Friday, May 21, 2004


Stop in at Brain Crayons and see the exchange between apennyforyourthoughts and NT99 that took place last Sunday, May 16. They're talking about A New Approach for dealing with the demons some of us have to wrestle. I can't speak to the efficacy of the method discussed; instead, what stands out for me is the humaneness of the exchange, the caring, the courtesy. If you want to see two people talk about issues that are difficult to speak of, and talk about them with compassion for each other, this is the post to read. If you're at all squeamish when people talk about wrestling their real demons, then this is not the post for you.


Another conversation with myself - May 18, 2004

There are days I don't think about my writing any more than I think about my breathing. I breathe. I write. I have put myself in the position where I am constantly making notes. I am never "writing." I am either making notes, or refining them, or typing them up; sometimes I have to make something of them, but that's not writing either, exactly.

Less and less I think about the act of writing. More and more I think about what I see and hear and want to record. This is a delicious place I've got myself into. I don't know if my method would work for anyone else, but it works for me.

Of course I haven't yet come face-to-face with any major blockage of my impetus to make notes. At the point I have difficulty recording what I observe, I'll have a serious problem. And I don't know how I would deal with it. I've had "dry spells" before, sometimes for years at a time. For the time being, though, I'll just thank the gods that as a writer I have a horse to ride, even if sometimes it seems like an old nag. I can't complain because I'm not such a vision of loveliness myself.

Partly, I have reached the point where I have some perspective and a sense of humor. I know I'm not going to compete with Shakespeare; doing what I do, no one will make that confusion. And I know I'm not going to make money doing it; I accept that.

If it's not art, like Shakespeare, and if there's no money in it, what's left?

What's left is to have fun. I know what I'm after and I should enjoy going after it. The journey, not the destination. The process, not the product. The vagabond trail. If you keep doing what you love, why, you'll live forever, won't you?

My habit, in making notes, is to include everything to the extent that I can. It is better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

Of course I have been accused sometimes of failing to see the forest for the trees. That's a risk you take. When you gobble up great parts of experience trying to understand it, it won't all get digested exactly perfect. I'm okay with that. I am a human being, ergo I fail.

But didn't we have fun on the slide down?

My intention is to write until I have stood every place there is to stand and looked everywhere there is to look. When I have seen everything, I will look at it from the other side, I will pick it up and turn it over.

I never get tired of quoting the good folks I've met along my way.

Because of what I write - other people's stories - I want to be less proprietory in where and how I tell them. The thing to remember is that what's important is telling the stories; what's not important is me. I am merely the radio through which the stories are heard.

That should be enough for me. I'm not sure it always is. Sometimes I want some recognition. Sometimes I want my work to be noticed. Sometimes I want some of the money that the better-selling authors make with their lesser stories. I want to be invited to teach at some of the conferences I only get asked to enroll in. Jealousy is a green-headed hydra, I tell you. You can laugh at it, and still it returns.

The problem with note-taking along the way is that one may have nothing to say about great swatches of one's experience. There are times when any observation you make falls leaden and dead. What do you do then, Tom, huh?

I suppose you've got to write a lot of sentences to find the really good ones, the gems. Most of what one writes is craft - sturdy and reliable and as good as you can make it. Craft prepares for and carries the art of it, I think. Your beautiful passages will be inaccessible unless they are set into decent and respectable surroundings. So that's what you strive for, even when the note-taking isn't going well.

The other thing is: the first effort is never the final draft. Capture all the important elements, even if your prose doesn't want to sing; capture the important elements now, and revise later.

I think I have nothing to write about. I am sitting parked in the rest area along Interstate 90 in Minnesota. An old man gets out of the car, walks around to the passenger-side door, and helps his wife get up and out of her seat. She is slow about it, and he is patient. He offers her hand to get hold of; when she's finally up, balanced, he offers her his arm. He smiles. The smile is genuine. They walk towards the rest rooms. She is taking very small steps, just nibbles.

As he leaves her so he can go into the men's room, her feet get away from her and it looks like she's going to drift away down the incline, a runaway out of control, headed back towards the car. Quickly he closes the distance, grabs her by the elbow, steadies her. He leads her to a newspaper rack. She puts her hand out, onto it, steadies herself there. He is still smiling. He uses the men's room. When he's finished, he leads her back to the car, helps her into it. You wouldn't think he'd have to still be smiling sweetly.

I don't know why he walked her up to the rest rooms. She didn't use the Ladies. Did she simply need to get out of the car and stretch her legs? Did they need to give me this little something that shines, when all I've been thinking are dull and leaden sentences?

The world is full of its million surprises.

Part of my success as a chronicler of my time and place is due to the fact that I'm open to what comes to me, to the extent that I'm able to resist having expectations. Insisting on what you expect to see will blind you to the gifts of serendipity. As soon as you start thinking the world is a certain way, it will be different than that.

My openness to the world must be seen by others. I don't know how it shows. My daughters call me a geek magnet because strangers feel comfortable coming up and telling me about themselves. The people I interview are comfortable enough they sometimes tell me things their spouses don't know. If I'm to be the safe receptacle for what these people tell me, I must be conveying to them somehow that I shall do them no harm. People are comfortable talking to me.

I think partly it's because I look deeply. During interviews. In restaurants. Sitting on a bench in a shopping mall. I have to be careful with that. People can get the wrong impression.

Is that it? People see that I'm seeing deeply? If I were a crook, this would be quite an advantageous characteristic to possess. Yet if I were a crook, perhaps I could not make the unspoken agreement that I will do them no harm.

Whatever the characteristic is, it doesn't show up in photographs. I was pleased when a photographer for the L'Anse Sentinel took a picture of me interviewimg Joe Schuette last February when I was in L'Anse. I thought that when my picture ran in the paper I'd get to see what it is that I do during interviews to encourage people to talk freely. Alas, all I could see was an over-weight, grey-bearded, grumpy-looking fellow you'd wonder why anyone would talk to. So the quality is kinetic, not static; you have to see it moving, you can't stop it and get it.

I have read transcripts of my interviews looking for it, and have listened to the tapes trying to discern the characteristic in the content of the interview and the quality of the exchanges. I don't find it in either of those places.

It may be as simple as this: I listen. Perhaps I listen deeply. Or perhaps anyone who actively listens will create the same kind of comfort and be able to elicit the same kind of information.


APRIL 20, 2004, cont'd

At its peak, Sky Jack in Emmetsburg employed more than three hundred people. Then the bottom fell out of the business. "There was a realignment in the industry as a whole, a consolidation in the customer-base, and overproduction on the part of manufacturers," Fritz said by way of explanation. 9-11 worsened the slight recession we were experiencing and slowed the industry a bit too."

Ideally, Fritz thinks, the Emmetsburg plant should continue to make about the number of lifts it currently does. "We could do a couple more machines per day, but it is a seasonal industry and you want to balance your work throughout the year."

"The question is," he said, "how much market share can we get?"

When Sky Jack employed three hundred people here, the plant produced three products: about 16-18 per day of the lifts they still produce; about five aluminum lifts per day; and about 4-6 engine-driven scissors lifts. The line of aluminum lifts has been discontinued because Sky Jack wasn't selling enough of them to make the return worthwhile. Production of the engine-driven lifts has gone back to the facility in Canada.

Some companies are still making aluminum lifts, Fritz added, "but they've become such a 'commodity' it's hard to be competitive."
Five or six years ago there wer twelve different scissors lift manufacturers, Fritz indicated. "Basically, it's down to three now."

Sky Jack's biggest North American competitors are JLG and Genie. Both are larger companies, both are also in the "boom" business.

"We don't produce a boom product at this point, neither here nor in Canada," Fritz said. "That's not to say that we won't in the future. Time will tell."

We're talking about self-propelled, not truck-mounted booms. "Booms on trucks are nearly a while different industry," he said.

The different between Sky Jack's 15' model and its 19' model is an additional layer of scissors to gain the additional four feet of height. Nineteen-foot scissors lifts are the industry's biggest seller. It is the most popular model and satisfies the widest range of needs.

"Does the market want something taller?" Fritz asked rhetorically. There are taller lifts, he said. Sky Jack at Guelph makes a lift that is 46" wide in the bvase with models that reach to 20' and 26'. There is also the 9250 made at the Guelph plant - 92" wide at the base, lift to 50' in the air. What you order "all depends on what you need the machine for and what you need to lift."

The models built in Emmetsburg have the advantage of fitting through standard office doorways. They'll fit in an elevator to be taken to another floor of a building.

Fritz demonstrated how easily the bank of batteries swing out from one side of a lift's base. With another easy motion, he swung out a door on the other side that holds everything else you might need to do maintenance on. "Nobody has doors that open up and allow such easy service as ours," Fritz said. Even the reservor for the oil that lifts the scissors swing out on the door for easy checking and filling.

When the lift starts being elevated, bars on each side of the base turn 90-degrees so the flat surface becomes parallel to the floor. This will prevent the lift from tipping if the wheels on one end get driven over a drop-off. "Everyone is doing this now," Fritz said. "At one time, no one had this. As industry regulations developed, more safety standards were mandated in the ANSI specifications."

"We have input into the standards," Friz said. "All the scissors lift manufacturers have representatives at the trade organization, the Scaffolding Industry Association."

"When the scissors lift just came out," he said, "the question was: how do you classify it? Is it a crane? A boom? How do you regulate it? There have to be safety regulations in place."

"Scissors lifts are elevating platforms, aerial lifts, a whole new category of equipment developed some twenty-five years ago," he said.

After the industry shake-out of the past few years, Fritz said, "the industry has come back healthier and stronger than it was. The next four or five years look good for the industry as a whole and look good for Sky Jack specifically."

"Production has increased 30% over the past two months," Fritz indicated. "Sometimes it has been a struggle to keep all the parts flowing in as needed. If you increase production 30% in two months, your supply base has to be able to do the same thing."

"Our employees' biggest aggrevation is running out of parts," he said. "It's a disruption. You're messing with their flow."

To be continued...


MAY 21, 1998

Another lovely morning. The peonies are heading out; some are showing a little of the color. Soon the ants will come to open them. Usually this comes in June, here along the garage, but we may see it a little earlier this year.

Birds in the morning - they are as single-minded as water. All that empty sky and they must fill it with sound. They try, mightily.

The land is clearly farm country this morning - fields worked smooth, crops sprouted, sun on black soil and green plant. A field thick with peas, near the pole where sat the snowy owl. Corn four inches tall.

A few fields near Five Corners still have not been worked at all.

North of Five Corners, a skunk dead on the road. Farther on, a dead possum. The night has not been kind.

Crows are boastful fellows, even to the way they walk.

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