On Craftsmanship

I went through a pretty bad patch at work last month. I was feeling annoyed at the people I work with, stressed out by a developing problem that I couldn’t seem to solve, and frustrated with myself for getting into the situation at all. I was even having work stress dreams (coming into the office naked from the waist up, that sort of thing).

A lot of this was based on fear. I am performing a role pioneered by someone with vastly more experience and knowledge than I have. Even after a year, I am still scrambling to catch up, learning on the fly. But I feel like by now I should know everything I need to do my job. This made it hard to ask questions, and consequently made me defensive and unadventurous. I found myself backing away from challenges because I was afraid they’d turn into cans of worms, that people would ask me things I couldn’t answer. Easier to say no than to find a way to say yes.

But I was rereading A Degree of Mastery, one of my bookbinding books. The author, Annie Tremmel Wilcox, writes about the time that she was an apprentice bookbinder. She spends a lot of time thinking about the idea of craftsmanship, particularly as embodied by the master bookbinder she is studying with. And, reading that, I understood my real problem. The lack of knowledge, the feeling of looming intimidation, was only a symptom.

I had stopped approaching my job as a craftsman. I was no longer taking pride in the innate quality of the work I was doing, but had got tied up in the politics of it all. It’s easy to do in my role, where there is a lot of political give and take.

To a politician, the quality of your work is one of many negotiable items. You take shortcuts to do favours, until taking the time to do something right is seen as an imposition. A craftsman abhors this approach, and would rather do something less fancy but do it right than do more in some half-assed way.

As a craftsman, with the priority on the quality of my work, I find the barriers to asking for help have diminished. If the quality of my work is my primary concern, then the desire to save face by not appearing ignorant cannot be. That’s the primary concern of a polician.

Going into work is a lot easier now. I even keep a bone folder on my keyboard (above the F keys). It’s sort of a personal emblem of craftsmanship.

                              – o0o –

Grammar notes: Although I am a woman, I use the terms “craftsman” and “craftsmanship”. My alternatives appear to be “crafter” / “craftership” and “craftswoman” / “craftswomanship”. Now, “crafter” sounds like “crofter” to me, and I have nothing whatever to do with sheep. And while “craftswoman” is fine, “craftswomanship” is just too awkward. (Don’t even get me started on “craftspersonship”…) Besides, I am confident enough in my femininity to be able to use a masculine term about myself.

Cults and Putters (Atkins, Day 3)

I’m finally over my early, extremely negative reaction to the Atkins book. It took a few days, but I’m now able to view it with the sense of humour that it requires (not to say invites).


Because, taken literally, Atkins isn’t a diet. Nor is it a “Nutritional Approach”. What it really is, if you take it seriously, is a cult.

The book is written in the style of a tent revival, complete with inspiring little stories of people who have lost tremendous amounts of weight and gained astonishing degrees of self-confidence on the program. There are buzzwords (“ketosis”, “OWL”) and medical diagnoses (“hyperinsulism”) which are applied to practically everyone in the population. Some of the ideas that got my goat were:

  • Low fat diets are BAD because cavemen didn’t eat that way.
  • The entire medical establishment is either stupid or actively evil not to recognise the greatness of Atkins
  • So’s the FDA
  • The Atkins diet cures diabetes, and Dr. Atkins would be doing a disservice to mankind not to promote it.
  • You are intolerant of the foods you gain weight on. Many Italians are intolerant of pasta, for instance. (Surely you gain weight on foods you digest efficiently? What a strange definition of intolerance!)

There’s even a chapter on evangelism, called “Spreading the Word”. It advises Atkinsites on how to save their poor deluded low-fat dieting friends from the endless trap of hyperinsulism and high-carb diets.

I find the idea that Atkins is a return to the pre-agrarian diet particularly bizzare. Cavemen probably did eat a lot of meat, vegetables, nuts and fruit rather than starches. However, they also must have had wild weight fluctuations depending on the season (the weight gain associated with SAD is a legacy of this). Are we proposing to return to that, too? Atkins wants us to eat like cavemen in summer all year round, but that is no more natural than eating like Medieval peasants, or modern day Westerners.


There was a study done a few years ago where they compared weight loss among a variety of diets, from Weight Watchers to Atkins. What the study revealed is that if you use up more calories than you take in, you lose weight. No magic formula, no fad, no revival tent literature can change that basic physiological fact. We diet to change the ratio of input to output, and a successful diet is one that allows us to change the ratio for the long term.

What Atkins is, really, is a diet. It’s a way to do all kinds of thinking about food, to spend lots of intellectual and emotional energy on food, without eating so much of it. Furthermore, it’s a fad diet. Every time you turn around, you bump into an Atkinsite.

Like all diets, Atkins is a psychological tool. Golfers who find their putting going wrong buy new putters to solve the problem. The new putters may be no better than the old ones, but the change breaks bad habits and gives the golfer something external to blame for the problem. Martin and I have gone a bit wrong in our relationship to food. This diet is just a different putter.