Thursday, November 26, 2009

"A Man's Work"

Yesterday was a banner day for finishing crucial jobs around the house. I saved the biggest job — the seasonal tire swap — for the last, not realizing just how big a job this was going to be. I'm not a gear-head; I don't have much by way of tools, and what I do have is a cheap hodge-podge scattered around the house. But so long as the tires are mounted on rims, the business of swapping and/or rotating them isn't complicated. A fitting job for a man of my abilities.

I retrieved the car jack and the lug-wrench from the trunk (the spare tire kit is one item that remains exactly where it's supposed to be), and started at the front-right side of the car. I'd chalked the tires in spring, when I'd last swapped them, so once I removed the summer tire I mounted the rear-left winter tire in its place. I was surprised by just how low the pressure in the winter tires had become over the last eight months, but no problem: I figured my trusty bicycle pump would work just as well on a car tire.

It works, alright. But it takes much, much longer to fill a car tire to 35 PSI than it takes to fill a bicycle tire to 75 PSI. After the first tire I was huffing and puffing so hard I wondered if I couldn't inflate it faster with my lungs. Remembering my grandfathers' stories of WWII deprivation and improvisation, I figured the least I could do was finish the job, so after a short rest I soldiered on.

I've pulled this mule-headed sort of stunt before. Some years ago when our largest maple split, I asked the tree removal guys to leave the wood behind for our wood-stove. They shrugged and obliged, and I had a heap of wood spread over our front yard. I moved most of the smaller stuff to the back, but left the enormous pieces where they were. It cured through the winter, then when the snow melted I considered the job ahead and took stock of my options. I figured I could rent a chainsaw and a wood-splitter for a weekend of very hard work. Or I could buy a bow saw, a sledge-hammer and a maul, and finish the job at my own rate. One quick purchase at the local hardware store, and I was ready to go.

It took me the better part of four months to get the wood cut, split and stacked. And although this tree seemed to have been designed for my personal frustration (no neat rings inside this maple: it had twisted so much over the years that splitting the wood was a fibrous struggle, with no end of “hinges”) my biggest motivation-killer was stage-fright. I was a local spectacle, apparently. Cars would slow so their occupants could watch; pedestrians stopped and asked why I didn't just get me a chainsaw.

The modern agrarian mindset is “Get 'er done”: use the most work-efficient means to finish a given job so you can move to the next task at hand. Since this approach almost always requires an internal combustion engine, my sawing and hammering didn't just look quaint or eccentric: it smelled a bit of self-indulgence. Ah, but when has anything I've done ever been free of that particular taint?

With the thought of my male forebears in mind, I picked up my tools and went to work. And I have to admit, where self-indulgence is concerned, this particular expression of it worked out quite well. We had nearly two winters' worth of fuel for our stove. And after wasting my youth in the pursuit of a muscular physique, I discovered that nothing packs it on like swinging an eight-pound sledge for 20-to-40 minutes at a time, four days a week.

So too with my ridiculous tire pump. Four tires later, my arms and chest and shoulders were similarly inflated. As for the rest of my bod, my back had developed an unfortunate spasm — or “crick” as my grandfathers would say. If there's anything sexy about the spectacle of a wheezing 45-year-old man stooped-over and limping back to his kitchen, I'm ready to hear it.

He spent the afternoon in an old pair of army pants and a torn shirt, working on his stone path. The idea was to lay a long curving walk from the front door to the road, to divert visitors from coming in through the kitchen. It had seemed simple enough last weekend, when he'd started it, but now as the ground sloped off more sharply he found that flat stones wouldn't work. He had to make steps, of stones nearly as thick as they were wide, stones that had to be dislodged from the steep woods behind the house and carried on tottering legs around to the front lawn. And he had to dig a pit for each step, in ground so rocky that it took ten minutes to get a foot below the surface. It was turning into mindless, unrewarding work, the kind of work that makes you clumsy with fatigue and petulant with lack of progress, and it looked as if it would take all summer.

Even so, once the first puffing and dizziness was over, he began to like the muscular pull and the sweat of it, and the smell of the earth. At least it was a man's work.

That's from Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, and it came quite naturally to my mind. It's one of so many passages that gets me chortling. Frank Wheeler is such a tool. He's constantly fussing over his masculinity: his stated goal is to “divert visitors from coming in through the kitchen” — the woman's place in the house. To achieve this he literally needs “stones” — a metaphor which Yates, as a former army man, is at the very least unconsciously using for its value as a pun. Stones are Frank's burden and his greatest obstacle to overcome, but in the short term he is pleased to be doing “a man's work” for a change. As this passages emphasizes, the guy has stones everywhere but where it counts.

Like I say: funny. Right?

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