I did odd jobs once upon a time. That’s not exactly true. I worked for a guy who did odd jobs, and I made those jobs way odder than they needed to be by driving in nails at impossible angles and dropping things that shouldn’t be dropped. This was back in Florence, Alabama more than a decade ago. A friend had handyman skills and needed a helper. I had two hands and a lot of time on my hands. Fate seemed to have brought us together. But neither of us knew how exactly unhelpful I would turn out to be.
It’s never too late to reinvent yourself. I have a pioneer’s optimism in that regard. I would have been on a covered wagon heading west with a little gleam of gold in my eye. Back in the real world, I had left journalism behind a few years before and had just gotten my autistic son into kindergarten. The pretty wonderful Bill Redding said, “Why not come work with me? Are you handy?” The order of the two questions might have been better reversed. “Well. I have hands,” I replied. “So, in that sense, yes I am handy.” I have always been an incurable smart ass, but I try to be polite about it and honest at the same time. Bill’s daughter Lilli attended kindergarten with my son. His smart and funny and pretty wonderful wife LuEllen and I would talk from time to time as we helped kindergarteners take reading tests. Their daughter Lilli was Avery’s first and best friend in the world. Lilli had a generous nature, a lot of patience and a big heart, qualities my autistic son Avery desperately needed in a friend.
Bill and I got along famously while working. I just wasn’t any good at the work itself. This hampered our working relationship a bit. If he needed a hammer, I handed him the hammer as well as anyone could have. If we both needed to be hammering, there was a qualitative difference in our job skills. His nails went in straight and true. Solid pieces of work. Mine frequently had to be dug out and driven in again. One day, I got home from work. My wife said, “How did it go?” I nodded. “Great,” I said. “I drove a nail in straight today for the first time.” Robyn blinked. “Haven’t you been working with Bill for two weeks now?” she asked. “Umm hmm,” I replied. And went to another part of the house where something else desperately needed doing right that minute.
We were demolishing one thing and building up something else one day when I suddenly had a burning question. “What kind of bee is that that just stung me?” I asked Bill. “That was a carpenter bee,” he said. “Does that make me a carpenter?” I asked giddily. “No,” he said slowly. “It does not.”
The truth was there was something incredibly spiritual about working with your hands to make something. When it went right, it was a magical accomplishment. My wife bought me a tool belt on Amazon.com because she saw how much fun I was having. I was giddy with excitement to wear it, but I tried to act embarrassed to own it. “Look what my wife bought me,” I told Bill, pointing down at the belt I wore. “Well, that’s helpful,” he said, grinning. “You do know we are painting today and not driving in any nails?” I nodded. “Yes. But I thought I might wear it just to break it in.” His eyebrows lifted slightly. “OK then,” he said, shrugging and painting something.
Once, we were building a shed. Well, technically, Bill was building a shed. I was doing a lot things that were designed to be helpful in the building of a shed but which were actually not that helpful. He was tromping around on the top of the shed. I was holding a beam in place. “Don’t put your head too close to that beam,” he warned. “OK,” I said. My head was too close to the beam in any case when he stepped on one end of the beam and the end of the beam closest to my face popped up suddenly and whacked me in the bottom of my jaw. Something in my mouth didn’t feel right suddenly. Did I just lose part of a tooth? I thought. Bill said, “You OK?” And I said one of the dumber things I have ever said. “Sure. I’m fine.”
About a month later, I had a root canal. It was a painful learning experience. But before that could happen I was gently let go from my small but important job as a carpenter’s assistant.
“Work is slow,” Bill said one day. Between the lines I thought I might have made out: “You work slow.” This was never said out loud. “Times are hard,” he went on. Between the lines I thought I read: “It is hard to find the time to fix the work I pay you to mess up every day.” He continued. “I barely have enough work to keep me busy,” he said. I understood. When you are not very good at something, it is ultimately a relief not to be doing it anymore. I went back to being a full time father of an autistic son, something I was getting better at every day. I made a trail of Hooked on Phonics cards that started in his bedroom and almost wound down the stairs as he got better at reading them. I celebrated small successes wildly. Sometimes I still wore the utility belt around the house because it seemed to add a sense of purpose to my endeavors. But I was smart enough to only do that while my wife was at work.
Time passed and I went on to bigger and better things I was much better at doing. I am whole and happily employed in New York City where people fail bigger and more spectacularly every day at things they thought they could do and found out they could not. Some of them get to do these things for several years before someone else figures out how awful they are at doing their job. This is a city of go big or go home. Trying like mad for something more. Spitting out teeth and grinning and keeping on. Absolute faith is required. I have noticed that talent is optional and often not included.
Donald Trump. Bankrupt in the 1980s. Failure. But he’s bounced back OK. His hair is unflappable.
Wall Street financial firms. Financial failures of epic proportions that nearly wrecked the entire national economy. Billions in taxpayers dollars spent to right the ship. Doing alright today.
Al Capone. Hugely successful in a colorful criminal career. He eventually got caught not filing his income taxes while running a booming bootleg alcohol empire during Prohibition. Served a long stretch in Alcatraz. Chicago man, you say. Not so fast. He was born in Brooklyn. We claim him. Yes, he died of complications from syphilis after a lengthy prison term. Yes, he was so brain damaged from syphilis that near the end of his life his physician and a psychologist judged him to have the mental capacity of a 12-year-old child. But he managed to make Geraldo Rivera (also sadly born in NYC) look like an idiot on national television when he simply took everything out of his vault at some point before dying from syphilis. Success.
Mayor Bloomberg. Tried to get us not to drink over-size sodas. Tried to get us to stop wearing ear plugs as we walk through heavy traffic against the light. Tried to get national gun control laws passed. Failure. Failure. Failure. But he keeps on trying and failing spectacularly. A billionaire failure with nothing to lose.
My point is this. You should not wear a carpenter belt around the house even when you think no one is looking if you are not a carpenter. You look ridiculous. Bee stings are not to be taken likely. Try not putting your hand where bees live. But it is a good thing to try new things and fail at them spectacularly. Fail big. Fail often until success happens in some other endeavor. And always get prompt dental care for any missing teeth.