Fixing things

I’m not very good at fixing things.

This inability has brought me to tears on more than one occasion. Nothing is more frustrating than reading “THREE EASY STEPS!” on the package of your new Venetian blinds and then failing to  progress beyond step one. To my credit, installing blinds actually takes about eight steps that have been condensed into three for the purpose of making it sound easier than it is, with several pertinent details omitted (like what to do when the plaster chips away and the blinds fall down).

But mostly, I just don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

My father was the fix-it man around my house when I was a kid. An engineer by training, he had a knack for taking 2x4s and assembling them into highly useful objects. He built the deck, the staircase railing, the wheelchair ramp, my brother’s bed and a bookshelf. He even built a boardwalk out back so that we could walk down to the creek — not to mention that he dug out the creek to create a fork that formed a mini island to which he built a bridge. And, of course, none of his work looked homemade. Like everything else my father endeavored (or so it seemed to my young mind), his woodworking was graced with both perfectionism and professionalism.

He inherited his handiness from his father, who made, among many other things, a copper pot rack and several stained-glass lampshades. But unlike my father, I never really had the chance to learn many DIY skills from my dad. By the time he passed away, he had taught me the basics: how to sand wood, how to hammer a nail and how to know when to use a Phillip’s head or a flathead screwdriver. But you can’t very well teach a nine-year-old everything she will need to know when she becomes a homeowner later in life. At that age, I was far more interested in making mud pies out of the sawdust that spewed from his table saw than I was in learning how to hang Venetian blinds or patch holes in lathe and plaster.

So now I’m learning all of these things without his help. Tears and profanities are often involved, but I’m slowly making progress. The lessons I’ve learned to date:

  • Silicone dries faster than you might think. Do not wait until you’ve applied it to the entire wall of bath tiles before you smooth it out.
  • Many products you might buy for your house contain instructions and hardware for mounting onto drywall. If your walls are made of lathe and plaster, you may need additional hardware and you definitely will need a drill. Drywall anchors don’t exactly push their way through wood.
  • A clogged garbage disposal does not require the help of a plumber. All you need is a really big Allen wrench. Insert it into the hole on the underside of the disposal and turn. (There — I saved you $75.)
  • On a similar note, if your dishwasher starts to back up, you also probably do not need the help of a plumber. Instead, use a fitting to secure the drainage tube to the top of the underside of your counter top. (Another $75 —  plus another $200 if you first make the mistake of a calling a bad plumber who punches a bunch of holes in your walls and yet doesn’t fix the problem.)
  • It’s probably best to hang your blinds from the window frame rather than the lathe and plaster. They’re just too damn heavy.
  • Read all supplied instructions before beginning your project. (By the way, this also applies to recipes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself halfway through making dinner only to read, “Place bowl in the refrigerator for 24 hours.” FML.)
  • When in doubt, call a handy friend.

Next lesson on the docket:

  • Patching: AKA repairing the damage you’ve caused to your walls thanks to your failure to hang blinds.

Handwriting

I noticed today that a coworker of mine has really excellent all-caps handwriting.

That made me think of my father, who must’ve taken a drafting class at some point in his life. He always wrote in all caps, using only the most pristine and perfectly-angled letters. Maybe he was an architect in a previous life.

Last summer, my mother gave me all of her old spice jars, many of which still have labels that were handwritten, in all caps, by my father. He was very meticulous about spice labeling:

  • CINNAMON (GROUND)
  • CINNAMON STICKS
  • CINNAMON SUGAR
  • PEPPERCORNS (SZECHUAN)
  • PEPPERCORNS (GREEN)
  • PEPPERCORNS (BLACK)
  • NUTMEG (WHOLE)
  • NUTMEG (GROUND)
  • CUMIN (GROUND)
  • CUMIN SEED

Etc. He built a special rack to create a double-decker spice drawer for easy access to spices underneath, and as you can see from the small sample above, there were a lot of spices underneath (probably about 50 or 60 jars in all). Our kitchen was practically a warehouse for the British East India Company.

Those spice labels are some of the few remaining examples of his handwriting (and also of his detail-driven organizational skills — which I did not manage to inherit, unfortunately). I already have my own spice rack, so think I’m going to use the jars to save seeds for next year’s garden. I’m sure my father would approve of that — I’ll just need to make sure I store them in an appropriately organized way.

That is all. It just seemed like a good afternoon for a memory.

Tonight

I ask myself every year what difference this day makes. It is essentially the same as any other: I work, I eat food, I laugh, I sleep. I did the same thing yesterday, and I will do it again tomorrow. Am I supposed to feel sadder on this day than any other? Because the Earth is in the same spot it was in 16 years ago?

I took a walk tonight to return an overdue DVD rental. It’s about three and a half blocks to the movie store, a walk that normally takes just a few minutes, but a minor ankle injury from this weekend’s frisbee tournament has left me limping. For the first time since Chelsea was alive, I walked slowly down the street.

The difference between a brisk walk and a hobbling amble is in the details. It was cold out there tonight, that much was obvious. The sky was clear; the yellow leaves lining the sidewalk were crisp underfoot. Glowing paper bags lined neighbors’ porches; uncarved pumpkins guarded doorways. The yellow glow from the streetlights meekly shone down on the few pedestrians bothering to fight the chill in the air, their faces barely visible under the shadows of the street trees.

You think more when you walk slowly. I thought about tonight and its connection to the night my father died. I recalled all of the images that come with that memory: the grinning jack-o-lanterns, the slimy pumpkin seeds, the soggy newspaper, the toy motorcycle I was riding when the Hospice nurse called my mother upstairs, his lifeless hand as I reached out to touch it one last time, the slumped body bag, the vomit I left in the toilet, the crowd of strangers, and my aunt and uncle emerging from that cold night, not unlike this one, to comfort us.

And I realized that there is no difference between this night and that one, just like there is really no difference between any night and this one—except on this one I force myself to think about those stomach-turning events that happened tonight, that night, all those years ago, and it does make me sadder than usual.

You can’t always be perfect at everything

Note: I actually wrote a different post than this, but I will probably post it tomorrow instead. Because today is October 30, 2006, which means that my father died exactly fifteen years ago. So, I interrupt our regularly scheduled programming to post this story, which I originally wrote for submission to a website that publishes personal essays. It didn’t get accepted, probably for its fatal flaw of being a bit over-dramatic, but, hey, you can’t always be perfect at everything.

October is a strange month for me. It’s the month my father passed away, 15 years ago. And every year, when the leaves begin to turn and the Halloween decorations emerge, I remember.

I was nine years old and was carving a pumpkin when it happened. My brother and I were up to our elbows in pumpkin pulp; seeds were splattered across the newspapers lining the floor. Things hadn’t been going so well that fall for us, we knew that much, but we had no idea what was about to come.

It took me a while to catch on. I suppose it should have sent up a little red flag in my head when Daddy began to spend a lot of time at home with us during the hot days of July and August, but since I was on summer vacation, naturally I assumed that he was, too. Never mind that, normally, if he wasn’t slaving away at the magazine he was busying himself in his workshop, teaching my brother and I how to properly sand wood while he worked on whatever project he was in the midst of completing. Instead, that summer, the three of us spent most days on the couch watching Matlock reruns.

But then school started up and he didn’t go back to work. And, now, instead of watching Matlock, he seemed to just lie there with the TV on, staring quietly off into the distance but not actually looking at the television. Finally, when the hospital bed arrived and my mother started sleeping in the living room, she clued us in.

“Your father has cancer,” she said.

I looked over at my brother, who was just as boisterous and giddy as he was before this conversation began, and I could tell that the words hadn’t meant a thing to him. He was too young to know their power. But I wasn’t, and I ran to the bathroom and threw up.

Then I started crying and my brother followed suit. “Is he going to die?” I asked, and my mother said she didn’t know yet.

She did, though. In fact, she had known about his illness for about six months, and it wasn’t until it they knew it was terminal that they decided to tell us.

A week or so later, my mother turned 43 years old. My father was completely bedridden by then, but never to be outdone on her birthday he’d managed to order her a beautiful piece of jewelry via catalog. This became a source of laughter and joking in the apartment for the next week or so, because even on his deathbed Daddy had his priorities straight.

He had become too weak to shave, but he wasn’t about to put up with stubble. My mother, whose shaving experience was limited to legs and armpits, had difficulty doing it for him and after too many nicks Daddy finally fired her and asked his childhood friend Damian to do it for him. Damian was much more adept at the art of facial hair removal, we found out, because when we was done my father looked in the handheld mirror and whispered, “I’ll give it a five and a half.”

So October wasn’t all bad. My father’s humor hung with him until the end, and even though the house was quiet and unfamiliar, there was hope to speak of.

I had just begun the fourth grade, which meant that I had also started learning how to play the trumpet. If you’ve ever heard a child learning to play a very loud brass instrument, you will know the pain my sick father felt as I eked out a high C—or some variant thereof—while waiting for the school bus to arrive one morning.

“Laura.”

It was very faint and I didn’t hear it over the sound of my elephant trunk of an instrument.

My mother stopped me. “Laura, I think your father is calling you. Go up there and see what he wants.”

I had been avoiding his room ever since I found out about the illness, and even with all the jokes and high spirits, I was terrified. Cautiously, I tiptoed up the stairs and into his room. His face was pale and his hair, which only a few months ago still clung to its natural dark brown hue, had faded well beyond the salt-and-pepper stage into old-man gray. He gestured me over to his bed.

“Laura.” He looked at me, and for the first time in a few weeks, I looked into his eyes. They were sparkling, and I could tell he was happy, if slightly annoyed by my very loud, very early musical endeavors.

“You know, you can’t always be perfect at everything all of the time.”

I didn’t understand it at the time, of course, but that was his sense of humor speaking.

And then it was time for Halloween. My brother and I picked out our pumpkins—his was small and stout, mine tall and stately—and etched our jack-o-lantern patterns on their soon-to-be faces. Our costumes were all set and our minds were focused on the gobs of candy that would soon be ours.

We laid newspaper on the kitchen floor and removed the pumpkin tops. We dug out the insides, and our babysitter transformed the slimy seeds into salty morsels. My mother had just gotten home from work and was settling into dinner as my brother and I prodded our giant orange vegetables with sharp knives.

And then:

“Elaine.”

The Hospice nurse called my mother into the bedroom. Even then, even in the middle of pumpkin carving, my brother and I knew there was something wrong with the nurse’s tone. My mother went upstairs and shut the bedroom door.

Ten minutes later, October would never be the same again.

Nostrils are not overrated

2 am. Still sick. About an hour ago, accidentally deleted part of the story I’m working on for the newspaper. Irrecoverable mistake. Must keep plugging away. Sleep is far away. Have been in same chair since 8 o’clock in what has become yesterday’s morning. Right nostril functioning currently to the point of actually absorbing and registering smells. Left nostril still useless.

If you listen carefully, you might be able to hear me blowing my nose. My father used to joke about that. The summer before he died, I remember, my family went on vacation to Block Island. The only way to get to this island is to take a ferry, and when the ferry arrives it makes that incredibly loud, all-encompassing MOOOOORRRRRGGGHHHT sound—you know, to alert everyone within a 50-mile radius that the ferry has entered the dock area.

Well, anyway, since it was the middle of summer, naturally I had a really nasty cold which included a nose stuffed beyond recognition. And so I blew and honked and tried every futile attempt in the book to regain air flow to my nasal passages. The best way to blow your nose—my friend’s mother taught me when I was in kindergarten—is to blow long and hard into the tissue. That way, she said, you get more out and you waste less paper.

So I was giving it my best MOOOOORRRRRRGGGHHHT when my father looked out towards the sea and then down at his watch.

“I guess the ferry is running a bit early today,” he said.


EDIT! Chelsea is having an intense running dream at the moment. I don’t understand how she has so much energy in her sleep, because when she’s awake she mopes around like Eeyore. Most dogs chase tennis balls to get their exercise. Not Chelsea. She just goes to sleep, and it’s all taken care of.Speaking of which, I heard of a guy who claims he lost 50 pounds by playing that Dance USA video game or whatever it’s called. Isn’t that hilarious? That reminds me of when I was a kid and my brother and I had a Nintendo system with a Power Pad. This meant that we’d get all geared up in our exercise outfits (sweatsuits and wristbands) to play World Class Track Meet, a video game where you literally had to run in place on the Power Pad to compete in different track events. We’d do it for hours. Never lost 50 pounds, though, which is a good thing, considering that I probably didn’t weigh much more than that back then.

A few thoughts about Halloween

• I went to a pumpkin carving party last week. Deciding to forego the traditional jack-o-lantern look, I carved my dog’s face into a pumpkin, although my friend said it more closely resembled a monkey and my neighbor thought it was a set of lungs. In any case, Chelsea certainly didn’t recognize her own face in the pumpkin when she decided to go ahead and eat the pumpkin. It’s my fault, I guess, for not realizing that a half-moldy pumpkin would be appetizing to a dog.

• I was extremely disappointed to find out when I got home from work on Monday that we had received only one trick-or-treater. In preparation for the hordes of children we were all expecting, our neighbor knocked on everyone’s doors over the weekend to make sure that we had a vast candy supply. As it turned out, our one and only trick-or-treater on Halloween was our neighbor’s daughter, who at least had lots of candy at her disposal. My neighbor speculated that parents perhaps do not let their children wander on our block, as only a year ago, this very apartment complex was the center of a major drug and prostitution ring. Well, I guess that explains it.

• Sunday marked the fourteenth year since my father passed away. He died while I was carving a pumpkin, and I went trick-or-treating the next night but it would never be the same again. When I was a kid, I wore a pumpkin costume every year that my mother made for me out of orange corduroy. It was the most excellent costume I had ever seen. My brother always demanded something new every year, but for me, that pumpkin was worth waiting a whole 365 days to wear again. When I grew out of it, my costumes after that were never quite the same either.

• Nobody told me, of course, but my work held a costume contest for the employees. Most people came to work as witches or zombies, I came as myself and one of my coworkers came as a Sugar Daddy. Literally. He was dressed head-to-toe in a Sugar Daddy candy outfit. Remember those candies that seemed to turn up all-too-frequently in your trick-or-treat pile? The ones that were only slightly better than those bags of pennies that douchey neighbors gave to you in lieu of chocolate? That’s what he was for Halloween. Needless to say, he won the contest.

• It’s November 2nd. Remember this day 365 days ago? Do you remember what you were doing? I went to work and then I voted. Chelsea came with me, but they wouldn’t let her inside so a police officer held her leash for me and when I returned she was gnawing at the sidewalk in an attempt to recover a piece of smushed decades-old gum. She was doing her civic duty (cleaning up the streets) and I mine (voting). My mother went to the hospital that morning in preparation for a major surgery but she voted, too. When she woke up in ICU two days later, I knew she would be alright when the first thing out of her mouth was a very faint “Who won?” followed very closely by a more forceful “Oh shit.”

A few more stories about the Left-Handed Ferdingding

My father had a workshop in the basement of our building. It was the best place in the entire house, I thought, with all sort of wonderful tools and crazy objects and sawdust. The sawdust lent itself, obviously, to an endless oven of Mississippi Sawdust Pies, which my brother and I ‘baked’ in the lid of a garbage can and then tried to pawn off as something edible to my parents.*

My brother and I loved to hang out with Daddy in his workshop. We would build things ourselves—a guitar made out of two planks of wood nailed together and several rubber bands, for instance, which did in fact make a noise, though it was hardly of the musical variety. Another time we built a Mancala board out of several peanut butter and mayonnaise jar lids glued onto a piece of wood. And I remember creating some sort of ‘sculpture’ in my dad’s workshop that involved pieces of junk stapled together—an excuse to use the staple gun, really—which my father (proudly?) hung from the wall above the washbasin.

He would teach us things in the workshop, like the proper way to sand wood and the difference between a flathead and a Phillips head screwdriver. Mainly, though, those times in the workshop were just times to hang out with Daddy. He even built a big collapsible easel in there for us to paint on while he was working on a project, and we’d sit around and create works of fingerpainted art while he hammered away.

Every evening, parental homecomings were momentous occasions—my brother and I would run out into the hallway of the building to offer giant hugs our parents when they came through the door. My dad would change immediately into a well-worn pair of jeans, a long-sleeved blue-and-white striped shirt, and a pair of slippers that somewhat resembled penny loafers, though with soft soles and fuzzy insides and no actual penny.

Whichever parent would come home first would wait for the other’s arrival to eat dinner. Dinner was fun for my brother and I, who had eaten hours earlier, and could spend the time engaging in a ritual called “poking.” Poking involved crawling and slinking around underneath the table, surprising our parents occasionally by poking our fingernails through the holes in the wicker chairs they sat in. Timing was everything in this game; if they knew it was coming it wasn’t any fun. You’d have to stake out for a while and let them talk about adult things until they had forgotten we were under the table—and poke!—they would both jump out of their chairs.

And then it was time to head down to the workshop.


* Recipe:1 garbage can lid, preferably the metal kind (plastic melts in the oven)

Lots of sawdust

Enough water to slightly dampen the sawdust, but not completely drown it. Remember, you are not making oatmeal; you want your pie to have the consistency of stale bread.

1. Mix ingredients in lid, and bake at 68 degrees Fahrenheit for about five to ten minutes. Serve the hardened pie directly from the garbage can lid, even though this is somewhat detrimental to the presentation of the delicacy, but if you try to transfer it to a more attractive recepticle it will fall apart and create a mess. Even though you may want your pie to have the consistency of stale bread, it will be more like wet sawdust. The best way to deal with this problem is to simply spoon the concoction directly from lid onto the lucky diner’s plate.

2. You might be able to pass it off as fiber, otherwise, don’t be offended when most people snub their noses at it. Remember, it’s the thought that counts, and you can be sure that everyone will truly appreciate your efforts.

3. Dispose of the pie and return lid to garbage can. Do not actually eat.