand revelations about life or my relationship with nature. Perhaps those discoveries would be made over the course of the event. However, I realized that I could also finish and feel like it was nothing more than a challenging game, or I could get to the end and feel like it was a waste of time. Or, maybe it would be a life changing experience and I’d tell the story forever. Any of these outcomes were OK. It didn’t need to be anything more than a game to play. And, sometimes unfamiliar journeys lead to discoveries of unexpected gold. How much gold goes undiscovered because there is no “reason” posted at the trailhead?
At this point the sun was at its peak, and it was a scorching summer day. Alexa popped in and out every hour or so to snap photos and see how I was feeling. She would refill my water bottle and bring me one of her homemade tahini chocolate chip cookies. Chris visited occasionally. At one point he was so impressed with the progress he proclaimed, “This is awesome!” Verna and Francis were encouraging as they returned from their daily walk. Verna said, “Its coming along nicely.”
All the work was done on top of an old bed sheet because I knew it would make the wood shavings easier to clean up. Thankfully, Verna told me that the sheet didn’t need to survive the day; missed chops early on had created holes in it. Every once in a while, I would lay the hatchet down and move the fresh shavings into the growing pile of non-sphere wood. I planned to save the shavings. A friend had recently told me about a culture where they make wood spoons and use the shavings to build the fire for the first meal served with the spoon. I imagined us celebrating my achievement by tossing the wooden ball around a fire started from the wood shavings.
The experience became deeply meditative. Other than the small interruptions, my mind was never detached from the task. There was no wandering, dwelling, or ruminating. I was present. Even during the interruptions, my mind was still in the block. Every thought, word, and observation evolved around, and within, the task. I had never been this focused or present during a mediation. This immersion caused time to change. I had been chopping for over 6 hours, but it felt like both mere minutes and multiple years had passed. The external activity moved at lightspeed, but internally I felt like I was working through eons of information.
At 3pm Chris’ friends began to show up for a small group, socially distanced, gathering for the holiday. I had hope to be finished before then, as I wasn’t interested in having an audience. Yet, I ended up being the front lawn entertainment for arriving guests. What was timely about these arrivals was that most of them knew about the project because they had been on the Zoom call I had overheard. They got to witness first-hand what they had been so confused by, and curious about. At this point I was dazed and hatchet-drunk. I was sitting in the grass, choked up high on the handle, and trying to sculpt; no longer chopping or hacking. As each person arrived, and stopped to admire my almost-sphere. I whittled away and gave short hellos.
As the end of June loomed, the sharpening puck had been delivered, but there was still no hatchet. So, every day I taught Movement Brooklyn LIVE lessons with the block and puck sitting on a wooden box in the background. Seeing as I teach morning classes every Monday through Saturday, and Ron had warned me the project would be a “long day”, I knew it would be best to have an uninterrupted day to work. The 4th of July holiday, which fell on a Saturday this year, would be the day. This would provide Sunday for recovery from a potentially brutal physical experience. With that in mind, I decided if the hatchet didn’t arrive by Thursday afternoon, I would go to the local hardware store and purchase an understudy hatchet.
Two days before the project, and one hour before Alexa and I were planning to go to the hardware store, Francis arrived from his walk with a box in hand. He said, “Time to get chopping!” I ripped the package open like a birthday present. When I saw the hatchet for the first time, I saw the guitar that was meant to shred this song. When I placed the wooden handle in my palm, and saw “Hand Forged” etched into the head, I could imagine playing the tune. The stars aligned.
At 4:45 pm, Alexa stepped outside and we observed the ball together and rolled it around the driveway. It wasn’t a “perfect” sphere, but it rolled. We agreed that it was a ball, with a bit of a melon nature. Hazy eyed and wasted, I asked her over and over, “Should I stop? Is it done?” She said I could obviously keep going, but it wouldn’t necessarily mean it would end up any more ball-like. I fought an inner battle: stop or go; finished or incomplete; less or more; round or not; melon or ball. Then, unexplainably, I blurted out, “I’m done.” So, I stopped. What began at 8 am, finished at 4:45 pm, with only a 1-hour lunch break. I had my perfectly imperfect ball; my “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. My collaboration, my controlled accident, with the hatchet and block of wood was complete. If I kept going, I would have been forcing something that wasn’t there for me and my band. And, we couldn’t be prouder of the song we recorded.
Alexa took several photos to commemorate the accomplishment, and then returned to the socially distant soiree. I wandered drunkenly around the sheet, piled high with wood shavings, and the ball with the hatchet resting against it. In another unexplainable moment, I stumbled inside and plopped down on a bench by the front door. I just sat there for I don’t know how long. No thoughts, just sitting. Then, before rinsing off the fatigue, I decided I needed to sharpen and oil the hatchet. I had only attempted to sharpened it once during the process, and I’m not certain I made it any sharper. However, I felt like the hatchet needed to be taken care of before I could take care of myself. Again, unexplainable, but it couldn’t wait a day. It was as if the hatchet should get a shower before I got mine.