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Abraham van Beyeren:
Silver Wine Jug, Ham, and Fruit (c. 1660–66)

"The creative arm wrestles with himself."

The Muse and I decided years ago that we would one day replace the railing that once graced the Villa's front porch roof deck. The old one was destroyed by an enthusiastic—some insist overly-enthusiastic—wisteria, which strangled and ultimately wrestled it to the ground. Our carpenter Joel agreed to perform the deed once we'd resolved the definite tilt the leading edge of that roof had shown over time. The brick pillars supporting that roof were filled with compression fractures, and the roof line's far end had been sinking. The roof supports needed replacing, a massive undertaking involving taking down six tall brick columns and fifty feet of brick foundation wall, repouring foundation, then replacing those columns with concrete, steel, and wood while leveling the roof's leading edge. This work was no superficial paint job, but one which would involve Permitting, that chronically over-worked and misunderstood city department seemingly dedicated to frustrating every intention.

We'd naively presumed that the critical path to completing this transformation would lie along the line of acquiring skilled craftspersons.
We had a few important concepts to remember and a couple to learn. Building that porch railing would, of course, have almost nothing to do with building railings. It's come to seem as though the whole undertaking required that we first reinvent the universe. Then, rebuilding that railing might assume its proper position, that of footnote, hardly worth mention, though it also served as the initiating intention that opened this can of worms in the first place. Joel our carpenter agreed to serve as prime contractor as well as carpenter, so speaking with the Permitting people fell on his shoulders. I asked if it might help if I tagged along for the conversations and he dismissed me as if my presence would not only prove unimportant, but a serious hindrance. I might have committed a truth or something had I been present.

The negotiations began. We tried to argue that this work would be roughly equivalent to reinforcing a car port, the most trivial of remodels. The woman at the counter sounded a little skeptical, and she held considerable experience demonstrating skepticism. She's a professional. Neither her nor Joel wanted to have to submit a fill set of architectural drawings to the engineer or the planning council, for that would guarantee a delay of two or three months or more. We finally hire an architect to create those drawings and are presently shopping for an engineer who can produce calculations of roof loads over a rather lengthy run. We might end up having to replace or reinforce a beam across the front. Permission's still eluding us, though the latest ruse promises that if an engineer can show mathematically that the existing beam's adequate, we might then receive immediate approval.

But then our concrete contractor's proven himself perhaps a little less than fully reliable. He poured a new sidewalk along the South side of the place while we were waiting for permits, but has not yet managed to get us the paperwork we've repeatedly asked him for: his insurance/bonding documents, business and L & I permits, and his completed W-9. It was one thing for him to pour sidewalks without proper documentation, but quite another to repair actual permanent foundation. Joel's started interviewing replacements, though I hope that will not prove necessary. We might, once we receive permission to build, still be weeks or months away from making it to the top of a fresh contractor's queue. We might be screwed until well into Spring, anyway. No pouring foundation or architectural columns when it's freezing outside.

While this passion play continues, I'm engaging in my own personal parallel one. As usual, whatever's playing out there might be an allegory for what's playing in here. My whole SetTheory initiative only proceeds given proper permission. I perform the role of the Permitting professional on my SetTheory project, though. The negotiations seem tougher than even those undertaken with the experienced disappointing professional working the Permits counter down at city hall. I hold the vision and I also hold the personal power to withhold permission, to deny the authority to proceed. Why would I undermine my own progress, you ask? Who else could possibly exercise the authority to protect me from myself?

It was my idea, remember, and mine alone, to go chasing after this whole SetTheory exercise. Like all creatives, initial permission almost always has to come from the creative himself. Later, the question usually arises as to whom will serve as the reinforcing sponsor and dispense continuing permission in the form of motivation and reassurance. That role also falls upon the creative, who at some point starts feeling less like a creative and more like a bureaucrat with more responsibility than originally intended; more obligation, too. If not careful, the creative can become as vindictive as any poorly compensated civil servant who oversees the efforts of much better paid architects and contractors. Petty vindictiveness can creep in. One might feel tempted to disrupt just because one can. One might some days only feel powerful if one's able to steal another's power from them, and creatives serve as particularly easy targets, even if they only catch themselves stealing power from themselves. It's a surprisingly delicate balance.

It's always an audacious act when initiating any effort. It might well be even more audacious to maintain forward progress once the effort's started. The brass band celebrating a new beginning long before dispersed by the time the procession's more than a quarter way through. The beginning enthusiasm only grows thinner as the newness loses its shine. One starts feeling behind, then just disoriented, then tempted to just pretend that nothing outrageous was ever contemplated. The creative could always choose to just drop the thread and slink home, largely unnoticed. What will motivate him forward? That's almost always an important question. In construction, the tension building between the parties involved often results in a perverse but nonetheless useful competition. Each side persists in the passionate hope of eventually winning, or, humiliating their opponent by forcing them to lose. It's often a competition of wills overseeing the effort, with neither side ready or willing to compromise. The creative arm wrestles with himself. He sometimes even loses.

©2022 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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