Change the Channel

The first few months of this year have felt like a sojourn on an ocean liner in a cheap cabin below the waves.  I don’t even know whether such cabins exist, without at least a porthole for a view. But there have been a lot of storms, and I’ve spent too many hours with my head in my hands, trying to escape from pain, all the while feeling as though my ship is moving slowly and reminding myself that in this case, slow progress has its blessings.

At the start of the year I applied to participate in a clinical trial of a truly promising new drug designed to treat the metabolic behavior of cells with a mutation known as m-tap loss, which appears to be the mutation driving my cancer. I don’t pretend to understand this; it has something to do with methylation and making cells behave as cancer – in effect, it turns them cancerous.

After several weeks of waiting for hospital and pharmaceutical company paperwork to be finalized, then jumping through some medical testing hoops – a day at the hospital having blood and other bodily fluids drawn, a brain MRI, a heart echocardiogram – I began the trial on Feb. 15. My part was relatively easy: take two tiny tablets per day and go up to the hospital on the north side of Indianapolis a few times the first week, then once a week for a month. Sadly, the scans after the first six or so weeks showed that instead of shrinking, or at least stabilizing, the pancreas tumor had grown to 2” in diameter. Sobering. Along with other trial participants whose tumors had grown during the trial, I was not allowed to continue. (Please don’t comment about the legality or any other aspect of this. I don’t have the energy for it.)

With no further trials on the horizon that look the least bit promising – at least, from a patient’s perspective; hospitals and drug companies always need participants for trials, but I’m fortunate to have an oncologist in Dr. Bert O’Neil who is honest with me – Mark and I began taking in the reality of things more keenly than we had really felt the need to until then.

This April I had 13 radiation treatments for pain from the pancreas tumor, which had increased to the point that I could focus on scarcely anything else. That treatment caused its own pain, with nausea, vomiting (despite anti-nausea meds), and night sweats for bonus fun. After #13, I was done; any benefit that might come from the final two recommended treatments paled in comparison with the urgency of simply ending the misery. (For what it’s worth, my radiation oncologist had told me that many patients’ insurance policies won’t cover more than ten sessions. So having had 13, I figured I was well enough set that I could factor my then-misery into the decision.)

I have cried more tears over the past month than I had in the preceding three decades. It’s still precious few tears, but I’ll take what I can get. Ever since my diagnosis, the thought of leaving Mark, my sister, Joey, my parents, our home, and my garden has been heartbreaking. I’m at the peak of my work, in terms of shop opportunities and writing. There is so much more I would love to do – I have a list of commissions that people have been incredibly patient about, and spec pieces I would be thrilled to build; I have articles and books I would love to write. I want to keep seeing my garden grow, especially now that our friend Amy Dyken is taking care of weeding and pruning, which makes the garden’s beauty seem even more magical.

But pain is a powerful shaper of perspective. I’m no hypochondriac. Had I been a hypochondriac, there’s a chance that my cancer might have been caught early enough for therapeutic, rather than only palliative, treatment. For that matter, you don’t need to be a “hypochondriac” to get there; all you need is to value and respect who you are, and don’t let your doctor tell you there’s nothing that seems to be amiss so you should “put your mind at rest.” No. If something’s causing you pain, don’t stop trying to figure out the cause until you get to the bottom of it.  

I would put the pain I’ve experienced for way too much of 2022 at 8 on the pain scale. The utter wretchedness of the pain and nausea from radiation has made it easy, even delicious, to move from heartbreak over the prospect of leaving so much I love behind to simply basking in pain’s absence, now that my doctors and I have hit on an effective medication regimen and the palliative effects of the radiation have started to kick in. I have too many friends to thank publicly for encouraging me to be more assertive about my need for pain management, but if you’re one of them reading this now, know that I am silently singing your praises.

There was no reason to rush, no point in pushing myself to fathom this shift in perspective. From the moment Mark and I left the doctor’s office after hearing that I would not be allowed to stay in the clinical trial, I decided to give myself as long as it took to absorb the new reality. And it was a new reality, at least existentially, for me. I went through too many weeks of crippling pain in the interest of giving the clinical trial a chance to have allowed myself the perverse luxury of imagining the trial would fail, at least in terms of helping me. Instead, I felt convinced that the trial drug was going to help, especially considering the beautiful chain of serendipitous contacts that had brought the trial to my attention before it was even posted at; at this point in life, I’m happiest when I acknowledge the potential for something to be a good omen.

I hope the trial will show that there is an effective therapeutic dose of AMG193 in human patients, as there has been in lab animals. Do I wish that I could benefit from it, should that come to pass? Hell yes, especially after how much Mark and I threw into the project, from the many hours we spent driving to and from the north side of Indianapolis and the days we spent in room 209 at the Community Health North Cancer Center[1] to the pain and discomfort of the many tests the trial required, and most of all, the pain I endured as a willing sacrifice to the hoped-for success of the trial, all the while seeing hospice as a serious alternative that happened to be incompatible, for obvious reasons, with participation in a clinical trial. To be let go from the trial has been hugely disappointing.

But this is what we have in front of us. So we shifted our perspective. The top priority was to rest and regain my strength so that I would be able to view my situation clearly, and feel empowered. So, for one of too few times in my life over the past 20 years or so, I allowed myself the feelings, and especially the sadness, instead of telling myself I had no time for them, couldn’t afford them due to pressures from work or other commitments such as visiting family (at least, before Covid hit); didn’t need to burden myself with “negative emotions” (yes, I’m confessing to a lot here); etc.

I spent far too many years allowing depression to drag my spirits down in my youth, before I was aware that something called therapy even existed, and certainly before the invention of drugs that, at minimal doses, have turned out to lift me just enough to see the blue sky above the clouds. I’ve done my time. Now I want to have fun. I’m going to enjoy life. And there is no reason whatsoever why, with effective pain management, this experience, in full recognition that only a miracle would save my life at this point, can not be fun.

It’s all about perspective. After two weeks shy of a year-and-a-half since my diagnosis, I’ve tried a whole festival of alternative and complementary healing methods/traditions/whatever. I’m tired. By no means too tired to live. Just too tired to spend as much time as I have watching the “all pain is worth it, in the circumstances” channel and change to the “no, Nancy, this is what I mean about truly savoring each moment of every day, and part of that is enjoying it without pain.” My life has been full of blessings and challenges. Many of the challenges have at times felt insurmountable, only to prove rewarding. You bet, I’m creative enough to change this channel.

[1] The great compensation for spending those hours in a hospital for a trial that wouldn’t end up helping me, personally, was talking and laughing with the research nurses, Cindy Stoner and Donna Sullivan. It was almost worth driving up there every time just for the opportunity to hang out with them.

“Where the Deer and the Antelope Play”: A review

Where the Deer and the Antelope Play by Nick Offerman

If I had to characterize Nick Offerman’s most recent book as a whole, I would say that reading it felt akin to being with Mr. Offerman in person – if not on the trails he traversed, or by his side as he froze his ass hands while helping shepherd and author James Rebanks repair stone walls on his north-country farm, then at least at the end of the day, as he shared these experiences and his reflections on them over a fire.

As Offerman recounts the odysseys that bookend his sojourn on the Rebanks farm – the volume opens with a hike in the company of the author’s friends Jeff Tweedy and George Saunders and ends with a peripatetic trip from southern California to points east and north – he weaves some major historical events through these recreational adventures, reminding readers that in too many cases, rapacious acts perpetrated against those who inhabited this land prior to its “discovery” underlie much of what many Americans celebrate about this nation and its landscape.

My sense of being a dog loitering at the edge of a campfire was especially strong as I read his account of that Covid-era drive-about with his wife, Megan Mullally, and their pup, Clover, in an Airstream camper they christened the Nutmeg. You’ll find plenty of observations about RV-site culture, descriptions of flavorsome meals whipped up by the diversely-skilled Mullally in the tight confines of an actual galley kitchen, and bracing stories of hikes in varied terrains.

As with Offerman’s other written work, this book is more than a carefree romp. One of this man’s traits I most admire is his capacity for critical reflection guided by a dedication to honesty and basic human decency, even when it hurts. So you’ll find plenty of acknowledgement that not everyone is in the fortunate position of soothing their pandemic-induced funk by buying a comfortable camping vehicle and taking off for several weeks. Such self-awareness alone is rare; even more so, a willingness to call others’ attention to it. But that’s Nick in a nutshell, ever true to his modest Midwestern roots.

Offerman’s repeated calls for nuance (or as ethicists often put it, critical distinctions) and expositions thereof come as rain on parched ground. There are also some profoundly lucid observations scattered throughout that deserve to be amplified as bumper stickers, as well as through more respectable communication channels. My favorite is the quote from Aldo Leopold that ends the book: “Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching – even when doing the wrong thing is legal.” Of course, people of good will may disagree about what constitutes “the right thing,” and why. But as with any dictum, we follow our basic agreement about “bad” or “good,” “wrong” or “right” from a prima facie level with how actions appear in particular applications. (And no, you should not read this as a glib endorsement of “situational ethics.”)

As you may expect, there’s also plenty of humor. I finally broke down and laughed aloud on reading the euphemism “Daddy’s Thunder Closet” and Offerman’s description of Mullally and himself as “a couple of softening old vaudeville hoofers looking to take their ease in the autumn of their years”; I mean, pandemic notwithstanding, Offerman seems sharper and busier than ever. All I have to do is close my eyes and open them again to find him featured in yet another film or series, from “Colin in Black and White” to “Devs” and now “Pam and Tommy,” and these are no doubt the mere tip of the iceberg (especially when you take into account the dizzying round of interviews he’s done on PBS and talk shows such as “The Late Night Show with Steven Colbert,” to cite just two). Also notable is his verbal sophistication, which represents a commitment to preserve the richness of the English language; it was a welcome surprise to run across the word “roborative” — and more than once!

Customary Offerman themes run throughout – not just the perennial question of what we should want (and just how much we Americans could afford to do without), but echoes of calls by Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, and others for a return to genuine agriculture as an antidote to our prevailing system of agribusiness that mines the soil and uses living beings for monetary profit at the expense of all forms of life. That word “agriculture” comes from Latin; etymologically, “culture” means care — not just in the sense of “giving a shit,” but holding the object of your care in such reverence that caring for it is tantamount to worship* — in this case, worship of “the field,” a metonym for the soil.

But in my opinion, the book’s greatest gift in this moment is its forthright call for thinking and kindness specifically with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is stunning to me that so many among us refuse to see the connections between wearing a mask and getting vaccinated, on the one hand, and loving your neighbor in the Christian sense, on the other. Offerman brings attention to this observation as too few others have and elaborates his points powerfully. The apparent inability of us Americans to agree on a basic definition of everyday reality and grapple with whether our behavior matches up to the values we espouse is commentary on the parlous state of our ever-imperfect democracy. This dimension of the book is an especially welcome contribution to public discourse from a guy who routinely uses his platform to encourage serious thinking about pressing matters. Where the Deer and the Antelope Play has real potential to stiffen the spine of many a Covid protocol-observing reader concerned about being seen as a “sheep” (sorry, sheep; I’m not one of those who invoke your kind as an insult), a coward, or someone who wears “face diapers.” And the careful thinking Offerman employs to convey his message on this point is a nifty tool that readers can apply to other exigencies.

*From colere, the Latin word for “cultivate,” “worship,” etc., we also get the word “cult,” which I point out here to underscore this historical connotation.

Rx: Stop Crushing Hope

October light

The following is a heavily revised version of a letter I sent the palliative care physician with whom I met a few weeks ago, who kindly shared an article from JAMA, “Holding Hope for Patients With Serious Illness.”

Dr. S.,

“Holding Hope for Patients With Serious Illness” is outstanding, and I’m thankful that you shared it with me.

I appreciate the authors’ readiness to allow patients[1] to control our own narrative, given the basic data that medicine can provide about any serious condition. It’s trite at this point to note that the condition does not define the person, but as one currently on the patient side of the relationship, I can tell you that’s still how it feels in 2021. I appreciate that doctors have a massive challenge when it comes to what the article calls “serious illness”; they’re trained to help, to cure, to heal. And in many cases, healing, at least in the sense of a cure, is not within the reach of medicine. That has to be nearly as hard for doctors as it is for patients. I also appreciate the legal and ethical dimensions of medical care, in part thanks to my graduate training in ethics, which focused quite a bit on medical ethics. But there is so much more to healing than what conventional medicine provides.

A feeling of agency is all-important, yet despite many medical institutions’ claims to value patient engagement, hopefulness itself, as a form of agency, does not appear to be appreciated – at least, by the doctors with whom I have been working. When you have my diagnosis of Stage IV pancreatic cancer (or one similarly “serious,” as the title puts it), mustering and maintaining any kind of hope requires enormous effort. We are brought up to consider various kinds of cancer a death sentence. Then we find ourselves diagnosed with one of these cancers, and cared for by doctors who repeatedly make clear – in diverse ways, only some of them verbal – that they firmly expect us to die in short order. Believe me when I tell you that the overwhelming message is: “Of course there is no hope, and if you feel so much as a glimmer of it, you are sadly delusional.” No wonder the stats for survival of pancreatic cancer and glioblastoma are so low. What do you think this palpable “certainty” does to people? Again, I respect the statistics etc. regarding the lethality of this disease, and I am not afraid to die. (I won’t elaborate why here, as this is already long enough.) But people do literally incredible stuff every day. People break records every day. None of that happens without those people at least being able to conceive of the possibility. In many other areas of human endeavor, the importance of outlook is not in dispute. So why is this widely recognized fact not being applied in the case of the most challenging cancers? I realize this may sound idiotic, but it’s not. Ask Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, to name just a couple of curve breakers who have publicly addressed the critical importance of conviction to physiological achievements.

It is impossible for me not to ascribe this denial of hope to (a) a desire to avoid lawsuits, (b) a desire to get high scores in expectation management, and (c) a cost:benefit algorithm devised in collaboration with the insurance industry. It really is an active denial of hope; in my case, it has manifested itself in different ways. Let me cite three: (i) No oncologist suggested that I try the alternate chemotherapy regimen; I had to request it of my own accord. (ii) No doctor has even mentioned that a small number of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at Stage IV survive for years. I have only heard about this from relatives, friends, Marisa Harris, who has survived pancreatic cancer diagnosed at Stage IV for 21 years (without a Whipple or pancreatectomy), and complete strangers commenting on blog posts, Instagram posts, and the like. (iii) Not once have I even heard mention of the actual survival statistics with Stage IV pancreatic cancer, which offer some justification for hope.

A little digging and a few conversations with survivors of pancreatic adenocarcinoma diagnosed at Stage IV are enough to at least spark hope, which also happens to affect behavior, and behavior in turn affects how we feel, and at least to some degree how our bodies function. I know that my body created the cancerous mass in or on my pancreas that now threatens my life, and I am actively doing everything I can to help my body send the cancerous cells packing, because they have served their purpose as an urgent call for change. (Excuse the dichotomies in my language; I don’t subscribe to a mind-body dichotomy but am using “body,” “mind,” and “cancer” somewhat metaphorically to identify aspects of a whole. I know enough to appreciate that “my body” would like to be rid of the cancer.)

But back to the article. More than anything, I appreciate the authors’ willingness to dwell in the grey zone instead of maintaining the stance so common among physicians – at least, in many of their interactions with patients – that things are black and white, and that numbers (whether statistics or results of blood tests) define what is real and possible, in effect to the point of predicting what is or is not going to happen. If I didn’t have a solid will, a curious mind, some well-informed woodworking friends (among them a brain surgeon and a research oncologist), and a stubborn streak, I would still be accepting the inevitability of my death in a short time as a result of this condition. It may happen, and if so, I will make my peace with that, something I have been actively working on since childhood. On the other hand, I may live for years. That’s my goal, because I want to be here for people I love, and there’s a lot more work I want to do.

Doctors cannot predict the future any better than most people, but if you were standing in my shoes, you would find it easy to imagine that some of them believe they can, because that is the message conveyed by the majority of my interactions with oncologists to date. The calculation of odds is retrospective, not forward looking – i.e., it is based on what has happened to date. But where members of the general public are concerned, this qualification about statistics not being the same as odds of future outcomes is more often assumed to be understood than it actually is. As a result, many cancer patients interpret the statistics as the odds of their own survival. The actual odds of our survival are likely to be higher if patients are encouraged to believe that we at least have a chance. I understand that this retrospection is consistent with the scientific method, but it is not the only way to look at serious illness such as cancer, and it is certainly not in the patient’s best interest. Even the financial services industry is legally required to post disclaimers that past performance is not a guarantee of future performance.

Now to the question of “facing reality,” as distinct from living in “denial.” While staying hopeful, I have no problem acknowledging the diminishing likelihood of surviving for more than the next few months as I get farther from the date of my diagnosis. It is affirming to see the doctors who authored this article refuting the paternalistic nonsense about patients needing to be brutalized (my word; that is how it feels) with routine reminders of “what is coming” in order to take their situation as seriously as it warrants. I would, though, like to see scare quotes around the word “false” in the following quote:

“Another report presumed that hope, especially when unrealistically optimistic or false, was potentially harmful because it could lead to noninformed decision-making and overly aggressive treatment. These presumptions are not supported by the literature. Existing data suggest that patients with false hope report better psychological outcomes than those who have lower or absent hope. Indeed, patient-endorsed hopes rarely equate to true delusion or misunderstanding.”

Hope is hope, regardless of how “well founded.” And here I am using scare quotes because again, the foundation that doctors are considering is based on past performance and doesn’t appear to take account of factors that defy quantifiable measurement.

These authors argue convincingly that most patients have the existential wherewithal to maintain hopefulness while putting our affairs in order, etc. in case we die sooner than we would prefer. Most adults are not simple-minded, but too many doctors treat us as though we were. I daresay most of us are able to live with complexity. Life is never as black and white as the experience of being a patient in this medical system might suggest. I am lucky to have woodworker friends whose day jobs are in medicine to help me appreciate this perspective. Those of us who can see the disconnects between our everyday experience of life and the extraordinary experience of oncology-world must constantly remind ourselves that life itself exists in the grey, not the black and white. Even high-school biology students are aware that our own cells are continually dying (or being killed by other cells) and being replaced. Physiologically speaking, much of what makes me “me” is not the same material that comprised me 15 years ago.

During this experience I have repeatedly had doctors “endeavor to convince [me] to give up [my] hopes and accept the clinician’s projected reality.” To me, at least, such attempts do feel brutal; they also seem wrong on principle, not to mention when viewed from a consequentialist perspective. Do my oncologists recognize that their approach implicitly discourages hope? I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, because I believe they are good, caring people. But when Dr. #1 starts a new chemo regimen with the statement “No one is going to live forever” and immediately refers me to a palliative care specialist, she might as well be forecasting the failure of the treatment; that is how such a statement, given the timing, comes across. I realize that she was trying to make it possible for me to a palliative care specialist sooner than I would have if she hadn’t brought it up that day. But still. Words and their timing matter. I am conveying to you, fully and honestly, the effect on me of those words and their timing. This psychological effect is so relevant to healing that statements such as this (and others I mentioned during our conversation in your office) could be seen to constitute a violation of the Hippocratic Oath.

Every interaction with oncologists leaves me deflated. After each one, I have to make a supreme effort to regain a sense of hope. I loved the conversation with you, and then I made the mistake of reading your notes. I shouldn’t have, because I saw yet again the relentless banging of the death drum in the statement about six months from now being the mean survival time in my case.[2] What is the point of even bringing this up in your notes? Is it some kind of assurance to the insurance industry that yes, the patient understands that she probably has just a few months to live, and so will probably not continue to expect you to keep paying for her medical care? Is it a way of assuring the doctor’s hospital system that the patient is unlikely to sue if she does not recover her health? I understand that the latter is a reasonable concern, but why does this belong in a doctor’s notes? Maybe I am missing a benign explanation, but by the time most of us have been referred to a palliative care professional, we have almost certainly been apprised, more times than we can remember, of our prognosis based on statistics.

As for those particular numbers, I am not one of those glibly-cited Americans who, based on statistics published by PANCAN, conflate a 3% chance of surviving three years to a 50% chance. And (not “but”) I still regard 3% as fairly generous odds, based on my life experience; I have encountered worse odds on multiple occasions. As the article acknowledges, cultivating hopefulness, even in the face of daunting odds (not to mention doctors who themselves in effect conflate 3% to zero — and that is damning) can also be beneficial. And I can tell you, as one in a pointed existential position, that hopefulness makes every minute of my life far richer than it might otherwise be.

The article does contain a few condescending statements. In the final paragraph of page 2, the authors suggest that “[p]atients could then be asked, ‘Given what is coming, what are you hoping for?’” Again, notwithstanding that we will in fact all die, this “given what is coming” seems condescending and too close to predictive. The following paragraph also starts with condescension; I recognize that doctors today are expected to be more humane than was deemed acceptable decades in the past, but I don’t see how it is the responsibility of medical doctors to “prioritize conflicting hopes.” Is that your job, at least insofar as hopes extend beyond decisions regarding healthcare and the legal machinery surrounding death? I don’t want my doctors even trying to cover that stuff, because none of them is qualified to do so.

I would have loved to see, in the penultimate paragraph, an acknowledgement that “[Holding hope]…demands…willingness to both change directions and move forward without knowing what is coming” is something that applies to everyone, regardless of health status. That is an objective aspect of the human condition, at least among those of us who care to hope and have the inner resources to do so. Perhaps such a note would have exceeded the word limit, but if not, it should be there.

With gratitude,

Nancy Hiller

[1] I have always disliked that word, with its connotations of passivity and suffering (from the Latin, for “to bear,” “to be afflicted,” or “to carry from underneath”), and wish there were a substitute for those of us in any state other than deeply sedated, under general anesthetic, or comatose.

[2] Let’s also acknowledge that these numbers are just a guide to what is happening and what is likely to happen. Addendum: Jenifer Van Winkle, a friend who is a registered nurse, pointed out to me that my doctor’s note about “six months” was a way to make sure that I would be able to sign up for hospice care, should I need it — i.e., not an unnecessary reminder to the patient but a heads-up to the medical industry regarding my case. I wish that doctors could explain such details to patients. Doing so would strengthen trust, instead of eroding it.

Fine Woodworking and Women’s History Month, Part Five




Fine Woodworking and Women’s History Month, Part Four: A salute to those who support others from behind the scenes

In many cultures (including ours, for North American readers), women have historically worked in occupations behind the scenes of public life. Generally speaking, western culture (I can’t speak for any other) has long privileged the grand, the public, the exceptional, and taken the work that sustains those who are publicly lauded for being grand and exceptional for granted; I’m referring to those who grow, harvest, and prepare food; who clean houses or launder clothes; who bear children; who care for those who are ill. Men have historically been raised to dream big and to lead in positions that are widely acknowledged as important; they have benefited from opportunities and support (some of it tangible, some less so) to help them reach their goals, while women have been brought up to marry well, run the home, and raise a family. If this sounds like a stretch, ask your grandmothers and great-grandmothers about their experience. And please see my note at the end of this post.

One of the most incisive critics of this perverse ascription of value was the 19th-century social critic and reformer Catharine Beecher, who calmly pointed out that “the chief cause of these evils is the fact that the honor and duties of the family state are not duly appreciated,” even though the most powerful men – from the owner and managers of your local factory to heads of state – typically had wives and female domestic workers at home whose dependable labor made it possible for those men to focus on their Important Business. Remember, Beecher was referring to the mid- and late-19th century. So, who really had the power, considering that without the necessary labor provided by those women, men would have had no time to go to school, let alone obtain professional training and go on to achieve Great Things?

Today let’s look at a fun twist on that historical picture with a note of appreciation for the women who run the workshops at some of this country’s schools. Accomplished woodworkers themselves, their work provides a foundation for that of others. Workshop techs of any gender tend to operate in the background, echoing domestic workers in the 19th century.

I readily admit I’d rather be doing any number of things than changing the knives in my century-old jointer or tweaking the adjustment of my drum sander to get rid of snipe. A skilled shop tech is invaluable. I’d love one of my own.

@littleforestswontdo Chelsea Witt at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship

@hittme Mary Ellen Hitt, formerly on the maintenance crew at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship

@ellenkasperndesign Ellen Kaspern, who teaches machine maintenance at North Bennet Street School

@aspen_golann Aspen Golann, who runs the workshop at Penland

@ellieinthewoods Ellie Richards, who ran the shop at Penland before Aspen and is currently a resident artist at Penland

@carnahanwoodworks Lacey Carnahan at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking

@robins.angela Angela Robbins, who ran the shop at North House Folk School in MN

Please add others in the comments. The original posts are below, in case you’d like to read comments and add to them.




Fine Woodworking and Women’s History Month, Part Three: Giving credit where it’s due

At least one commenter has questioned why a week of attention given to women in particular should be necessary at this moment in history, when posts on social media suggest there are already so many women in woodworking that the matter of representation in traditional publications has become a non-issue. That there are many women woodworkers is certain – and as with most kinds of social change, this increase is largely due to those who have been speaking and writing about what students of social change call “barriers to entry.” As commenter Steve Hogarth (on Instagram @stevehogarth) took pains to point out,

“[The term] ‘barriers to entry’ covers more than straightforward sexist discrimination. It includes things like, but not limited to: being told all your childhood that things like that aren’t “for you,” gendered school curriculums, teachers and tutors providing more guidance and opportunity to the ones they feel ‘more likely to pursue/succeed in the field,’ not seeing anyone that looks anything like you in magazines and publications, not seeing anyone like you being given a high profile in the industry, seeing people like you being patronised, harangued, and told how they could do it better by people who think they know better because of how they were born.”

I appreciate that some of this may appear to be a stretch, but having lived through all of the above, while accepting that that was “just the way things are” and not complaining about it, because I was brought up to get on with things and plow through the figurative mud, I can attest to the potential of such seemingly negligible experiences to discourage members of various demographics from getting involved in one activity or another. This stuff is exceedingly nuanced. And the nuance just makes it more insidious (from the Latin word for ambush; in other words, it’s hard to see until you’ve already been “attacked,” to continue with the ambush metaphor).

So today I’m going to mention some people who have worked hard to bring about the change we’ve seen and continue their efforts to make things better. I hesitate to list people and publications in this series because I will inevitably be leaving many out, so please understand that this list is not meant to be anywhere near comprehensive. My point is to give credit where it’s due, as well as encourage those interested in learning more to do so from these and other people.

For me, the most influential person on this subject has been Megan Fitzpatrick. It’s ironic to read some comments that imply (or state outright) that I should listen to other perspectives on this subject, considering that my present views, which I’m sharing in these posts, are quite different from those I held just a few years ago – namely, “just get on with your work and don’t even mention gender.” It’s Megan who first persuaded me of the point Steve Hogarth made above. When she invited me to make three presentations at Woodworking in America circa 2015, I was blown away by the diversity of presenters she had made a point of including. Not only do such efforts provide a picture of “what woodworkers look like” that’s more in line with reality; they also help bring new people into the field, which is essential to the survival of any craft.

Laura Mays has been *seriously* influential with her calls to increase the representation of women and members of diverse demographics in woodworking publications, teaching, learning, and elsewhere. She and Deirdre Visser have authored a forthcoming book, “Making a Seat at the Table: Women Transform Woodworking” related to a 2019-2020 exhibition by the same name, which was held at Philadelphia’s Center for Art In Wood. As Director of the Fine Woodworking Program at the Krenov School, she is actively working to increase diversity in the field.

Sarah Marriage (@sarah_marriage) used her award from the John D. Mineck Furniture Fellowship to start Baltimore-based A Workshop of Our Own, which offers shop space and classes to women and gender-non-conforming others, as well as Black, Indigenous, and other people of color.

Chris Schwarz (@lostartpress) has championed the cause of diversity among woodworkers in ways that often go unnoticed (because that’s how he rolls).

Katie Thompson regularly features work by women, hosts podcasts, and shares a variety of resources at @womenofwoodworking on Instagram.

Annie Evelyn of Crafting the Future (@annie_evelyn_furniture), Claire Minihan (@cminihantravishers), Kelly Harris (@kellyhappis), Danielle Rose Byrd (@danielle_rose_byrd), and Amy Umbel (@amy_umbel) are just a few other accomplished woodworkers who work hard to encourage others.

You can find a dazzling variety of women woodworkers in the Instagram stories linked to Leslie Webb’s feed @lesliewebbdesign

This isn’t even the tip of the iceberg of those who have contributed to making this difference – not to mention those women who, for decades, have been successful woodworkers and thereby provide examples for us all, among them Judy Kensley McKie, Lynette Breton (@lynettebreton), Meryll Saylan, and Aimé Ontario Fraser.

A number of woodworking schools now offer scholarships to women and people of color. Among them are the Krenov School, Port Townsend School of Woodworking, Fireweed Woodshop of Minnesota, the Florida School of Woodworking, Penland, and the American Association of Woodturners. Again, these are only a few of those who deserve recognition on this score. If you’d like to share other resources, please do so in the comments. The links to this content on Instagram follow, in case you’d like to read or add to the comments.



Fine Woodworking and Women’s History Month, Part Two: Increasing the visibility of women in Fine Woodworking

Spoof cover made by then-Art Director Mike Pekovich in 2006, after he visited my shop with Anissa Kapsales for her first out-of-town shoot.

Fine Woodworking has always published readers’ work. Every issue of the magazine includes guidelines for proposals, which are also available on their website.

Occasionally someone will ask how I first had my work published in the magazine. Many are under the impression that editors choose whose work they want to feature and invite those woodworkers to write for them. For the record, that is not typically how an author gets a foot in the door. Editors, especially in the wake of massive changes to the economics of publishing due to the internet and the Great Recession, are spread exceedingly thin. The editors I know at Fine Woodworking and other publications have their work cut out for them – and how. Many today are juggling responsibilities that used to be handled by several colleagues, while striving not just to maintain standards – in the caliber of the work published, along with the writing, photography, editing, and production values – but to elevate them.

Fine Woodworking has received some criticism over the past few years for the dearth of images of women and people of color on their pages. To some extent, this criticism is warranted; too many issues give the impression that woodworking is still the province of white men, while in reality, woodworkers are all over the map. The real-world diversity of woodworkers should be represented. Woodworking is no longer a white men’s club.

On the other hand, some of this criticism is unfair. While I’m not on the staff of the magazine, I am occasionally privy to conversations concerning this issue, based on which I can say that *the primary reason for the relative absence of women and members of other demographic groups on the magazine’s pages is that we submit fewer proposals.*

So here’s a word or two about proposing an article. Proposals take some investment. If you’re serious about getting your work published in a magazine, you first need to familiarize yourself with the publication. Does your work (and here I’m talking about the work, not the maker of it) seem like a good fit? Also, variety is important to readers; I’ve lost track of how many people have said they cancelled their subscription because they “didn’t need another article about sharpening chisels,” a jab that always annoys me because the magazine and its online branches contain so much beyond basic techniques. So if recent issues have featured project articles on floating table tops, glazed finishes, or chairs, you should probably come up with a fresher subject.

Keep your proposal succinct, and make sure the scope of what you’re proposing is clear. Always respond promptly and courteously, as you would in any business correspondence. And cultivate patience, as well as perseverance. I wrote my first proposal to Fine Woodworking around 2001. It was rejected, as were the next few I sent in. One day I heard from then-editor Karen Wales that the magazine wanted to publish a two-page spread on my Edwardian hallstand; it appeared in 2003. Since then, I’ve had plenty of proposals rejected by Fine Woodworking and other publications. But some find their way into print. Want to see more women and their work on the pages? It’s up to us all to put in the effort to make that happen.

We’re *all* busy. Sometimes we just don’t have the time or bandwidth to sit down and do the work that even a simple article proposal requires. We can still encourage others to propose their own, as well as talk to tool manufacturers, reps at finishing products companies, and other advertisers about the importance of including women and other under-represented groups in their ads.

The Instagram posts are below, in case you’d like to read the comments and add to them.




Fine Woodworking and Women’s History Month, Part One

Fine Woodworking editor Anissa Kapsales

The editors at Fine Woodworking offered me the opportunity to commemorate Women’s History Month with a week of daily posts at their Instagram account. Because that platform doesn’t allow for texts as long as mine (don’t judge!), we had to split the text into multiple posts. I’m sharing the content here because it’s easier to follow an argument when the whole of it is laid out in one place. Full disclosure: I’m being paid for the Instagram posts, but I agreed to the assignment because (1) I value the work done by the people at Fine Woodworking, (2) this topic matters to me, and (3) the editors expressly gave me carte blanche to share my thoughts, with no expectation that I would promote their company’s products.


As a woman who has made her living primarily as a cabinetmaker since 1980, I’ve seen a lot of changes. When I did my training in traditional furniture craft through the UK’s City & Guilds program, I was the only woman in the class. That lone-woman standing stuck with me at other workshops until 1987, when I hired on at a progressive company, Wall-Goldfinger, in Vermont, where I was one of several women on the shop floor.

There were women in the field centuries before our time. One well-known example that will be familiar to readers of the blog at Lost Art Press is Frenchwoman Juliette Caron, who was born in 1882; Lost Art Press research maven Suzanne Ellison has unearthed scads of information and fabulous images of women working wood centuries before then. True, women have constituted a small minority among woodworkers. Yet our visibility (beyond the genre of tool-promoting girlie posters) has been disproportionately lower than that of men.

Until about the past 25 years, women were rarely seen in woodworking publications. For me, Aime Ontario Fraser was the most visible, thanks to her work with Fine Woodworking, to which my partner and I subscribed; I’m pretty sure I also recall the Rockler company publishing images of women working (not just watching their husbands do so) in their catalogs going back to the early 1990s.

There are a number of reasons for this relative invisibility, the most damning among them concern that publishing pictures of people who didn’t fit the stereotypical image of woodworkers might diminish a publication’s credibility. We can no longer afford that kind of thinking.

Some have worked to correct this glaring lack by publishing magazines and books aimed specifically at teaching skills to women. While these publications have brought more women into the field, their single-minded focus on women set them apart from the mainstream conversation. Projects were often simpler, which left them open to derision from those with more experience, most of them men. There is without doubt a need for women-focused classes and publications (in addition to those that appeal specifically to members of other underrepresented groups), and it’s crucial to acknowledge that these women-centered projects have enabled many to level up with men, gaining a voice that’s now strong enough to cry foul on the lack of representation. But we also need to be part of widely-respected publications – and those have historically been dominated by men.

All branches of social media have their drawbacks, but their potential to give voice to those who have been relatively voiceless is a strength. Instagram, in particular, has made it possible for anyone showing their work to say “I’m here too. And maybe there are more of us.”

The number of women in woodworking has exploded over the past 20 years. Editors of many publications, including Fine Woodworking, are making a point of including women and our work. Some are doing a better job than others. There’s plenty of room for improvement. Not only is this visibility long overdue – the dramatically greater percentage of skilled, creative women in woodworking argues for representation proportionate to our actual numbers – it’s also plain good business. It’s no longer news that women constitute a significant market for publications and their advertisers’ products.

For me, the most ironic recognition of women’s potential value to the field came several years ago from a carpenter with whom I was working on a jobsite. He said he was thinking of naming his company “Venus Woodworking.” Venus was a family name, and he thought he’d get more business if people thought he was a woman. I was speechless at the irony, but now I have regained my voice.

The Instagram posts are below, in case you’d like to read the comments or add to them.



To your health

Before the whipped cream.

I keep hearing from people who seem to be picturing me on or near my death bed, people with pity in their voice or dire warnings about how “intensive” my road is going to be. Yeah, got those memos; I have never understood why some people imagine that emphasizing the dangers of a friend’s medical condition is going to help that friend. Does anyone who has received a terrible diagnosis not appreciate the gravity without having to be reminded by others who supposedly care? That question is rhetorical; just keep those thoughts to yourselves and you’ll be doing a lot more good than you will by voicing them.

I am grateful to report that things are going well. I feel great on most days and have been getting plenty of work done. For those who keep asking whether I am “making sawdust,” I’m making far less of it than usual — not because I’m physically or mentally impaired, but simply because my white blood cell counts are so low that I’m at increased risk of infection from the cuts and scrapes I get any time I’m working in the shop (or garden). (OK, that is a kind of physical impairment, but all in all, it’s so minor, and I feel so strong and energetic, that I don’t even want to grant it that standing.) So I am focusing on design work and writing — and I’m very thankful to have kitchen design jobs coming in, thanks to the recent publication of Kitchen Think.

Proof. Lunchtime a few days ago, covered in dust from finishing up some shelves for a set of built-in bookcases.

Early on in my current health adventure I had the good fortune of speaking with Karen Vaughan, an oncology nurse, who has had plenty of experience with pancreatic cancer. Karen recommended a book, The Metabolic Approach to Cancer, among other reading materials relevant to my condition, in response to which I’ve made some sweeping changes to my diet.

I stopped drinking alcohol and eating all wheat products, as well as most grains other than organic oats. A good crusty loaf of sourdough has been one of my great pleasures in life; avoiding bread, brown basmati rice, tortillas, and pasta has taken some adjustment. Lunch used to be a quickly-assembled cheese sandwich. No more! Everything aside from salad requires more thought and preparation. My evening beverage is now a mug of vegetable broth, my favorite being the rich and complexly flavored Bou Vegetable Bouillon Cubes.

I’m burning through recipes for vegetarian Thai-style coconut-vegetable soups and curries and have found some good ones, including this one. A kale salad recipe by Kayte Young, food correspondent for our local NPR affiliate, has become another favorite. I think I use less salt than she does, and I substitute pecans for pine nuts, as well as organic sun-dried tomatoes from a jar for her oven-roasted tomatoes, but that is one good recipe, and kale is so good for you.

Most beans are off the list, but garbanzos and red lentils seem to be OK, as are fermented soy products. The main component of this diet is organic vegetables, most with low carbohydrate content — green beans, green leafy vegetables, mushrooms, some peppers, etc. I am not being super-hardcore; onions, carrots, and tomatoes are too important to me to forgo, and all are higher than ideal in naturally-occurring sugars. Seriously off the list are potatoes and most kinds of squash, along with most types of cheese (other than Parmesan, which I am just not giving up). Plain full-fat yogurt also seems to be OK.

Nuts — almonds, walnuts, pecans, and pumpkin seeds — are all OK, too, so for a special treat I devised a minimalist spin on Bakewell tart that involves an almond crust, a little raspberry fruit spread (organic raspberries being the top ingredient), fresh raspberries and whipped cream. No added sugar. (See “recipe,” if I may glorify it with that name, below.)

So far, my best source of recipes has been Ottolenghi’s Simple. His broiled tomatoes with chile [sic], garlic, and ginger are a real treat.

I’m mentioning diet because I feel so much better now than I felt for probably two years before my diagnosis. Yes, the chemo is proving effective at this point, which has virtually done away with my abdominal discomfort from the tumor. But the diet is clearly playing a big part in how I feel, and that is largely what defines my quality of life on any given day. I’ve had more energy than I can remember having in ages; this is especially notable given that chemo is notorious for depleting energy, in part by causing a drastic reduction in hemoglobin levels. Even my asthma and chronic back pain have improved markedly, though Mark points out this may have something to do with not spending all day every day on a concrete floor in a dusty environment. Hydration is also critical, especially with Folfirinox, the chemo regimen I’m on; I keep track of my water consumption (most of it in the form of tea, whether decaf or not, as water alone has taken on a funky taste due to the chemo drugs) and aim for at least eight cups a day.

So while I would certainly prefer not to be having this experience, I am deeply grateful to feel as well as I do and be able to get so much work done. As for the recipe below, it’s for those in hardcore need of a dessert-like fix. I can’t actually recommend it, though it is a healthy, treat-like substance.

Deconstructed Bakewell Tart

This recipe is so utterly deconstructed that it has nothing to do with Bakewell Tart, beyond the basic idea of putting raspberry-something into a crust.


1-1/2 cups of organic ground almonds

1/2 tsp. sea salt

3 Tbsp. melted butter (grass-fed, organic)

Mix the ground almonds and butter, then press into a buttered pie dish.

Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 15 minutes to toast the almonds, then allow to cool.


Spread about 1/4 cup of organic raspberry fruit spread over the crust.

Cover with fresh organic raspberries.

When ready to serve, whip heavy cream in a glass or stainless steel bowl set in a large pan of ice cubes. Add sweetener if you must; I am getting used to no added sweetener — and enjoying more subtle natural flavors as a result.


Poster by Robert Lachenmann, artist, for WPA. (Courtesy of Library of Congress, “Free to Use and Reuse.”)

People have asked me to do a better job of posting news about the topic that has taken over my daily life, so here’s a bit of hopeful news. Last Thursday I had a follow-up CT scan to the first, on November 12th. The tumor on my pancreas has decreased from 3.8 cm x 2.8 cm to 2.6 cm by 2.1. That’s good news, especially in view of the average statistic my oncologist in Indianapolis quoted when we first met: Just 30% to 50% of pancreatic tumors respond to either of the two available chemotherapy regimens.

In other hopeful news, my CA19-9 tumor marker has dropped from 140+ before the first infusion on Dec. 28 to 28, well within the “normal” range of 0 to 37. I take no good news for granted.

In the cherry-on-top category, my side effects with yesterday’s chemo infusion number four are again astonishingly mild, with peripheral neuropathy (pins and needles in my fingers) being the worst. We reduced the dose of oxaliplatin, which causes this, by 20%, which is still within the range recommended for my body surface area. Having gone through three very unpleasant days on the first cycle, I have come to anticipate the possibility of finding myself nauseated and unable to do more than sit still in Mark’s grandpa’s recliner, waiting for the hours to pass until I can feel “normal” again, though at this point I’m pretty well down with the program (because it seems to be working).

It’s fascinating to see how, even when I feel perfectly chill about going in for an infusion the day before, my body is not. This is not to suggest that I subscribe to a worldview in which “I” exist separately from “my body.” I don’t, and my views on this reflect years of academic study as well as reflection on my own experience. But much of our bodies’ daily experience and work are unknown to our “thinking” selves — stuff like temperature regulation, peristalsis, and other functions of the parasympathetic nervous system. The night before my second and third infusions, I felt an ache in the area of my port and the tiniest hint of an upset colon. Nothing was amiss; my body was simply expressing its concern — or, as I have come to see it, my body is like our dog, Joey, begging “please don’t take me back to the vet!” and deserves the same kind of comforting reassurance I would give to a dog. This time, physical anxiety akin to a racing locomotive showed up at bedtime and kept me from falling asleep. I took one Tylenol PM, which did the trick. And Day Four at the infusion center went off without a hitch. Major kudos to the nursing staff in the infusion department at IU Health-Bloomington Hospital, especially Lori, Pat, and Nicole, along with nurse tech Paulette.