“Who are you looking for?” I shouted. I didn’t take my eyes off my task, but I could hear Him, feel Him, searching around every nook and cranny of the floor above me. In the skeleton around which a house will soon be constructed into a home, sound travels well. You can talk to someone a floor away like they’re in the next room. I steadied myself with one hand against the wall as I painted the last strokes of duct sealant on the duct. The sealant (or “mastic” as we call it in the trade [can you believe I actually said “in the trade?” Cuz, like, I have a trade now?]) was all caked onto the paint brush. I was terrible at this “painting mastik” thing. Ray says lay it on thick and smooth.
When I get done painting, the duct or panning looks like a very angry 5 year-old didn’t get the Tonka Truck he wanted for Christmas and took it out on the finger-painting canvas. Frankly, I’m pretty terrible at the whole HVAC thing in general. Every time Ray asks me to get him something, there’s about a 1 in 20 chance I actually know what he is talking about. But really it makes sense when you think about it. He can’t really say “I need the piece that kinda looks like a bracket on the end of a strip of tin with a squiggly on it. Can you get that for me please?” Instead, he says get me an S-Clip. I’ve taken to bringing back two or three things to increase the odds that I bring back something he wants. And on an almost daily basis, at least once, Ray will pass by me and, in that not-entirely-Southern-drawl accent unique to south Nebraska, he’ll drop me a “Relax A.J.” And I do.
“Ah shit, you know who I’m looking for,” He said as He walked down the stairs into the basement. I did, but I didn’t let on.
“No, I don’t actually,” I said smugly, a slight grin on my face. It’s the slight grin that has returned to me. I lost it for quite a while. During the 15 months I pushed wheelchairs at the airport, I probably smiled more than the average bear, but the slight grin was almost completely foreign to me. It’s the slight grin Thich Nhat Hahn said we should always try to maintain. Whether we’re meditating, reading, or just walking down the sidewalk, if we just try to maintain a slight grin, we’ll be happier. A wise man once said “I don’t smile all the time because I am happy. I’m happy because I smile all the time.” In terms of the Program, this is called “Fake it ‘til you make it.” In the last year, I’ve trained myself how to find humor in almost any situation. A lot of times, I get some weird looks. In my HVAC class, the people that sit next to me when I’m doing my OSHA (otherwise known as the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration) modules on the computer most likely think I’m slightly bat shit given the way I’m almost constantly giggling. But come on, it’s OSHA for God’s sake. An agency that could otherwise be known as the We Can’t Believe We Actually Have to Instruct People How to Do Some Of This Stuff Otherwise They Will Climb Up Tall Buildings Without A Harness or Drink Grinding Coolant Agency.
But grinning ever so slightly not only makes other people a little happier (because it’s almost impossible to not smile a little if the other person is smiling back at you) but it really does set off a biological change in your mood.
“The retard,” He muttered.
“I’m sorry?” I asked and returned the lid to the can of sealant.
“Come on ya idget,” He said and looked underneath the stairs. “The dunce you have knocking around in your head, the one who settled in for a permanent visit after the brain thing. Where is he?”
“Ah, him. He didn’t come to work today,” I said and stepped down the step ladder to the floor. “Honestly, I don’t know that he ever will.”
“Oh, and why is that?” He said and plopped down on the stairs and patted His cloak down for His flask once, then twice.
“Well, because I don’t think he lives in the part of my head that I’m using on this job,” I said. “I haven’t really ever had to use that part of my brain. It’s pristine and ready to go. I’m no different than any other guy trying something totally new and I’m actually liking it.”
“Bullshit,” He retorted, searching around His feet and glancing under the stairs. “You and I both know you never had any kind of know-how when it comes to tools and how to use them. You sure as shit can’t problem solve and no one wants to spend the time teaching you how to do anything and you can’t –“
I chuckled heartily.
“What is so goddam funny and where the hell is my flask?” He growled.
“It’s just funny to me because you apparently don’t know the meaning of the word “apprentice”,” I said.
“No I don’t and why the hell should I?”
“You should because that’s what we are now. An apprentice is someone who, well, learns how to problem solve and is taught how to do a lot of things by a journeyman,” I said as I climbed down the ladder. “That’s someone who does know that they are doing and is obligated to teach me. That’s why they make the big bucks. And you aren’t going to find a flask anywhere in this house or the tool bag or the drill box or …”
“Oh stop with the dialog and get to the point,” He said, putting His shaking fingers to His temples as though He were nursing a splitting migraine.
“You aren’t going to find one because for the first time since I got sick, I don’t need one,” I said and unbuckled my tool belt and set it over His shoulder. He shrugged it off, then spat on it. “This HVAC thing is tapping into a part of my brain that I didn’t even use before I got sick, so basically I have no frame of reference of how good or bad I should be at this stuff. And as the teacher of the HVAC class said, some people try to learn this stuff 5 times before they “get it.” I started to get it on my third try, so I’m actually about on par with the curve. And when I get done at the end of the shift, I don’t have people getting frustrated with me for not getting it the first two times. And I live to fight another day, rather than drowning my self-pity and feelings of worthlessness in Jagermeister and cheap vodka. Do I want a drink? Some days yes, some days no. Some days it’s hard to think of anything but. But I don’t need a drink today.”
“Okay, fine,” He said, looking me straight in the eyes, one eye brow raised. “And what about writing the book and relearning piano and the other ground-breaking discoveries you’ve decided were what you really need to do.”
“Look, I’m still aware of those things and I’ll do them as time allows. But I need to focus on getting good at this stuff because it’s what I am going to be doing for a third of my day five days a week for the foreseeable future. The Dalai Lama said –“
“Oh Christ, here we go with the freakin’ “quaint words of wisdom Andy learned from his newest Buddhism book-“
“Shut up,” I said and started packing up the last of my tools and materials. “Your job or your career can transform into your vocation. It’s only a matter of how you look at yourself and your work. I’ve thought a lot of what my father said and its utter simplicity when I told him that I felt a sense of inadequacy that I don’t have a wife and children at my age, like there was something inferior about me and what I have accomplished in this life. He said to me “Andy, you just have to figure out what you are gonna to do with the 40 or so years you have left. Don’t worry about the other stuff.’ I may not have the kennel on an acreage I have dreamed of having, just like I may never travel all the places I really want to go. And that’s okay. I may never be a best-selling author and that’s okay. I may never be a concert pianist and that’s okay. I’ll still play piano as time permits, just like I’ll write the blog and the book as time permits. But I think I can be good at this stuff if I give it enough time and energy, so that’s what I’m going to do. Do not try and define yourself by what you perceive as your hobby, your job or what you love. Identity, like all things, is fleeting. I think Thich Nhat Hahn said that. And besides this job will require me becoming adept at working with all these tools and fixing things myself which, in turn, will lead to people coming to me fix things for them. That’s a variation on the theme of being of service to others and having compassion for them. Because we’ve all dealt with a bum lawn mower or a clogged drain. And I’m going to learn how to fix that stuff.
“Well it’s a good thing that at least you’re not planning on making writing your career,” He said as He got up to leave. “Somebody already used the title of this post. So you can kiss originality bye-bye.”
“I’ve liked the title “A New Hope” ever since George Lucas used it for the very first Star Wars and I’m pretty sure he’s got enough jack that he’s not gonna come looking to prosecute me for copyright infringement, so I’m not worried. Where are you going?”
“To find a bottle and wait,” He said over His shoulder as He left the work site. “You’ll see me again, don’t you worry.”
“Lookin’ forward to it,” I replied. With a slight grin.