“Like using bricks to open windows.”
Known for his quotable quotes and colorful aphorisms, my friend Steve Loy delivered this little beauty while surveying the damage.
Let me start from the beginning.
Five holly bushes grew in front of the large, yellow American Four-Square house in which I live. My landlord and friend, Patrick, thought that “Big Bird”—as his wife has dubbed the house—would look better without the misshapened holly bushes crowding the steps up the front and left side porches.
Pretty soon after moving in, Patrick and I were able to yank two of the bushes out of the ground, using my 4Runner and a ski rope borrowed from Patrick’s father-in-law. The rope broke on the third holly bush—dry rot.
Worse things can happen.
Ten months later, the three remaining holly bushes were a constant reproach. Still intact, still ugly, they taunted me ever time I walked up the steps—“We’re still here.”
Big Bird was built in 1899, and 110 years later, he’s a little worse for the wear. He sometimes collects water in his basement, he has cracks in his ceilings, and his porches are—how should I say it?—sagging. Patrick is a pastor, and his pastor’s income stands before these major and minor renovations like David before Goliath. Patrick sometimes feels the burden of responsibility that comes with faithful stewardship of a historic building. He’ll sometimes say things like, “Why did I buy this crappy house?” We laugh as though he doesn’t mean it, but we both know better.
I thought the absence of the three remaining holly bushes might cheer him up. We’re trying to “live in community,” and to me, that sometimes means taking care of an undesirable task for a close friend, especially if he is dreading it. If you’ve ever painted a room, or even an entire house, you know that volunteering to do something for somebody else for free is a lot more enjoyable than doing it for yourself or getting paid.
On a Monday morning, I decided to “eat the frog” and rip up the holly bushes, meaning cross it off my list first thing so that I could focus on other tasks.
Steve loaned me his $300 rope with carabiners, the Arnold Schwarzeneggar of ropes, 5800 pounds of tensile strength! The rope was actually growing chest hair.
Steve offered two words of caution:
1) Use the carabiners attached to the rope, and you won’t have knots to untie.
2) An objects in motion will travel toward its anchor point.
Apparently, he had earned this wisdom the old-fashioned way: time wasted on loosening knots and a huge dent in the tail gate of an otherwise new truck.
Glad to have friends with more life experience than I have, I nodded and did what any full-grown man would do: I ignored his advice.
Neither of these outcomes could possibly happen to me. I was, after all, invincible. I didn’t have my master’s in English for nothing. Too bad about the dent though.
The first and smallest bush came out easily. This boded well.
For the second, I backed the 4Runner into the yard and wound the rope a few times around the trunk of the largest bush then passed it through the carabiner.
Tying the other end to the towing package on my truck, I had too much rope to spare, so I doubled it over and used three cinch knots to make it fast.
Here comes the fun part.
I dropped the truck into low gear and gave it some gas. The engine roared, the tires tore up the grass, the rope creaked, and the bush…
Crappers. I thought I might get lucky, have to dig around the roots first.
When I went back around to the back of the truck, I saw the error of my ways. I should have listened better to Steve: a fist-sized rock of rope had replaced my knot.
My fingers came nowhere close to budging any of the pieces of rope. Who would have thought that the force of a V6 engine and the grip of new Michelin tires could do that?
How was I going to pay for that rope if I had to cut it? A master’s in English doesn’t go as far as you might think. Or as far as I thought, I should say.
Over the next forty-five minutes, I used the following items in an attempt to loosen it: two hammers, a flathead screwdriver, a wood chisel, the arm to a car jack, a pick ax, WD-40, a crow bar, and a spattering of bad language.
Much more was on the line than having to pay for a new rope if I cut off the old one.
Knowing how to use tools is a kind of credibility with men, like winning an arm wrestling contest or charming women. None of these is something you could put on a resume, but “I can crush this can on my forehead” is certainly more impressive than “I can do your accounting” on your average Saturday night.
Though I suppose you can get paid for a operating a backhoe is worth something, the lack marketability of using many tools doesn’t discourage us from placing weight on the ability.
My friend Bear can get just about any machine started. He’ll tinker with it, adjusting the choke and throttle, checking the oil and gas, making sure the sparks plugs and wires are clean and tight, and then he’ll yank a cord or flip a switch and the engine will come to life. I, on the other hand, might need fifteen or twenty minutes. I’ll succeed eventually, but he just has the knack. I respect that.
The bottom line is that men love to exude an aura of competence, confident control, inexhaustible resourcefulness.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not haunted by feelings of inadequacy. The question, “Do I have what it takes?” doesn’t plague me. I know my worth isn’t tied up in changing a flat tire in five minutes or less. However, I’d still rather my hands be skillful allies than a source of embarrassment. I think most men would agree, and I challenge you to find a man who doesn’t care whether or not he can build a good fire. If he really doesn’t care, I guarantee that he owns a pair of high heels.
Remember in cartoons how when one of the characters was facing an ethical dilemma, a six-inch-tall blue angel and a red devil of similar height would materialize on either shoulder and give their arguments for right or wrong. Instead of the angel and devil, my peanut gallery is a group of older men who stand in the corner of my mind and evaluate my performance.
If I excecute well, they say nice things:
“That boy can swing an ax!”
“That man can certainly use a hammer.”
“That guy knows how to back up a trailer.”
If I screw up, they shake their heads and glance knowingly at one another.
None of us can possibly be good at everything, but even though the ability to code a website is much more lucrative these days than building a deck, there’s some mysterious authority in sweat, brawn and deftness with tools. Being called incompetent is close to being called a coward.
A scene from Castaway speaks to the heart of this seeminly innate desire to be capable, physically strong, dextrous. Tom Hanks’ character finally succeeds in building a fire, and then dancing around it, he cries, “Ah, look what I have created!”
I’d like to believe that if the world to revert to the Stone Age, or Bronze Age, or feudal Europe, I wouldn’t end up with my skull staved in and my woman somebody else’s concubine. I’d like to believe I could survive in the wilderness. I’d like to believe I’d survive a war.
Why is “expertise” such an attractive word?
I don’t think I’m alone in this. If you don’t know how to hunt, fish, cook over a fire, land a punch, and romance a beautiful damsel, then what have you got going for you? A high-definition television? Leather upholstery in your luxury sedan? Perhaps these measures of our substance are the residue of gender roles reinforced by centuries of patriarchy.
Women have another type of inheritance altogether. How is a woman made to feel about herself if she can’t have children? Can’t cook? While men are off winning bread with the sweat of their brows, women run the household. One woman receives a compliment on her dress, and she responds by confiding what an incredible deal she found at T.J. Maxx. Of course, she doesn’t want the other woman to go buy the dress, she merely wanted her to know that she knows how to shop, how to stretch the cents. This expertise is a kind of credibility. Women sniff out sales while their men build the Tower of Babel.
“Take one small bite and be as a god? What a ridiculous bargain! I mean, why wouldn’t I taste the forbidden fruit…for free! It would be a sin not to.”
So you see why I had to undo that blasted knot even if it made my fingers bleed. We’re talking about the difference between respect and being denied entrance into the fraternity of men. Getting that rope off my truck was a guarantee that I would never need Viagra.
After much self-deprecatory interior monologue, I finally freed the rope.
I said thank you to Jesus and meant it.
I’m not proud of what happened soon afterwards.
I dug around the roots of the holly bush, reattached the rope, and climbed back into my 4Runner.
I went inside and changed into my Mountain Khaki shorts and tennis shoes. I took off my glasses and put in my contacts. Business time.
Now I was getting a wee bit irritated.
I hacked at the roots of the holly bush as though they were responsible for my broken leg in eighth grade. My broken heart at 16. Not getting into Columbia for grad school. (I didn’t want to pay that much for a writing degree, but it would have been a nice gesture on their part.)
In my truck, I put it in the lowest gear and slammed on the gas.
Tires screeching, back end fishtailing, then…
I put it into park, got out, and walked around to see what had happened.
The rear door was dented in two places: on the right side of the fender and on the left side of the door itself above the license plate, below the window.
I sat down in the middle of the road.
Steve Loy: 2.
Austin Church: 0.
The peanut gallery of tool-proficient men didn’t even shake their heads. They just walked away.
About ten seconds later, Patrick and Jason emerged through the hedge that separates our side yard from the alley.
“What happened?” they asked.
“I’m an idiot,” I said.
“At least you didn’t break the window or one of your tail lights,” Jason said.
Everyone had some commentary to offer.
Caroline observed, “Your morning of manly endeavor didn’t go so well,” to which I replied, “When does manly endeavor ever go well? This is how wars get started.”
Our neighbor, Ty, told Caroline later in the day, “That man just needs to get laid.”
Maybe so. I don’t really know much about that sort of thing. I never got the sex talk.
Rather than rip out the final bush, I took my new ax and hacked it up. Don’t ask me why I didn’t do that to the other two and save the body damage to my truck, not to mention two hours of my time. You may as well ask why people are violent.
Before you get depressed, I want to reassure you that this story does have some redemption in it.
When I backed into an old red Pontiac Grand Am in the Walgreen’s parking lot, my fender was already dented, so you couldn’t even see the new damage. Great.