Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Of Wood and Woo

I've done some work as a carpenter. If you have never done it, you should give it a try. You can get lost in the work. Measuring, cutting, assembling. I've built sets for plays, taking simple pieces of wood and shaping them into imaginary lands that transport the audience into a different world, a different time. There is a simple sort of pleasure in woodworking: the feel of tools in your hands, the focus on the project. All of the stresses and annoyances of everyday life fade into the background. True, there are other pressures there. Get the structure done before first tech rehearsal. Finish painting and dressing the set before first full dress, or, when things really get down to the wire, before opening. There are also a lot of different issues revolving around personalities and egos, but all in all, those are relatively minor things with which to deal.

As I was reflecting on this, I thought of how there are some similarities to how we may interact with those with whom we disagree. When we argue with anti-vaccine activists, promoters of pseudoscience and so forth, there are techniques we use to make our point, to convince others.

Brute Force

Perhaps the most common problem facing a carpenter is warped lumber. Whether it's the frame of a platform or a flat, twisted boards can be a pain. Making joints flush, keeping angles square. The easiest way to fix it is to put a long pipe clamp on the offending board and torquing it into position long enough to fasten it with nails or screws. It usually gets the job done at least well enough, but it puts a lot of stress on the boards, the fasteners and the frame as a whole. While we might fix the joint, the overall frame may become warped, necessitating further forcing of the set piece to fit properly. But there may be no other option. You have limited supplies and need to make do with what you have. Applying brute force to make your materials behave will get you to your goal, albeit with some frustrations.

In a similar vein, when we come up against someone making somewhat warped claims, using the strong leverage of logic and evidence, we may try to clamp down on some core belief and wrench it to align with reality. Just as forcing the warped board puts everything under stress, this approach may get the job done well enough, earning grudging agreement, but it places our interlocutor under stress - dealing with cognitive dissonance, possibly straining friendships or other relationships they have with their support networks. While we may have won a particular argument, we may increase the amount of work before us, creating additional arguments or dilemmas to be overcome. In the end, a brute force approach can get the job done, but it can cause headaches and frustration for all involved.


There are many instances where two pieces don't quite line up properly. Adjoining walls may be a bit off square or not exactly plumb. Abutting platforms have ever so slightly different leg lengths. Doors frames are often built smaller than the opening in the wall. We use shims to fill the gaps, to bump up corners and to create tight points to secure one element to another. They are a means to get around imperfections that might otherwise prevent the set coming together in alignment.

We're all human, and despite our many differences, there is often some sort of common ground. Take, for example, parents of autistic children who have come to believe many of the myths about vaccines put out by propaganda organizations like SafeMinds, Age of Autism or the National Vaccine Information Center. These mother and fathers may hold beliefs at odds with science, but they really want one thing: to do the best for their children. We have the same goal. That can serve as a common cause, a point for connection that, while it may not necessarily resolve all of the conflicting arguments, can serve to facilitate communication. From that understanding, more constructive dialogue can move forward.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

Sometimes, you're rushed or just plain tired. You make your measurement, cut your board, then find that you measured wrong. If the board ends up being too big, you can just make another cut to make it fit. If it's too short, you may find that you have to start all over; that board will no longer work for the task you had planned (though it may be useful for other frames that need a shorter piece), and you need to get a fresh one. There are a number of reasons this may occur. Perhaps you measured to the wrong point on the measuring tape. Maybe you measured to the right point on the tape, based on your calculations, but the calculations were wrong. Whatever the cause, you end up creating more work for yourself and possibly even losing materials.

When arguing a point, we sometimes misjudge our audience. Something we say, either the words we choose or the manner in which we utter them, rubs our listener the wrong way. If we're lucky, all we need to do is take a measure of them again, fix the way we're arguing, and then they get our point and end up agreeing with us. If we really blow our estimation of how they will respond, we may end up totally alienating them to the rest of what we have to say. They will shut down, stop listening and rationalize away anything that we have to say, no matter how valid, just because of how we presented our argument. So rather than doing a quick assessment, step back, take your time and measure twice.

Trim to Fit

I've had plans before me, carefully calculated out my measurements and created my cut list. I've planned ahead and given myself time to double-checked my calculations because, well, I've made the mistake illustrated above. But sometimes, no matter how carefully you measure, reality and theory (i.e., the drafting plans) don't always match. On paper, everything is straight, angles are exact. When you get to the actual materials, there are little imperfections: wood is warped, knots create bumps, your saw blade is just a partial degree off square or the steel box tube shifts a fraction of an inch while cutting it. In themselves, they may not amount to much, but together, they can skew the fit of things quite a bit. This is most pernicious when dealing with openings in walls (i.e., doors or windows). The way to get around this is to cut the face of your flat just slightly larger than the frame. Once you've attached it, you can go back with a router and a flush trim bit. The result is a nice, clean, flush edge; a perfect fit.

Sometimes it may be good to form your argument in broader terms. Get close enough to the point without getting bogged down in the nitty gritty details, where you risk overshooting your mark and souring your listener. Taking a looser approach gives you time to engage the person, and from there, you can hone the edge, refining the argument to perfection.

Hockey Sticks

Every now and then, you get a carpenter's worst nightmare: the "hockey stick". Hockey sticks are boards that are so severely warped (bowed, crooked, kinked or twisted) as to render it useless for anything other than playing hockey. Minor warping can usually be dealt with through brute force (see above), but hockey sticks - well, all you can really do with them is cut them into shims or dump 'em in the trash. These boards get like this for a number of reasons. Fast-growth trees generally produce wood that warps much more easily. Variations in moisture between point of origin and destination can lead to warping, as can storage conditions. But once a board warps to this degree, there's no fixing it without going to extreme measures. Go out, buy another board that you can work with.

Hardcore, dyed in the wool true believers are the hockey sticks of argumentation. They have drunk the Flavor Aid of woo, conspiracy and pseudoscience. People like this have generally invested so much of their persona and self-image into their belief that denigrating the belief is viewed as a personal insult. No matter what argument you put forth, no matter how strong your evidence, there's just no getting through to them. Nothing you say or do will change their minds, and, unless you're arguing for the sake of onlookers that could be swayed, it's probably best to just cut your losses and forget about engaging them at all. Find someone who might actually listen and engage in a dialogue.


Few and far between are the times a carpenter (or at least, a theatrical carpenter) will find beautiful, straight, flawless materials and manage to actually precisely measure, cut and assemble them. When that happens, you just have to step back and take a moment to relish in the perfect finished piece before you. Square angles are truly square. Seems disappear into one another. Nothing sticks up or out unless it is supposed to, and you don't need to recut, use shims or trim anything. In those moments, an utter feeling of bliss and contentment can fill you, and you cherish it, because it can be so rare.

Every now and then, you come across someone who, before talking with you, held some bizarre belief totally ungrounded in anything remotely resembling reality. They were on the other side of the fence, but, they have an open mind. They listen to what you have to say. You don't need forced analogies (like ham-handed attempts equating argumentation to carpentry), you needn't reassess the arguments you're using or the way you're presenting them. The person listens, nods and says, "You know, I've never thought of it that way." You get into deeper discussion and find that you have much more common ground and agreement than either of you first thought. In the end, you leave satisfied in the discussion and possibly with a new friend. Cherish that. It doesn't happen often.

Blood, Sweat and Tears

Taking a set from paper to reality (or an argument from first words to conclusion) takes time and effort. It's fun, but it is also a lot of hard work. Sometimes, things don't go quite as smoothly as you'd like. Materials might not cooperate. You may miscalculate. You might get hockey sticks that you just need to throw out. But you pour yourself into the process and push through. You have one goal: to bring the set from ideas on a page to reality for the audience, to bring them something like this:

Click to enlarge

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