When your heart’s just not in it


It’s funny what you think about when you’re laying on a bed in the emergency room of the hospital wondering if you’ve just had a heart attack. You think about the things that matter and the things that don’t. The things that you care about deeply and the things that you could walk away from without a second thought.


When I was young I remember quitting baseball at least three times in three consecutive years. Each year I would go to the sign-up meeting, get my uniform, get all excited and then somewhere mid-season, realize how bad I was compared to the stars of the team and despair of ever getting better. One quiet afternoon each year, my dad would tell me it was time for practice, I would tell him I wasn’t going anymore, and that was that.

Maybe he should have given me some pep-talks about “sticking to it” or “finishing what I started,” but he didn’t. He could just see I didn’t care, and practice is no cure for apathy. There are times when your heart just isn’t in a thing, and when that becomes the case you have to make decisions.

I’ve always had issues with sustaining interest in things beyond the “front door.” I take an interest in something, work hard at it until I think I understand enough of it to get by, and then let it sort of slide off the plate to make room for something else. My wife used to say I had a hobby of having hobbies. I like to think of it as vertical integration. When I get an interest I follow it down the rabbit hole as far as I can until it no longer interests me, and then I look for a different rabbit hole.

What I mean is this. When I play my guitar, I like knowing that in some way, I had my hand in every part of the chain from the strings to the plug in the wall. Having built guitar pedals for a while, I branched out to the guitars themselves. Finally I got deep into tube amps, building and designing some pretty cool rock and roll machines. At some point I felt like there really wasn’t anywhere to go. I wasn’t going to do any of that for a living. I sold a few here and there, and I still build for friends from time to time, but I couldn’t ever hope to compete on price or scale with major manufacturers. My heart was in understanding and appreciating the tools of my art, not in building a business.

There are times when your heart isn’t in it, but there are those other times when something lights a fire in you and nothing can stop you from pursuing that passion. When the drive to improve is internal rather than external. When it’s not about being better than your competition, but about being better today than you were yesterday.

This is exactly what I’ve found in hand tool woodworking. A pursuit that hasn’t lost its shine. A rabbit hole that keeps on going. A community that I never expected. And this week, as I’ve been trying to stay still and recuperate I finally understood in a very visceral way the urge that Chris Schwarz expressed in the first few words of The Anarchist Tool Chest:

“When I am too exhausted, ill or busy to work in my shop, I will shuffle down the stairs to my 15′ x 25′ workshop and simply stand there for a few minutes with my hands on my tools.”

This week, I’ve stood by my partly completed workbench more than once, looking over the tools waiting there, beckoning; whispering to be put back to work. I’ve held my jack plane in my hands just to feel its heft, but I’ve mostly had to content myself with thinking through the next steps and measuring a thing or two.

Next week, when my heart is well again, it will be back in the woodshop.




8 Comments Add yours

  1. Very sorry to hear that you’ve had some health issues. Best wishes for a speedy recovery.

    I have to say that you’ve articulated my exact situation. I feel like I have had a hobby of hobbies for years yet my new found interest in hand tool woodworking feels different. I love the smell of my old chisels (yes, they have a smell) and the process of bringing old tools back to life. My bench is a happy place and I hope you return to yours soon.


  2. momist says:

    A very insightful description of rabbit holes, thank you. I restore more old tools, than make new things with them.
    Get well soon.


  3. Very sorry to hear about your health issues, but glad you’ve found something you’re passionate enough about to stick with!


  4. Thanks for the concern. I’m on the mend.

    What I had was not a heart attack after all, but something called pericarditis. Still dangerous but not as deadly. The course of treatment is copious amounts of aspirin and rest. It’s the “rest” bit I’m no good at.


  5. So well put, James, and I can completely relate to your exploration of rabbit holes, as well as the inability to sit still when told to. Here’s to your speedy recovery; I’m sure your partially completed bench has more patience than either of us.


  6. Get well James. The tools and bench will still be there. Tom Petty was right, the waiting truly is the hardest part.


  7. kaisaerpren says:

    a hobby of having hobbies… my wife would agree. she says that I have too many hobbies. And I totally understand that feeling that : this is the challenge, learn, do, do enough that you that you think you could be really good at it… then head off for another challenge. I often wish I were more money motivated, I sometimes see/read about someone who dove into their garage/hobby shop when they became unemployed and started cranking out something and going to craft shows and home shows to promote themselves. and their work isn’t as good as mine…. but they are selling and making money! while I’m looking for then next challenge for my skills.


    1. That is the problem exactly, although to date, hand tool woodworking has been enough of a challenge to keep the flame alive. 😊


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