Planes, Planes, Plains, and Plein

The skinny kid shrugged on his plaid sport-coat, determined that he would look the part of the seasoned traveler he wanted to be.  Making sure of his tickets in his breast pocket, he squared his shoulders and headed out the front door.  “Be sure to call us when you get there son.”  The red-headed lady reminded him for the fourth time and he nodded his head, annoyed.  “Are you sure you don’t want us to drive you to the airport?” asked his dad.  He didn’t want to seem petty, but the boy could hardly hide his impatience as he replied.  “No!  I’ve got this!”  He felt bad immediately and turned back to them.  “I’ll be fine.  See you in a couple of days.”  And, he was gone.

He boarded the plane an hour later; his first time ever to fly. Gripping his armrest in a death grip, as if holding on so tightly to the airplane itself would help in an emergency, he wished that he had opted to drive instead.  But the plane achieved the speed necessary and left the ground as it was designed to do and flew him to the state capitol without incident.  Once a cruising altitude was attained, the craft sliced smoothly though the air, on its way to its destination.  Only a few hundred miles, yet it seemed like the other side of the world to him.  It was a day of firsts for him.  After his arrival, he hailed his first taxi, checked into his first hotel room, and ate his first really nice meal in a restaurant by himself.  He took care of his business the next day and couldn’t get on the plane home fast enough. Still wearing his plaid sport-coat, he again gripped the armrests on takeoff, a habit he still has, nearly forty years later. The flights (at least the smooth, uneventful ones) don’t bother him much, just the take-offs and landings.


We jump forward a number of years and our young man, still skinny, is now a young husband and father.  He is in the workshop of his Lovely Lady’s brother, helping him with a wood working project.  They have spent an hour or two cutting up lengths of wood and slicing them into smaller dimensions, and he is ready to get building the cabinet they are aspiring to make.  Surely, the small pieces of wood they have here will suffice to glue and screw together into the configuration planned.  But, no!  What is his brother-in-law doing?  He is gathering up every single piece of wood, the long as well as the short, and carrying it over to a power tool, he calls a jointer/planer.  It is a strange affair, with two lengths of narrow, flat steel table that are divided by a wide circular blade-like affair.  The two tables sit almost exactly level with each other, but one, the feed end, is adjustable.  The expert turns on a switch underneath the machine and a motor spins the blades with a threatening whirring sound.  Turning a crank, he adjusts the variable table a tiny bit lower than the fixed one. As the length of wood comes into contact with the rapidly turning blades, the chips begin to fly.  The odd thing?  Even though the table is lower than the next one, the wood slides evenly onto the second one without angling up or down.  The reason is that the blades take off exactly the right amount of surface on the bottom of the board, so that it rides onto the out-feeding table, the tiniest fraction of an inch thinner than when it entered the feed table.

“Cool!” exclaimed the skinny young man.  He set the board where his brother-in-law indicated and then repeated the action for all the boards, probably forty or so of them.  Now…they would be ready to assemble the cabinet.  But no…they repeated the action once more, with the blade taking off the same incremental amount again.  Every piece of the wood…fed through the blades a second time, and stacked, a second time.  “Why don’t you just move the blades as far as you need the wood to be taken down?” inquired the frustrated young man.  The other man shrugged and took a piece of scrap wood in his hand.  Cranking the table down the total amount, he proceeded to feed the scrap through.  Huge chips flew.  Then, holding the piece of wood so the curious fellow could see the lower surface, he showed him what happened when you get in a hurry.  Instead of the smooth, flat surface, the board was marred and scraped, with splinters of wood hanging all over.  “It works the same way with any type of plane,” he told the chagrined helper.  “Power or hand plane, if you try to remove too much at one time, it digs too deeply, splintering and tearing instead of cutting and smoothing.”  The lesson has never been forgotten.

Not many years after, the young man (not so skinny anymore and, come to think of it, not so young) was traveling by car with his family.  They had been to the West Coast, visiting the Sierra Madre mountains and the Pacific Ocean.  They had even made a stop at that magnificent hole in the ground in Arizona, which we call the Grand Canyon.  None of these landmarks could have been described as unadorned or commonplace; instead being grandiose and notable in their structure.  They were travelling through New Mexico and had just left behind the significant tablelands, with their imposing mesas towering over the highway.  The fellow had driven many miles already and was exhausted, but there was no way they were stopping until they were home.  A few hours of relief driving by the Lovely Lady helped, but he was still sleep deprived.  And, they were entering the plains.  No hills to speak of, no forests…in fact, not much except highway and fence posts were to be seen for miles.

There’s not much to say.  He yawned and stretched, poked and pinched, and sang and whistled, all to keep himself awake for the miles that the road extended out into the never-ending distance, the horizon never getting any closer.  They were plains all right!  Nothing at all for miles and miles.  Unadorned definitely was the word to characterize this place.  Hours later, the hills and his home were a welcome sight, especially since home meant a bed and sleep.

In recent years, the aging, slightly overweight man has been widening the scope of his interests.  Where knickknacks and photographs once graced the walls of his home, paintings have appeared.  There are oils and water-colors of several good artists, but his favorites are the landscapes, painted out of doors, in natural light and not in a studio.  Still-lifes?  He’s not a huge fan, preferring instead the reality of nature and a few of the imposing structures that men have erected.  He was amused to discover, some time ago, that this type of painting was known as “plein air”, the name coming from a french word meaning “open air”.  The genuine, unadorned character of this style of painting is attractive to him, pulling him away from the gimmicks and noises and gadgets of everyday life that surround him and anyone else living in this overwhelming culture which encompasses us.

Plein air.  Funny.  It sounds just like “plain” air.  Come to think of it, that is just what it is!  Nature without any extras, no makeup, no glaring lights, no clattering keyboards.  Quiet, clean, smooth.  Plain.

We seem to have come full circle.  You may be wondering what this is all about.  I’m not really sure myself, but this evening, I handed my smart-phone to the Lovely Lady and asked her to help me solve a word puzzle, one in which four pictures are displayed, all supposedly having one common denominator.  If you could figure out the common thing they share, you would have the answer to the puzzle We talked briefly about the concept, both how clever it was, and how frustrating, and, for some odd reason, my mind leapt to the little brass finger-plane I keep on my desk, which is in one of the pictures above.  I immediately thought of a number of similar words, having been primed by the discussion. You have been the victims of the result.  I hope you will forgive me.

There is another purpose to my meanderings, though.  You see, I keep that plane atop my desk for a purpose.  It is not only a fine example of quality craftsmanship, but as a tiny tool which smooths surfaces, it reminds me that the edges are best taken off little by little. Like the much larger jointer/planer, if the blade is extended too far, the result is a gouge instead of a smooth, level surface.  Slowly, carefully, the edges come down, eventually conforming to the shape they need to take. With little pain and less trauma to the wood, the goal is achieved and a smooth, uniform surface takes form. It works in life also.  As we help each other to be better people, we do it gently and lovingly.  The rough edges are knocked off without pain, without animosity.  The final result is the same; but the journey there is a lot easier.

Plane trips are, hopefully, uneventful after the ascent to the clouds and before the descent to the ground. The flat lands, the plains, stretch out in their fruitful, productive expanse; devoid of the barriers and the perils which the mountainous regions or the coastal areas contain.  The art produced en plein air is beautiful and uncluttered by superfluous lights and colors.  Nature is spectacular enough without the help of man’s technology and meddling.

Plane, planes, plains, and plein air.  Four different pictures.  One central idea.  Clean, unadorned, and smooth.  Sometimes I think life would be a lot better if we were all just plain folks too.  No highfalutin ways, no cosmetic surgeries to fool people into believing that we’re somebody else, just the unembellished truth, exposed for all to see.

How about it?  Do you get the picture now?

I was hoping it would be plain to you.

Don’t be concerned about the outward beauty of fancy hairstyles, expensive jewelry, or beautiful clothes. You should clothe yourselves instead with the beauty that comes from within, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is so precious to God.”
(I Peter 3:3,4~NLT)

“You–poor and obscure, and small and plain as you are–I entreat to accept me as a husband.”
(from “Jane Eyre~Charlotte Bronte~English novelist~1816-1865)

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© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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