Wednesday, April 13, 2011


April 13: This morning I woke up to heavy rain, but the bird feeder must go out regardless so I put on a coat, filled the feeder (we keep it inside at night to discourage the deer; they would empty it), took it out and hung it on its stand, threw peanuts out for the blue jays, then noticed that the wall of the shed was falling over. This one wall is all that remains of the old shed. We are doing a strange thing, having the shed rebuilt but leaving the one wall still standing. It's the only way we can preserve our climbing hydrangea, which is firmly attached to it. Anyway, there it was, leaning over at a sharp angle. It had been propped, but not, well, properly. I had to nail the prop to the new floor, in the heavy rain. And I noticed, doing it, how rewarding this little task was to do. I didn't care if the knees of my pants got wet, which they did. I got it done. I smiled to myself, at myself. Satisfying.

My wife complains that I'm not much of a fixer of things, and it's true, I'd rather hire somebody to do it, or just live with the problem. I'm very tolerant of problems and circumstances that drive other people over the edge. I was that way about a minor skin cancer I had on my ear many years ago, kept putting off going to the dermatologist to have it taken off until I finally decided to get it over with, he took it off, then he noticed a mole on my arm I hadn't noticed that was not your normal mole, had it biopsied, and saved my life. Lesson learned. Now I go to him once a year for a check-up, and about twelve years ago he found another one that I just thought was a weird brown spot on my face. Result? A plastic surgeon carved off a significant part of my left jowl. So now I wear a beard, to hide the imbalance this caused in my face when you look straight at me. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. Well, OK. But the beard looks nice. My barber approved of it immediately. Anyway: satisfaction. A job well done, or a needful thing, however small.

And it's especially satisfying when you fix something you own. My brother knew this, spent twenty years repairing his own roof (left the scaffolding up the whole time). He was a full-time small-town lawyer and had no spare time at all, or precious little, but he insisted he was going to do it, wouldn't hire anybody, and the roof leaked all those years. He was a trip, my brother. This house dated from about 1900, it was huge, and it was a mess. Extension cords ran from the dining room into the kitchen because the wiring in the kitchen was damaged. Only a couple of the burners on his stove, a genuine antique, worked. Raccoons lived under the roof of his porch and used to climb up the scaffolding and stare in his bedroom window at night. The third floor was unspeakable; plaster was falling down in every room. It was like living in a favela in Rio de Janeiro, a 6,000 sq. ft. favela with about eighteen rooms. But he did fix his roof before he died (of skin cancer), with the help of his sons. And the porch. And he finally hired help to do it.

I've never been that crazy. But I did build most of the bookcases in this house myself and did a decent job of it, too (although how hard is it to build bookcases?), and fixed the door of the shed years ago when it blew apart in a storm, and built the bed in the upstairs bedroom, which is both extremely sturdy and easy to take apart and move, and helped Percy Chadwick reroof my barn in Shrub Oak during my first marriage, when I, too, lived in a big old house, although that house was built closer to 1800; and I've always taken satisfaction in doing these things. Maybe it was my grandfather on my father's side. He was a tool-and-die maker; he made the wooden forms, that is, that became the patterns for industrial tools. Precision work. After he died his tool chest came to rest in the house my brother and I grew up in. So that particular kind of satisfaction is in our blood. Much more for my brother than for me, but I have at least a trace of it.

But the stronger satisfactions come from writing well, when I manage to do so, and that's the life I chose, just as my brother chose the law. Working with language. It can be enormously satisfying to do it well. I've written pieces and poems where I've wanted to pump my arm when I was finished, just like Tiger Woods pumps his arm when he rolls one in from 30 feet away. Wow, does that feel good! But then you meet these really smart guys who have been to college and could have gone down any number of roads and instead chose to spend their lives farming or in carpentry or mastering the arts of plumbing, like the Irish plumber we know who is both a perfectly fine plumber and a singer of Irish songs who is good friends with Pete Seeger and still performs whenever he can; and I watch our contractor, who knows how to put a building together, step by step, and can do all the jobs himself if he has to, in the right order, and is clearly proud of it. I like to watch Ask This Old House on TV; I take pleasure in the knowledge and skill of the people on that show. And I think sometimes that I might spend some future life doing that sort of thing. I think I would like it. Satisfaction is about mastery, developing and using a skill, and maybe the point of life is to find a skill that makes you want to pump your arm when you master it, and get better and better at it as life unfolds, and maybe it doesn't matter that much what the skill is as long as you give it your all. Maybe. Just a thought.