One of my favorite things about being a carpenter is how much I learn from other guys. Not just about the technical, day-to-day aspects of building, but sometimes major life lessons, as well.
I remember helping my old friend George do some work up in the Palo Alto area about ten years ago. I arrived alone to the job site on a sunny, tree-lined street and surveyed the materials and tools. I was going to be finishing laying a bamboo floor as the job had been started by a previous carpenter. I was making a cursory assessment of the hallway and measuring various areas to see how square the corners were, and how straight the walls were. I was getting excited because I’ve always loved doing floors- there’s something so elemental about them. Then my heart sank briefly, and I called George on the phone.
I said, “I don’t know if there was a miscommunication or what, but there’s no chop saw here.” For those who are unfamiliar, a chop saw is a stationary saw with a small, built-in metal bench to either side of the blade that allows you to cut a variety of widths of boards, depending on the type and model of saw you buy. The tongue-and-groove flooring was only 3 ½” wide and I could certainly have used a hand-held skill saw. However, the chop saw is a much safer easier way to go, especially when there are numerous cuts to make as there were going to be when laying the flooring.
There was a momentary pause on the other end of the line. Then George said, “Wow, that sucks…. Yeah, I see it right here. I guess I’ll have Fausto run it over to you. It’s going to be a little while though, maybe 45 minutes.” He paused again and said, “Everything’s cool, though. It’s all about the recovery. I’ve learned that it’s those first few moments of how I respond to the breakdown that determine everything that follows. Let's brainstorm some things you can do while you wait for the saw.”
I've heard George’s words of "it's all about the recovery" hundreds of times since, and hearing them again yesterday opened a divine doorway. I was building a cabinet for a new set on stage and just when I finished it and married it up next to the other cabinet I’d made, I almost lost my mind. As I stepped away from the project to begin allowing some perspective, my first thoughts were rapid fire and unfriendly; “Fuck! I can’t believe you just did that! Well, you did keep telling yourself you were going to screw something up at some point, didn’t you?” See, the first cabinet I made measured 42” high, or 3’ 6”, the proper height. The second cabinet was 36” high; I’d mixed the 3 and 6 up on that one, and as I walked out of the mill to let my foreman know I’d fucked up, I heard myself saying “It’s all about the recovery. And even more than that, there’s something to discover here- about yourself.”
Because when shit goes ‘wrong’ or according to a different plan than I am prepared for, as it often does in carpentry, and life, in general, those first few moments are the most key. And countless times, George’s wisdom has healed major emotional trauma from earlier experiences in both carpentry and life: times that were full of yelling, swearing, blame, guilt and shame, by others to me and from me to myself. Now, instead of not telling my brother or father I’d fucked something up and being held hostage by the shame, it was easy to tell my foreman and come up with a quick fix. Within an hour, I made a few adjustments, added six inches to the top of the cabinet and all was well.
Now, I run the risk of turning this all into some glib or nauseating cliché, but fuck it. Because two beautiful things occur to me in the moment; one, the cabinet is for a TV show, so there’s a lot of forgiveness right there. I love that forgiveness aspect of the job; because instead of starting all over as I would have had to if the cabinet were for someone’s home, it is getting heavily painted and you’ll never see my ‘mistake’ from your couch. The second thing is gratitude. I am so grateful for the men I work with, who continually remind me that ‘mistakes’ are just opportunities to discover new resiliency and effectiveness, whatever we’re building. It may sound trite, but the prevailing attitude is always ‘forward;’ to keep moving forward as best we can, especially when it feels like we’re going backward.