Nose to the Grindstone

Some days you can dream, other days you have to just get down and grind. Life, ideally, is a mixture of both. Too much of the former, and you wind up disconnected and drifting. Too much of the latter and the friction burns you out.

I’m about to have to teach my son how to polish his boots. Or, possibly, pass that rite of passage on to my husband. I was younger than the Little Man when I learned how to create the glossy look of a spit shine, and my Dad taught me. The First Reader has a nice polish kit he uses when he knows his day at work isn’t going to involve a lot of fryer grease and metal shavings – but he learned from the Army, just like Dad learned in Basic how to get a highly polished surface on leather that would reflect his DI’s smile back at her.

There’s a rhythm to it. Apply the polish, and then work it down, using your fingertips to feel the drag, until it’s smooth and there’s no friction at all. A little at a time, working it in, warming it with your fingers as you move the brush and the cloth over it. It’s the heat – I’ve had friends who swore by a hair dryer on low – and the moisture trapped in the layers of wax and pigment… but I wasn’t really thinking about the chemistry of it, more the physics. We grind away at life not to give a glossy appearance on the outside, but to reduce the friction and polish ourselves until we’re smooth. I joke (mostly it’s a joke) that I’m lazy. If there’s friction in my life, I’m trying to figure out how to grind that down, make my life easier.

The parallel, though, of nose to the grindstone is sharpening a sword. Or a scythe. I’ve tried to cut hay/weeds with a dull scythe, and it’s a lot more work than it needs to be. We need to be sharp, whatever our work is. Once upon a time, I had to stay up on the latest in Children’s and YA fiction. I had to keep up with what my kid’s schedules were (ok, I still have to do that. Just added the fencing and beekeeping 101 classes for the Junior Mad Scientist to the family calendar this morning). I now have to keep up with GMP and federal regulations and Lean Processes for work. It’s all a grind. But it’s good. It keeps me sharp, it keeps me smooth.

Like everything in life, though, there’s moderation. If you press too hard at the grindstone, you can destroy the blade. So it needs to be a light pressure. And then there’s the oiled silk, for the final touches that leave it gleaming and glorious. Work meets play, which allows the brain to put a final polish on the surface, and leave the reflections of all the work merged into a high gloss. Pressure needs to be light, but steady. Stretching yourself for work is as good as stretching before a run – you won’t get any better if you don’t press a little.

Sometimes the pressure is external – the human mind, unlike the blade, does have a choice. However, sometimes we abrogate our choices and hand over the decisions to another – a boss. A spouse. A child. Pay attention to the pressure, because the brain, like a blade, pushed too hard can snap. Burnout isn’t pretty, and it takes longer to recover the harder you’ve pressed and the more damage you’ve done to your polish. I’ve dinked up the toes of my boots many times, and there’s not a lot you can do once the leather has been scarred. Polish will not completely cover it (which is why you have work boots and parade boots, but that’s another metaphor for another day). You’ll flinch, in certain situations, every time after you’ve burned out that channel in your brain.

Finding a balance can be difficult. For some, it’s not easy to say ‘no. I can’t do that.’ when they are asked to take on just one more task, to pile onto their already teetering tower of work expectations. Sometimes, you can’t help but say yes. When there are babies and toddlers involved, there are only so many friction points you can shave off your life to keep it smooth. You can get to the point where you are so close to the problem, you can’t see what the pressure is doing to your brain-blade (if we stick to that metaphor). Sometimes, to go back to the boots, you have to boil all the polish off and start fresh (is that still done? Seems like modern boots that aren’t all leather might not stand up to a good boiling). With metal, there’s no return from overpressure. With leather, some flexibility is possible.

Humans have to be flexible. Without resilience, we’d crumble and break like untempered steel. But in order to gain the toughness of steel, first we have to be heated, hammered, and quenched… life is hard, but it’s the difficulty that makes us better. Tempering, grinding until we throw sparks, and finally the softness of the silk… Boots and blades. Ready to ride, ready for anything.

Boot Knife
A blade is a thing of beauty, but also practical.

7 thoughts on “Nose to the Grindstone

  1. highly polished surface on leather that would reflect his DI’s smile back

    Didn’t know DIs could smile? 👿

    Good article.

  2. We used lighter fluid to remove a poorly done polish. Then thoroughly clean off the polish and lighter fluid and start over. We didn’t have a hair dryer, but used warm water.

  3. You’d be astonished what ordinary Vaseline does for half-ruined leather. (Brand matters, use the namebrand stuff. Generic is not the same, probably different point in the refining process so shorter carbon chains.) I no longer buy fancy boot grease, not even for my fancy boots.

    Current best example — nice pair of work boots found at the freebie store ($1.50/bag for all you can stuff in it; functionally, free) but leather had apparently NEVER been cared for and was all dried out and stiff. Gave ’em a good slathering of Vaseline and now they’re supple again (and shiny where the leather’s surface wasn’t too eroded).

    I wear leather work gloves all the time outdoors (3-4 hours per day in all weather, handling tools and stuff) and they frequently get wet. Gloves used to last about 3 months whether they got “proper” treatment or not — at that point the fingers were getting holey, and no amount of working the wet leather saved ’em from going stiff as iron. Started giving ’em a good initial soak in Vaseline (repeated as necessary, you want the leather to stay nearly saturated) and now they last about a year, stay reasonably supple even after getting wet (no special drying needed), and are far less likely to get holes at the wear points. PLUS they breathe better — I think because the leather doesn’t shrink down after getting wet, so despite being packed with grease, it still has functioning pores. This is really noticeable in hot weather. Also, they take a lot longer to soak through when working in the wet — just don’t suck up near as much water.

    Don’t worry about excess; it’ll evaporate soon enough.

    I keep meaning to try a melt of Vaseline and beeswax, but Vaseline alone works well enough that I haven’t been real motivated. 🙂 BTW I’ve also used it as a wood finish.

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