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Minding, Axe Handles, Red Herring

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What do you do for a living?

Whenever I’m asked this question, I’m always tempted to reply:

I think.

I am aware that this is not a very satisfying answer.

For one thing, our culture has very little time for activities that do not produce something—some good or service—that can be quantified and economically valued. Even our hobbies suffer from the gravitational pull of this capitalist logic: when we are not invited by well-meaning friends to turn a passion into a “side hustle” (“These cookies are delicious! You know, you could sell these…”), we are encouraged to track, enumerate, and display our every exercise completed, book read, photo taken.

But more on our culture’s obsessive-compulsive relationship to utility and quantification in a future newsletter.

The other reason “I think” is not a satisfactory answer is because it inevitably conjures up an image of solitude and introspection.

That’s not wholly wrong, of course: thinking is indeed an act of withdrawal from the noisy world of biological demands, of stimulating sensations, of received opinions, of manipulating propaganda, and of market forces.

But this is only one aspect of a much more dynamic reality.

For if it were true that thinking is merely a private and solitary act, then the thinker who turned inward only would be a thinker who did not think anything, i.e., who did not think about the world as it is.

(This is one of the reasons, incidentally, that academics are so often accused of being “out of touch with reality.”)

So, instead of “thinking,” what if we used the word “minding” to describe that special act of dwelling in the world as an intelligent being?

Minding: to mind is to pay attention, to watch out (“mind the gap!”), to be

intentional. Minding is a poised readiness, an active response to the world.

Minding: to mind is to care, to be involved, to keep the matter before me in love (think of the inverse: “I don’t mind”). Minding is an activity of the heart as well as of the head.

Minding: to mind is to remember (to “call to mind”); to mind is maybe even too memorialize, to reverence. Minding is our participation in the sacred.

Minding: to mind is the proper activity of the mind; it is mind as verb. Mind-ing is the way that we act in the world just because we are the kind of beings that we are.

What do you do for a living?

I mind.

I am aware that this is still not a very satisfying answer.

It is, nevertheless, true.

What I do—that activity which most fundamentally characterizes me as the living human being that I am—is to dwell in the world in a more-or-less mindful way.

The more I mind, the more I truly live.

Axe Handles

One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
He recalls the hatchet-head
Without a handle, in the shop
And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
A broken-off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet,
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
“When making an axe handle
the pattern is not far off.”
And I say this to Kai
“Look: We’ll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with—“
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in Lu Ji’s Wên Fu, fourth century
A.D. “Essay on Literature”-—in the
Preface: “In making the handle
Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.”
My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.

“Axe Handles”, by Gary Snyder
Axe Handles (1983)

On the Exam? reader Matthew is a poet and teacher who spent a year apprenticed as a carpenter. I remember first stumbling on this poem while searching for a graduation gift for him: turning it over in my mind, marveling at what a beautiful image it presents of education, tradition, and culture.

We are sometimes tempted to imagine that “tradition” (or “the tradition”) is something already accomplished: fixed, inert, lifeless.

But the word “tradition” derives from the Latin traditio, which means “to hand down” (from trans, “across” + dare, “to give”).

Snyder reminds us with gentle firmness that we are both shaped by and shaping the tradition: model and tool, craft of culture, how we go on.

Cultural Event

Red Herring

I’m a long-time listener of Radiolab, a podcast (and, before that, radio show) about science, philosophy, and ethics.

The show’s creator, Jad Abumrad, won a MacArthur Genius Award for his innovative mix of reporting and sound design. Over the years the show has gradually broadened its scope, moving from its early focus on explaining science to a more expansive platform for long-form journalism and immersive storytelling.

If you’ve somehow missed this show, the recent episode Red Herring is a perfect place to dive in. The episode has it all: the threat of nuclear extinction, a stymied Swedish military, triumphant marine biologists, and some rather fishy flatulence.