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A Parable from Valley Forge

October 10, 2009

OK, so here is my last post about Valley Forge. It’s a story I’m going to share with you, partly because it was humorous, and partly because it’s the sort of thing you might read in an old book of parables but would never think actually happens. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures to go with it, so you’ll just have to bear with me and use your imagination.

It’s sometime on the first morning of the conference. I’m at my booth in the marketplace, and there are lots and lots of people working their way up and down the aisle examining the various wares. I look to my left and a small, elderly Asian man in a purple jacket catches my eye. He is just kind of puttering along, taking very tiny steps, with his hands clasped behind his back.

Now, I am not even remotely a student of Japanese woodworking, but I thought to myself, “That looks like Toshio Odate.” I’d read his book a number of years ago, but I really just couldn’t say. It’s not someone whose image I have seen often, or for a long, long time.

So I tended to some customers and a little while later I notice this elderly man is now at a nearby booth. No one seems to recognize him or react to him, so it must not be Toshio Odate. One person is even showing him how to use a marking knife. Toshio Odate is like the Roy Underhill of Japanese woodworking–almost a saint of some kind. Surely if it were him someone would recognize him.

Not long after that, this tiny man makes his way to my table. He reaches down and touches the blade of my big rip saw. He looks at it very carefully and asks how I did the shaping of the toe, and about the way the teeth are graduated, from smaller at the toe to bigger at the heel. “Very nice,” he says. “Very nice.”

OK, so I’ve got to find out who this is. But I don’t want to look like a total idiot if it’s not Toshio Odate. So I thought I would try to feel him out a little bit. You know, be a little discreet.

“You look awfully familiar to me.”

His reply was almost instantaneous. “All Japanese look alike.”

And he made this gesture that was somehow both comic and tragic with his hands around his face.

“No, no, that’s not …” I trailed off. We both chuckled a little.

“So what classes are you doing this weekend?” I thought perhaps I could smoke him out that way, by not specifying whether he would be taking or teaching the classes.

He sighed. “Just talking a little bit.”

Aha! I knew it!

“So you’re teaching.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know if it is teaching.”

Now, did I already tell you, I’m not a student of Japanese woodworking? Well it didn’t matter in the least. I couldn’t help but feel thrilled and honored to meet this master craftsman and to have had such a good humored exchange with him. We just sort of stood there for a few seconds.

“I knew it,” I said.

To which he said nothing, but simply grinned and nodded, then turned and shuffled off.

So what’s the moral to the story? Know your famous woodworkers? Or don’t admit in your blog when you don’t know one? Or how’s about this–Many times the most talented people are also the most unassuming? Yeah, let’s go with that last one. I think I like that one best.

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