Life at the Workhouse
Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life. -Harvey MacKay
Take this flashlight and watch out for rats. -Peter Bodett circa 1964
My father never played with me. He worked with me. I grew up in a sad old 1930’s era bungalow-style house on Susan Street in Sturgis, Michigan, that my dad started fixing up when I was in the third grade, and he never stopped. When they finally sold the place there was still a crated toilet in the den that was supposed to have been a master bathroom around the time President Nixon invaded Cambodia.
Throughout my childhood – which was in every other way normal – Dad and I jacked, leveled, demolished, plumbed, wired, roofed, painted, paneled and shag carpeted our house. Instead of playing catch on a Saturday afternoon, I was being sent by my father into an uncharted crawl space with a flashlight to look for the wire he was fishing down from the kitchen. I knew that studs belonged on sixteen-inch centers before I understood the infield fly rule. It’s why I became a carpenter before I became...whatever it is I do now. It’s why I suck at baseball. And football, basketball, soccer and hockey. But I can fix a toilet.
I tell you all of this by way of preamble to the admission that I can’t tell working from playing. I built a barn onto our house here in Vermont which is the physical manifestation of my lifelong confusion over this matter. It is a three-part harmony of joy and pain.
On the top floor is my office and studio. I have a sound booth and a work station and a library and file drawers and all the accoutrements of a writing and recording career. Also in this room are a piano, seven guitars, a drum set, a chin-up bar, flat screen TV, DVD collection and a yoga mat. Understand that some things get used more than others, but in aggregate this is the room where the time I set aside for my professional endeavors goes to die. I’m sitting there now. I’m sick of it already and am going downstairs.
This is my woodshop. It smells like pine in here today because I was making some shelves for the tractor barn on the bottom floor, but I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the shop I couldn’t afford when I actually did this kind of thing for money. I was never very good at fine woodworking because I was too busy slamming houses together during the Alaska building boom. But I always wanted to do fine woodwork and now I do – right here. On that bench over there is a half-completed cherry stool sitting on top of the parts for two matching bench seats. I started this project under the Bush administration, but was distracted by a kitchen addition that included the dovetail drawers stacked on that other bench. I almost had that one done when we renovated the boys’ rooms and by the time that was finished, well, I had to clear out the trees and brush along the stone walls. But once again, I’m getting ahead of myself.
When the fun goes out of things upstairs in the studio – and it always does – I come here to relax. All my coolest friends are here: table saw, band saw, jointer, drill press, drum sander, mortising machine, planer, shaper, cut-off saw, overpriced hand tools strung down the wall like little soldiers at attention. I bear various scars and neuropathies and have paid my pound of flesh to these entertaining companions. But in the end I’ve come to accept that they do not care whether I live or die or keep all of my original digits. Or, for that matter, if the piece of wood I’ve been shaping and fitting for two days explodes into two perfectly useless chunks of hardwood. Curly maple, by the way, does not even make good kindling. When things like that happen it all starts to feel like work around here and I descend another level into the beast.
Following the stairs to the daylighted basement tractor shed has an immediately calming effect. Going down these steps one day with my six-year-old son, as we became engulfed in that sweet and tangy scent of grease, motor oil, chainsaw gas, diesel and bug dope, he said, “Smells good down here.” Even kids get it.
Working on and with loud, dangerous machinery is the lowest and purest form of recreation. Put a man in a good pair of boots and a hard hat and hand him a chainsaw and he’ll feel like he can storm the beaches at Normandy. Today, I mean, not June 1944. That wouldn’t work at all. Nonetheless, it makes you feel pretty good.
I made a holster of sorts on the side of my tractor to hold a chainsaw. I like to put the bush hog – a heavy duty mower that can turn small trees, brush, chipmunks and grass into dust – on the back and head down to the woods to clear my head and clear some field. I have twenty-five acres of hayfield and twenty-five acres of woods. The hayfield is passive. The woods are not. Always seeking to conquer more territory, it sends suicide blowdown trees out into the field to spawn all manner of brush and bramble. If you turn your back for one minute a black locust will send out a tendril into your field that if left unattended will have to be mowed around before the end of Obama’s second term. The homeland must be protected. With bush hog and chainsaw you attack – bucking, and limbing, obliterating and shoving it all into a big burn pile with a glee that can only be described as, um, glee. And then something breaks.
Dribbling hydraulic fluid through the hay I head back to the barn. It now smells like hot radiator and singed sapling. There is something jagged and heavy hanging under the mower. I’ve seen this part before and my knuckles ache at the memory. It will require a wrench the size of a hockey stick with a cheater pipe and the skin off the backs of four fingers to remove and replace. It will involve a trip to New Hampshire where, for some reason, they sell all the tractor parts. It will be a lot of work.
I need a break. Maybe I’ll head upstairs to the studio and noodle on a guitar for awhile. Or I could sit down and write something funny about all this. That’s what I’ll do. I never seem to find the time to play anymore.