Learn to Embroider at Trade School Los Angeles

Due to my ostentatious Facebook embargo, now in year two, I rely on comrade Lee of nearby Mixville Heights to pass along important notices via an awkward but mostly reliable chain of semaphore stations and carrier pigeon relay. Brother Lee spotted my post on embroidery and informed me that the barter-based Trade School Los Angeles is offering a free embroidery class on November 17th. In addition to embroidery, they have a zero waste sewing and mending class on the 16th and a class on fermentation on the 23rd. For more information on these classes head to their Eventbrite listing.

Here’s how it works according to their website:

Step 1) Classes at Trade School LA are taught in exchange for barter items provided by students. For example, if you teach a class about building a website, you might ask students to bring 1 of the following barter items: a pack guitar strings; a paperback novel; a bag of local fruit; help with finding an apartment. Every class’s barter will be different, as each instructor sets their own class’s exchange.

Step 2) Students sign up for classes on our website, and, by signing up, they agree to bring 1 of the barter items requested by the instructor.

Step 3)  On the day of class, the teachers & students meet in a space that is made available by Trade School LA. Students give their barter item to the teacher, and the class begins!

Perhaps brother/comrade Lee and I will offer a semaphore class on the hilltop above the Red Lion in the near future in case any of you would like to explore Facebook alternatives.

Embroidering the World

Washstand runner designed by Ernest Gimson and embroidered by Margaret Gimson, 1890.

I suspect that I’m not alone in feeling like I spend way too much time looking at screens to distract from the dystopia that surround us. Neuroscientist Marc Lewis says, breaking an addiction requires a “unique act of reinvention” such as “learning a new art or skill, or religious conversion.” (Richard Seymour, The Twittering Machine, p. 212).

During the daytime I have settled on a successful strategy to hold the Silicon Valley attention thieves at bay. I retreat to my wood shop and either work on house infrastructure, furniture projects or stuff for other people. The phone stays in the house. But I can’t do woodworking at night. I’m just a little too tired and that’s a safety concern. But I think I may have stumbled on a way to stay away from screens at night: embroidery.

Kelly and I took a class with Natalie Richards this past week. She has the qualities of a great teacher. She’s organized, calm, reassuring and inspiring. Her friends apparently call her the “Bob Ross of embroidery” for her soothing patter. If you’d like to learn a few simple stitches, check out Natalie’s YouTube channel. On her channel she shows you the basic stiches, how to make a hoop protector and how to transfer designs. I used her YouTube videos to review some of what we learned in the class. And thanks to her class my past few evenings have been filled by embroidering one of Natalie’s pillow kits.

Both Kelly and I have done some embroidery before but now we have the time to go a little deeper. Beyond being a useful skill, embroidery has something to teach us about life. What if we took back the time that we spend on our devices to make the world a more beautiful place, to “embroiderer” our cities and suburbs? Let’s extend that metaphor beyond a physical sort of embroidery and imagine embroidering this world with a little more love and kindness.

Sorting Family Photos

Johnny over at Granola Shotgun once described the phenomenon of alleged minimalists with secret troves of STUFF. For us that secret untidiness resided in a backyard shed. Wanting to put that shed to better use, Kelly and I decided to tackle boxes of family photos and home movies.

It was emotionally wrenching for me as my mom’s death was just two years ago. I miss both my parents and think about them every day but we don’t have the room in our tiny house to hold on to every photo, slide, super 8 film and video tape. While I was able to get rid of duplicate photos and pictures of people I can’t identify, I ended up stopping because the process just made me too sad.

An unintentional history of photography lesson
What played out as I went through over 150 years worth of photos was a short history of photography. I have just a few Victorian era photos consisting of studio portraits as well as shots of my paternal great-grandparent’s general store in Stockton, California. With the advent of snapshot photography in the early 20th century there’s more photos, but I suspect photography was still relatively expensive. The early 20th century snapshots seem more carefully posed than what comes later when photography gets cheaper. There’s a lot more photos from the 1970s and 80s but the quality of many of those photos in terms of composition and lighting gets poorer. And color photos from this period have faded badly, whereas the black and white photos from the early 20th century still look as good as new. The last photos I have are of friends taken in the 1990s. Then everything goes digital. From this digital period I have thousands of pictures on a no longer functioning disc drive that I have yet to pay to have recovered. Since formats change and drives fail, we could have a black hole in the history of photography someday, what librarians refer to as a “digital dark age.”

Digitize?
But what to do with all those boxes of photos and home movies? We don’t have kids or any other relatives interested in keeping them after we pass on. Kelly went through her family photos, picked out the best and put them in a slim volume. I don’t know if I’m ready for this. I could take all those photos, slides and movies to Costco and have them digitized. Librarians suggest keeping a digital copy of photos at home, with a friend and in the cloud (Though I feel some guilt about the energy used for cloud storage of photos I might not look at). And they don’t’ suggest throwing out the originals. Lacking a way to project the films and slides, digitizing is the only way that I’ll be able to see them.

But there’s a funny way in which grief works. With the photos in the shed I could put off dealing with the loss of my parents by keeping that grief at a distance, in a kind of stasis, locked away in a shed I rarely visit. There’s a way in which simply digitizing everything would be kind of the same in that I don’t think I’d ever go though that whole archive of images. Perhaps it would be better to face my grief and do what Kelly did and curate a selection of the best photos. Every year around the All Saints/All Souls weekend I could spend some time reflecting on that hypothetical album.

I’m curious how you, our readers, have tacked this problem. Have you digitized? How are you dealing with that mountain of digital images? Do you have kids and if so how does that change the equation?

A Poem by Mary Oliver

Image: C.F.A. Voysey

Storage

When I moved from one house to another

there were many things I had no room for.

What does one do? I rented a storage

space. And filled it. Years passed.

Occasionally I went there and looked in,

but nothing happened, not a single

twinge of the heart.

As I grew older the things I cared

about grew fewer, but were more

important. So one day I undid the lock

and called the trash man. He took

everything.

I felt like the little donkey when

his burden is finally lifted. Things!

Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful

fire! More room in your heart for love,

for the trees! For the birds who own

nothing– the reason they can fly.

Digital Götterdämmerung

I approach most productivity books with wariness. Most of the authors of these tomes, I suspect, report directly to creepy old Wotan and just want to make us feel better about all the hours we spend chained to our digital workstations. I’m especially distrustful of prophets who claim to have a cure for digital addiction.

Typically, when the mainstream media does a story on why we’re all glued to our iPhones, it will begin with the reporter spending an hour in a M.R.I. machine while scrolling through their Facebook feed. The conclusion? By golly, various parts of the brain light up in response to pictures of babies and rants about our reptilian overlords! It’s all in the brain and there’s not much we can do about that so move along and never mind. What seemed to have eluded these incredulous reporters, until recently, is that there’s a whole bunch of oligarchs up in Valhalla exploiting our biologically based addictions so that they can make a buck and sell our information to . . . who knows?

While I patiently await the coming oligarch Götterdämmerung–spoiler: Brunhilde burns down Valhalla–until that glorious day we’re all left with a practical problem: we just can’t seem to stop looking at our phones.

Cal Newport has some suggestions while we wait around in front of Apple headquarters for the right moment to get the torches lit. The cornerstone of his book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (Amazon, library) is the suggestion to take a one month break from addictive apps, websites and other digital media. Use that time to figure out some life goals. At the end of the month carefully add back the digital tools you find useful.

I just started the one month digital fast and, already, I feel like I’m regaining a long lost pre-internet memory of when I used to read more, learn new skills and get stuff done.

Newport is flexible about what you abstain from during the one month period. He acknowledges that many people have jobs that require them to use social media so you have to write your own rules. In my case I gave up Facebook over a year ago but I’ve found myself spending way too much time looking at things like Twitter, NextDoor (which has turned into 8chan for grumpy old home owners), YouTube and a random assortment of click-baity websites. And I’ve spent way too much time randomly googling trivia (whatever happened to Sheila E?). So my rules for this month banish all the aforementioned websites and random Googling. I’m allowing myself to look only at Fine Woodworking, Lost Art Press and write this blog. The rest of my time I’m building furniture, practicing drawing and reading.

While the digital de-clutter forms the centerpiece of Newport’s strategy he has a lot of other common sense suggestions:

  • Consider experimenting with periods when you leave your phone at home. Even though I was a late adapter even to having a flip phone, it’s hard for me to remember all the time I used to have away from a mobile phone.
  • Delete social media from your phone. If you have to use it for a job log in only on a desktop computer or laptop but not on your phone.
  • Dumb down your smart phone by removing all addictive apps.
  • Use an app like Freedom to block additive services.
  • Take long walks.
  • Don’t click the like button (i.e. don’t fall into the cheap tricks the Silicon Valley reptilians set for us).
  • Consolidate texting by turning on the do not disturb function of your smart phone for set periods in a day. Then deal with those texts all at once.
  • Take up a high quality hobby. Newport actually mentions woodworking and I can vouch for the usefulness of this particular skill. But your hobby could also be something like sewing, welding, cooking, gardening, volunteering or learning a musical instrument.
  • Reclaim conversation by shutting off the phone.
  • Join something and be a part of a face to face group.
  • Take up a sport.

Newport contends that at the end of the month long digital fast you’ll find that services you looked at compulsively will lose their charm. This has already happened to me with Instagram. I took a long break this year and when I peeked at it recently I was horrified by what I saw which included privacy invading pictures of children in hospital rooms and an image of a distant acquaintance pole dancing that I can’t un-see. Newport says that “Online interactions all have an exhausting element of performance” where we end up at a “point where the line between real and performed is blurring.” I can feel how these services feed my own desire to perform rather than just be me. It’s a relief not to have to constantly preen and “peacock” for the camera.

Unlike me, Newport isn’t a Luddite. If you are one of those unfortunate souls who have to use social media for a job, Newport contends that most people can get what they need out of a social media service in as little as a half hour or 45 minutes a week of focused use.

My research on digital minimalism has revealed the existence of a loosely organized attention resistance movement, made up of individuals who combine high-tech tools with disciplined operating procedures to conduct surgical strikes on popular attention economy services–dropping in to extract value, and then slipping away before the attention traps set buy these companies can spring shut.

He’s also realistic that we might all need to carve out some time for low-quality web surfing but that this time needs to be contained rather than sprinkled throughout the day.

During the one month fast Newport suggests developing a long term plan with what to do with our spare hours. In addition to my quixotic furniture building mission I’ve vowed to improve my drawing skills and finish reading a few long books on my literary bucket list. I’ve already feel like I’ve reclaimed, for the first time since the appearance of the accursed interwebs and the un-smart smart phone, a greater focus and attentiveness.