Into the trees

Like being a squirrel. That was Jose’s response when I asked him what it was like climbing into the trees, one after another, in order to cut away branches from power lines. Such simple poetry: like a squirrel. Forget the power saws, heavy rope, and protective gear, the live wires and cranky homeowners. When you write about work & workers, there’s no better gift than a gang of utility workers showing up in your backyard willing to talk about the joy of climbing up into the trees.

So, before I forget: props to the guys on Duke energy truck #9M329 — Robbie, Jose, Gene, Louis, and Kelly (who between them have a total of 71 years on the job) for taking the the time to answer my questions and let me snap away on the camera.

Back to the work. This is no let’s-build-a-treehouse-and-have-a-tea-party kind of tree interaction. It involves schlepping around outdoors all day, walking the path of power lines that run between yards, and cutting away brush & branches that make it less likely that our televisions and computers and miscellaneous electrically-dependent toys will be deprived of the uninterrupted juice they need to keep us happy. And it involves roaming around behind the scenes, carrying heavy rope and winches, climbing harness and chain saw, pruning poles and little white flags to mark the safety perimeter (or were they yellow?). Doing this job means climbing over unruly compost heaps (like ours) and avoiding hidden dog shit traps, as well as dealing with homeowners so freaked out about their property that sometimes a sheriff is needed to keep a maintenance crew safe. Unbelievably, people will curse at you for touching their trees or threaten you with actual weapons. And you gotta be polite, even though (or maybe because) you’re the one carrying the chain saw.

This is dangerous work. First of all, you’re climbing trees in spiked shoes. Second, the very reason you’re climbing those trees is to get close enough to power lines to make sure the branches aren’t. Do a Google search on “tree trimming” and “power line accidents” and you come up with 232,000+ hits. Many of these are homeowners, but nowhere near all. In April, OSHA was called in to investigate the death of a 21-year-old gardener electrocuted while cutting down a tree. A piece of the tree fell on a live wire and then brushed up against him, frying him. Those are the words of his co-workers. They saw their friend and could do nothing to help him: touch his burning skin and you’ll likely be electrocuted as well. Some of the guys on truck #9M329 knew a co-worker who died in similar circumstances, burned from the inside out.

Our bodies are exceptional machines. They can conduct voltage like a live wire and just as easily go soaring into the green & lush. There is delight to be had in feeling like a squirrel and sadness over what feeling sometimes extracts from us.  Keep that in mind someone knocks on your front door – or goes round back – just doing their job.

CARPENTER (AND OTHER) LOVE, PART 2

I dwell in possibility–

A fairer house than prose–

Emily Dickinson read by Bill Murray. Audience: Manhattan construction workers, all men, the crew building Poet’s House in 2009.

At first, there is joking: after all, everyone knows that these guys can’t read, let alone relate to poetry. Then some close-ups. A guy nodding his head, then another; confusion here and there, also comprehension. Perhaps love of the words. Perhaps embarrassment over that love. Perhaps boredom or only an interest in taking a picture of the famous man in their midst. Impossible to know, possible to imagine. Moving, nonetheless — but then, I’ve got a thing for this sort of thing.

Thanks to my friend Shana for sending along the video. It’s worth the 6 minutes and some odd seconds of viewing — for the poetry and for the shots of a building going up. Construction & poetry in one fell swoop? Life doesn’t get much better than this (except, perhaps, if you add dark chocolate). Pass it on.

And if you want more on my carpentry-love, see my previous post. Kiss a carpenter today.

IN LOVE WITH CARPENTERS

I’ve spent a bunch of time with carpenters this week and I’m like a schoolgirl in love. The wood, the hammers, the ex nihilo building up: really, I’ve got a thing.

First I spent time talking with Eric Petry, one of the kitchen conspirators, whose page can be found here. He’s got a total of 5 small silver hoop earrings, listens to NPR and Democracy Now! and waxes eloquent about the science of carpentry. Then there was hour after hour hanging around as Dick Baldwin rebuilt the front porch on our small rental property (ah, the life of a writer!). There was wood laid out on the sidewalk, fabulous power tools & small pails of whatnots & tubes of construction glue & the all-important levels & pencil passed back and forth between Dick and Chuck (a.k.a. “The Critter Gitter“), the guy assisting him.

Lessons learned this week about carpentry and life in general (don’t mind me if I’m gushing):

1. Everybody’s got a story. Eric came to wood via a music major in college and management of a 350-seat restaurant. Dick played professional baseball for a spell and was an ironworker, often on hazardous terrain, before carpentry called. He’s built stuff on an island off Georgia(?) as well as in the Caribbean. Within 10 minutes of meeting me, and despite the fact that he calls himself a hillbilly, Dick had some not-so-kind words for our ex-President. Folks, you just never know who you’re dealing with.

2. Carpentry is full-body work: it takes physical strength and stamina. Watching Dick Baldwin was like watching an entire hive of worker bees (on caffeine) at once.  Three months ago, he had hernia surgery and 2 days ago he was hauling lumber around. Carpentry is full-mind work: it takes critical thinking and tenacity of spirit. The hand must move in concert with logic.

3. Sawdust smells really good. It is the smell of purpose and creation.

4. Level, plumb, and square — so much of carpentry is about making things come together right: straight, sturdy, accurate. Dick didn’t go more than 10 minutes without picking up a level in order to track where each piece of wood was going in relation to the last piece.

5. As in mathematics, the carpenter is going for elegant: a minimum of tricks or unnecessary complexity. And like mathematics, this is problem solving at a high level. It just can’t look that way and therein lies its beauty.

6. Also as in mathematics, a pencil comes in very handy.

7. Carpenters are people people. They might spend most of their day working with inanimate wood & all the accoutrements, but holy mackerel! They gotta deal with customers who may or may not know what they want. They have to explain what they’re doing to folks who may not know a thing about level, plumb, square. (For the record, Eric is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met & Dick is one of the most entertaining.)

8.  Wood doesn’t lie. A lousy job will rat you out every time. So will a good one.

What a fabulous week this has been! All that sweet-smelling wood and fabulous conversation. It doesn’t get much better than that.

And p.s. — Eric works for Golden Hands Construction, but Dick is a free agent and available. I’m happy to make a match if you’re looking for a carpenter.

NEEDLES

Could you stick a needle into someone, then another and another and another? I’m pretty sure that I couldn’t. I might hurt someone. I might miss – or more likely, chicken out at the last minute. How do you commit to stabbing someone, even kindly, and follow through until that sucker is where it’s supposed to be?

You practice. You put thin needles into an orange. Next, you take turns with a fellow student, someone likely to be as inexperienced as you. Then perhaps you try your skill on oranges floating in water. That’s how my friend and acupuncturist Jennifer Stone learned how to do the “sticking” part of her job, the part where she confidently inserts the tip of a 3″ stainless steel point into the small of someone’s back or into one temple and then the other or in that curvy space between the first and second fingers — all in the service of moving the body’s energy where it needs to be.

What I like best is that Jennifer doesn’t hesitate. She runs her hand confidently over the place a needle will go, balances it between her fingers, and zing! In the point goes. She tests the needle’s position for a moment, making sure that there is proper “resistance,” then goes on to the next one. Occasionally, a needle stings or hits a nerve (and feels more like a small jolt of lightning than a sting). Jennifer doesn’t apologize for the body’s natural reaction; she simply removes the offending needle, wipes down the skin with alcohol, and continues. I respect this commitment and non-apology 100%, even as I wish nothing ever hurt.

Every time a needle goes in, I think: this is the way someone wins at darts or takes the other guy down for the count: commitment and follow-through. You imagine the needle is finding its way beneath the skin, not just up to its surface, imagine the precise number of millimeters that will do the job and go right there over and over. Even if it makes you unpopular in the short run, even if you occasionally hit a tender spot. Here’s what I learn every time I have an appointment at East West Acupuncture: I make a far better patient than I ever would a practitioner of needles.

DEMOLITION

In my humble, there are only 2 parts of Extreme Makeover Home Edition worth watching: somewhere around minute 15 when they tear down the old house, and then again in the last 12 or so minutes when the family gets to walk through – and be amazed by – their new home. The latter is emotionally resonant (though I always worry that they won’t be able to pay their significantly increased utility bills or taxes), but the former is viscerally thrilling. Tear that baby up! Scream and yell and swing that hammer! Let’s get the wrecking ball front and center for the money shot! So satisfying. So satisfying.

It’s the part of the remodeling of our kitchen that I’m sorry to have missed – but only in theory. In practice, it was a godawful mess: coal dust, wasp’s nest, splinters, blown-in insulation. A week’s worth of highly unpleasant work. Here’s my take on the process of tearing apart. The italics are direct quotes from Doc, a carpenter and one of the Kitchen Conspirators. Enjoy.

DEMOLITION

1.

A certain beauty, a charm, in destruction—

This is the day the kitchen becomes ours. As we back out of the driveway, the work crew arrives to begin the transformation from kitchen we tolerate to kitchen we imagine. Something is about to become new in the world. I know I will look back on this moment as bittersweet, but right now… now I am taken with the beauty of sledgehammer and pry-bar, how muscle acts in the world and how easily we dismantle what was once at the center.

2.

Incredibly messy, incredibly dirty and you’re wearing a respirator and it’s a terrible mess and it’s nasty and gross–

Dust is everywhere. Black coal ash pours out when the ceiling is cracked open. Wood and linoleum splinters underfoot. The coal chute is long since closed up, the forest from which the pines plank subflooring was harvested now a subdivision. The crew is covered with grime and secrets held tight for decades, the past showering them.

(Cast iron pans, pork loins, roasted corn, new shoes, cotton dresses.)

(First and second wars, rainy day pennies, happy children.)

(Suffrage, influenza, recession, thrown plates, tornado.)

(Buttered beets. Skim milk. Pineapple pudding.)

(Saturday night parties. Prohibition. War & war & war.)

(Fluffy omelet, hominy with shredded dates. Ration coupons. First car.)

3.

We took your kitchen completely down to the bare studs—

What is left is nothing more than a naked box. Gone: white Formica countertop. Gone: cabinets and backsplash and archway; dusty ceiling fan and greasy vent; drywall and pocked-marked paneling and cellulose. The dumpster parked in the backyard is chock full with former usefulness.

I neglected to say a proper goodbye – but then, the kitchen was never really mine. Someone else dreamt and designed it, built it layer upon layer (Oatmeal bread. Rain on the roof. Telephones, tangerines, unpaid taxes.) I always felt like a renter here, even as I bent over the sink with soapy hands or chopped onions; through homework and argument and failed recipe, it was never quite mine.

4.

They’ll get in your insulation—

Wasps. One of the guys disturbed their nest. One minute, they were secure… the next, angry and stinging. You never know what you’re going to find once you start tearing things apart.

5.

Then you start…

Then the building up starts.

ANOTHER PROVERB FOR THE CANON

Here tis: Thank goodness there are people who like feet.

Thank you to Jessica, dental hygienist at the office of Drs. Hrisomalos & Coghlan. Thank you for not tilting my chair back all the way & clogging my sinuses, and thank you for being thrilled at the state of my gums, and for my orange toothbrush & package of dental floss, for noticing when I needed a rinse-break, and most of all for this fabulous new insight:

Thank goodness there are people who like feet (because otherwise there wouldn’t be podiatrists).

Really, doesn’t that just about sum it all up? There are people who like making our mouths nice & clean and others who wouldn’t be caught dead doing it; people who can spend all day gazing at other people’s feet — and folks who absolutely, positively cannot. This is beyond it takes all kinds, a true appreciation for the multiplicity of kinds we depend on each and every day to get all the work done that needs to get done.

Anyway, here’s some other stuff I learned today while sitting in the chair, getting my pearly off-whites taken care of:

Does it take a special personality to be a dental hygienist? Most of us are a little OCD (translation: obsessive-compulsive). It’s really satisfying to get all the plaque off a tooth.

What’s the longest time you’ve spent cleaning one person’s teeth? Once, in school, a patient required 8 visits to complete his cleaning. The longest we’ll go in one sitting is 2 hours – beyond that is not good for us and not good for the patient.

If gums are really gingiva, what do dental professionals call teeth? Teeth.

Advice if you’re thinking about the profession: If you can’t deal with gross, you’re not going to make it. Sometimes it gets gross.

So, dear readers, the next time you shake your head in amazement at the trash collector or middle school teacher or dental hygienist, just remember to be thankful that someone out there loves feet, even if you don’t.

KITCHEN CONSPIRATOR: BEAUTIFUL VISIONS

I love catalogues. Clothing. Home décor. Science gadgets for the entire family. Doesn’t matter. All those shiny pages filled with stuff… yum! I leaf through them hungrily, imagine my ownership of this and that – and 99.5% of the time, toss them in the recycling with nary a purchase. Call it a harmless consumerist fetish. (I would also, by the way, spend way too much time watching the Home & Garden station if we had cable.)

Imagine my envy, then, sitting in an office surrounded by dozens of shiny catalogues for bathroom and kitchen fixtures. A person could drown in the possibilities! But Tasha Stafford – a showroom consultant at Lee’s Supply – considers the catalogs an afterthought. Her priority? To make people’s dreams come true. It sounds corny, but translates like this:  she helps each customer navigate the often overwhelming task of choosing all those bits & pieces of modern engineering concerned with water – shower stall, kitchen faucet, comfy toilet, sink.

Near as I can tell, she’s a plumber, therapist, and psychic all rolled into one. She has to interpret body language, discern lifestyle, hone in on price affordability and design parameters. She has to do what so many of the people who worked on our kitchen had to do over and over – to completely invest in the decision-making process and detach from the choices clients ultimately make. As a lifelong busy-body, I find that remarkable.

Seems to me that what Tasha does – where you have to deal with the whims & confusion of people about to invest their hard-earned dollars – requires the patience of Job. People have notoriously bad taste. High expectations. Minimal tolerance for delays or a change in plans. They’re cranky when they don’t get their way.

But, as a self-described “people-person” Tasha likes what she does, really digs figuring out what’s in people’s hearts. Here I was focusing on all the shiny toys while she’s deciphering my opaque desires. “Everybody has to have plumbing, but it’s just a thing,” she says, Buddha-like, at the end of our formal interview. True, but what a thing! A sink big enough to give my grandsons the excuse to wash dishes and “accidentally” spray the countertops. A faucet that helps me feel connected to what the kitchen might have looked like 100 years ago. Filtered water.

Way back when, before a nail had been pounded or a wire connected, we had a vision of what our new kitchen might look like, all the different parts coming together to form a picturesque whole.  But, in truth, more important than the look was the feel of the space, the smell of cooking, the joy when people would gather around our table. This personal vision, this hard-to-articulate beauty is what designers try to capture and make real. I’m really glad someone is paying attention to what matters while I’m still stuck on the silver spray nozzle on page 47, the shiniest thing I’ve ever seen.

IN MEMORIAM

Where it’s dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew
Where the dangers are double and the pleasures are few
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines
It’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mines

As I write this, 25 miners are dead (murdered?) in the most devastating U.S. mining accident in a quarter century and 4 are still missing. As I write, rescue crews drill through a thousand feet of rock and earth to try and vent out methane gas and get to the “safe rooms” where survivors might be huddled. Families mourn: wives and girlfriends, children and friends. Government officials try to figure out what to do next, the mine owners stay close to their lawyers & PR people, and heaven receives another 2 dozen souls.

As I write this, I am angry. Heartbroken. Left wondering, yet again, how such a thing can happen. This is America, land of equal opportunity – and yet, the CEO of Massey Energy is walking around fully alive, perhaps with remorse and a heavy conscience while an entire community is devastated. Something went wrong. That’s a quote from the New York Times. Something definitely went wrong when rail lines below ground are turned to pretzels. When a company that racked up over 500 safety violations last year is still allowed to operate  – a company which, by the way, has the honor of having paid out the largest settlement in history for the 2008 deaths of 2 miners suffocated in a fire the very same year it got slapped with $20 million in environmental fines.

(If you want to read a short poem of mine inspired by Massey & its environmental goings-on, click here.)

Not surprisingly, this mine was evacuated 3 times in the past 2 months because of dangerously high methane levels. Duh, something was definitely wrong. Not profits, mind you: as the largest operation in central Appalachia, Massey Energy made over $24 million in profits during the last quarter of 2009. CEO Don Blankenship has called those who criticize his company “communists, atheists, and greeniacs”. He’s a high-end Tea Party sponsor and has overseen earth-killing strip and mountain top removal mining throughout the region.

But I digress. Twenty-five miners are dead. They died supporting their families and doing an honest day’s work: til the stream of (their) blood runs as black as the coal. Let us keep them in our thoughts and prayers.

(This past week also saw the rescue of 100 miners in China. For a running account of mining in South America, Indonesia, the Czech Republic, and everywhere that people go under the earth to harvest this non-renewable and profitable resource, see Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain.)

CELEBRATORY WORK

Nothing like a holiday about slavery & liberation (i.e., Passover) to get me thinking about all the unpaid, often invisible, work that gets done every single day by every one of us because we have to or like to or want to do it: taking care of kids, doing laundry, mowing & raking & weeding, preparing meals, paying bills, walking dogs, unclogging the sink. Not to mention volunteering at the local food pantry or library, counseling a distraught friend or catching a car thief (like our neighbors did a couple nights ago).

Anyway, then a special event or holiday comes along and the list of tasks suddenly gets longer still. We allow ourselves to be enslaved by the ritual, even to enjoy it — but it remains, at the root, hard work. Here’s my list, definitely partial, of everything it takes to usher in the festival of unleavened bread:

1. Clean the house, every square inch. Vacuum, dust, move the furniture to see what’s underneath. Change all linens. Make sure there is no bread or pasta or what-have-you hidden anywhere.

2. Pay particular attention to the kitchen: get rid of all not-allowed-at-Passover items, clean the refrigerator and cabinets where food is stored, wash the floor.

3. Haul out all the Passover dishes, silverware, glassware, pots & pans, cooking utensils, and miscellaneous necessities. Run everything through the dishwasher to wash off a year of storage. Be happy we live in an age of dishwashers. Find the Passover toaster oven.

4. In years past, we’d keep our year-round dishes in the cabinets, but tie them up with ribbon or rubber bands, keeping the Passover stuff on the counters. This year – with our gorgeous new kitchen – I’m aiming for a complete swap: taking out all the 51-weeks-a-year stuff and putting the Passover dishes, silverware, etc., in their place. Lots of lifting and arranging.

5. Scout out new recipes. Make a list and shop for groceries. Coordinate with the guests (we’re going potluck).

6. Cooking: spicy tomato matzah ball soup, charoset, hard-boiled eggs, desserts without flour, fish, eggs, veggies, etc.

7. Set the table for anywhere from 8 to a billion people for the 1st night Seder (this year, we’re up to 17). Get together all the ritual items (salt water, roasted shank bone, wine, matza, parsley, etc.). Make sure that the kids have plenty to entertain them throughout the evening.

8. After the ceremony and the wine and the good company, clean up after 8 to a billion, usually late in the evening.

9. If you’re hosting a 2nd night Seder, do #6, #7 and #8 all over again.

10. At the end of the 8 days (or 7, depending on your tradition), put things back to normal. Store the Passover things for another year. Wash the tablecloths. Go out for pizza.

If you’re interested in a different sort of Passover list, check out my “other” blog, Awkward Offerings.

THE CRITTER GITTER

4:01 p.m. In about 40 minutes, the critter gitter is going to arrive on our doorstep. He’ll check 3 carefully laid traps – wire mesh contraptions with a tempting treat of peanut butter or tuna fish – to see if something has taken the bait. All the while he’ll look out for beady eyes and hope they’re not coming closer at full speed. If he’s lucky, he’ll have a mightily annoyed raccoon or two to drive out to Brown County. If not, then he’ll brush off the dust and dirt and animal hairs from his clothing and go on to plan B or C or D.

We called in Chuck Breedlove when Dawn, the tenant living in our rental property next door, complained of hearing strange noises, usually at night, some above her head and some under the bathtub or in the vents. One night Dawn heard screeching. Another night, the smell of skunk permeated our closed 2nd story windows. This was not a good sign.

Day 1, Chuck sets traps for skunks, specially designed to keep their tails from moving once the door is tripped, in a storage area I didn’t even know existed next to the back door.

Day 2, He collects the still-empty cages: in all likelihood the skunks lost a fight with raccoons and left. He closes off a hole in the storage door with a large piece of limestone and climbs a ladder up to the roof. He’s brought along a friend interested in learning the business.  They peer into a large hole in the attic, spot hair and other signs of recent habitation, leave behind a trap with an open can of tuna fish. Next, they dig a trench under the front porch (see picture below) and Chuck goes head first on his belly into the dirt, shimmying several feet until he can plant a peanut butter coated trap near a hole in the wood foundation. Last, they set a trap in the (spooky) basement, up on a dirt ledge where the crawl space begins.

Day 3, yesterday, Chuck checks the trap on the roof, but it’s been raining and raccoons aren’t likely to go climbing up on the roof in the rain. Empty. There’s nothing under the porch, either. Back we go into the basement. Chuck grabs the empty trap there, hoists himself up on to the crawl space ledge and disappears into the maze of heating ducts, electrical wires, plumbing lines, spider webs, and dirt for a good 5 minutes. He finds more animal hair, and a scattering of small bones. The smell of animal urine is strong. When we go outside, Chuck bangs his hands against his coveralls and clouds of dirt go spiraling into the rain. He’ll be back tomorrow.

4:50 p.m. Success on day 4! One raccoon is trapped under the front porch: a female, now on her way to a new home. We celebrate, though Chuck will be back again. It’s likely that there is another raccoon to be caught. I tell him and Dawn about this blog and that I’m going to write about how much patience it takes to do his job and how downright disgusting it can get. He shows us pictures of 40-pound catfish he’s caught for fun and some prize money. I ask about the worst animal he’s ever dealt with. Turns out it’s a feral cat. Oh yeah, and a copperhead snake. I take a photo of Chuck & the surprisingly calm animal.

The guy’s a pro. If you need help dealing with unwanted critters in a humane way, contact him: indianacatfish (at) gmail.com.