Saturday, August 22, 2009

If I Work My Hands in Wood (Would You Still Love Me?)

I've spent a number of years now trying to be a man who can call himself a carpenter (and contractor.) Time passes, and you remain inured to your accomplishments, due mostly to the enormous task of treating the people who depend on you as well as possible. This, however, does not stop you from noticing from time to time a more objective assessment of your role in the lives of others. "As long as it doesn't go to my head (and cost me the security of knowing I'll do the right thing, the right way)" you tell yourself. And unlike many things I've done in my life, this time I really mean it.

So many jobs I've had in my life were confidence games amongst a certain grouping of other seekers of security. The name of the game, most of the time, was to take it easy, and find a way to "satisfy the people." Restaurants in particular suffer (or celebrate) this particular trait. When I began working at the bagel shop I was enthralled with an environment almost entirely run by women. Aside from the sheer pleasure of looking at so many lovely beings (I would say, "as a man", except for the fact the the place, and my worldview eventually, was thick with lesbians and gay men...) there was also the tongue in cheek sense of humor that caused one woman or another to stick a bumper sticker on the walk-in that proclaimed "FEED THE PEOPLE." Of course, we tried.

I mention this because at no time in my period at the bagel company did I ever really feel myself to be outlandishly wonderful, or did I have the experience of someone looking at me and asking, "How the hell do you know this stuff?" Recently I have spent the vast majority of my time working with my employees, and unlike in the past where I could hardly afford them, they have grown accustomed to the fact that they are here to stay. One of the side effects of this fact is that I bring them along even when it makes little financial sense. I like them, and want their company. My life isn't going to become easier, so I rationalize this as the proper attitude toward being a happy man. It tends to work.

Why I mention this is that my employee's sometimes, while I'm wiring a GFCI (ground fault interrupt, a nifty device that otherwise would be called a outlet. It's one of those outlets near your sink or in your bathroom that has a test button or two on it. If it detects a change in the current running through your hair dryer, it assumes you have decided to take a bath with the dryer and disconnects the electricity so you will not die of an electrical shock. It's a good idea to wire these things properly. If you don't, you would be liable, by God, at the very least, of manslaughter.) look at me in a state of wonder. "How did you learn how to do that?" their face seems to say. It is truly hard to explain. But the bottom line is, as my friend Rick would say, I am a fool who thinks, truly, that he can build the Mackinaw bridge.

Such an attitude in life is at heart selfish and egocentric. And yet, people enjoy what you give them, when you give them beautifully rendered physical objects and spaces. I have written before about framing a house and the philosophical facts that occur to you as you build what are necessarily more than baubles to any human heart. Any platform, or structure, brings out the soul of a child in a man. Even the crippled person looks upon a ladder as a nearly metaphysical object. And from the top of a ladder, believe me, I have wondered many a time if I myself were not the baron in the trees. Things look different from the top of a ladder. We see the world from the ground as normal. We do not know enough to imagine the limitation of our perspective. Guess what ladders (and structures) help you climb out of? Believe it or not, that is the basic cause for a tower. Perhaps even the cause of a skyscraper. I couldn't really say.

I still can't believe that what I do seems magical to people. To me it has always been wonderful, ever since I remodeled my boss Sue's house. Taking huge risks and pulling it off has always appealed to me, but construction offers a particularly lovely opportunity to really screw other peoples lives up. It's Friday. The New York Times claims that today is the preferred day for banks to close, due to insolvency due to guess what? Construction loans comprising nearly fifty percent of their assets. One article in the times suggested a quote by an economist that I dearly love (so much so that I quoted it to some kids at the coffee shop, whom it seemed to greatly impress): "Stability breeds instability. Causes entities to necessarily become hubristic." Banks had to take on more risk due to the opportunity cost of neglecting it. Like electricity, opportunity looks for the shortest path to gain. Does electricity give a crap about history? Or humanity? Or danger? Neither does unregulated economic reality. There is no GFCI for banks. Merely the desire of the human population. Dangerous minds, indeed.

So, I was on my knees for twenty four hours this week putting in a couple ceramic tile floors and laminate wood floors for Jim Jr. It was lovely since I knew what I was doing from beginning to end, and since my employees were right there, suffering horribly like I used to from the grueling pain of my line of work. Since I control everything I don't feel the pain. And since I don't feel the pain, when something terrible happens, or one of my guys screws up (or I do) I have the emotional resources to laugh and tell them, "Let's move on, and make this thing right." I told Jim, after he complimented me in a manner so effusive I am loathe to repeat it, "Construction workers fail due to frustration, not ignorance. It is imperative that you not become emotional about anything. We are tiny, and so to are our accomplishments." Easy to say when you work your hands it wood. Without a metaphysical "ladder" I cannot guess wood's opinion as to my failures. From my perspective they have been gifts.

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