Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Over My Head

“Success is a little like wrestling a gorilla. You don't quit when you're tired. You quit when the gorilla is tired.”
Robert Strauss

 “Why,” someone once asked me, “Do you like doing so many things that you are no good at?”

He was referring to my love for (and slowness in) distance running, but as I lifted another bag of cement mix off my driveway where the Home Depot truck had dumped it, I remembered the question. I was covered in powdered cement dust, which clouded into my mouth and eyes. My arms and back were a symphony of muscle pain. Each bag weighed 66 pounds; I was on my 17th bag, and there were 52 of them. It was like Mile 18 of the Ironman marathon.

I wondered if this time I really was in over my head. Here I was, at the beginning of another project for which I had absolutely no discernible talent: to build a deck all by myself in my backyard.

Once begun however, I knew that this project was going to get finished no matter how hard it was or how long it took me. The deck is part of a larger backyard improvement initiative that we hope to get finished before the snow files. More important, I need to finish what I start, even if finishing involves a lot of work or discomfort, or spending a long time without being able to touch bottom or see the finish line.

I ended up taking time off from running and other athletics to do this project. The sabbatical wasn’t planned, but I found that at the end of each day’s labour I was ready to do one of several activities: collapse, sleep, ice my sore muscles, or stare catatonically at America's Got Talent—anything but work out. It is no exaggeration to say that every day was a marathon of effort. Lifting, sawing and hammering I lost ten pounds and gained unprecedented upper body strength.

I am a slow, plodding construction worker, mostly because I don’t know what I’m doing. In my life, I have been an opera singer and a financial analyst, and I am now a writer; nowhere in my CV is carpentry mentioned. I therefore have to learn as I go, by trial and error. Second, I like to work alone, with no help or advice from anyone else. I get nervous when I feel someone looking over my shoulder, especially if there is the likelihood that they know more than I do.

Not that there was much assistance being offered anyway. “Just give me a holler anytime you want a hand,” said my neighbour Bill, immediately before heading off to his cottage for two months. The only real help I had was from a man with a machine that looked like a ride-em lawnmower with a giant corkscrew attached, who came and drilled the holes for my cement footings. He seemed to think I had a lot of them. “You could build a whole damn house on this foundation,” he said. I admit that, like the guy who wears both suspenders and a belt, I was nervous about everything staying up.

The only time I really missed having an assistant was when I needed someone to hold one end of my measuring tape. I used nails, rocks, or pure will to hold one end the tape in place while I tried to measure something. As often as not, the far end of the tape would let go of its mooring and hiss and snap toward me like a python after a swamp rat, and I would have to start over again.

Every morning for a month, I went out alone to my yard with very little notion of what I was going to do that day, or how to do it. But I loved the smell of fresh-cut lumber; the heavy usefulness of the tools; the sharpness of screws as they burrowed into the wood; the strength of heavy, straight boards laid side by side that made me think of the self-sustaining synergy of a choir.

The finished product - mostly straight and level
I took extra care to make sure the whole structure was exactly 24 inches above the ground and completely level. I was haunted by the vision of that scene in Titanic, where people and string quartets are sliding off the end of that deck into the ocean; especially that one guy who bounced off the propeller on the way down. I spent more time fussing with my level than making sure the boards were the right length.

From the get-go, I knew I was in over my head trying to do this all project by myself. I had recurring muscle spasms in my back from holding boards in place with one foot while lying upside down to join them together. I had to stop after each step and figure out what I was supposed to do next.

Yet, there was not one moment when I wished I were somewhere else. There was never a time when I considered that I could have paid someone else to build the deck for me.

I realized many years ago that when I am in over my head is when I feel most alive. I have always cherished the adventure of starting a journey without knowing exactly how I am going to get to the end.

As I treaded water with 1800 other triathletes at the starting line of my first Ironman in Wisconsin in 2002, I was quite literally in over my head. Somewhere in my brain was a question: “What in Heaven’s name am I doing?” The answer came back from somewhere inside me: I haven’t a clue; let’s see what happens.

A place to have coffee 24 inches above the ground.
I’ve started running again and have entered a small half-marathon in November to help motivate me. I have also entered both the 70.3 and the full Ironman in Muskoka next summer. I wonder if my newfound upper body strength will last that long.
The deck is beautiful; it is solid and welcoming and is a joy to sit on. It is held together by a month’s worth of imagination, labour, and perseverance, and by my constant desire to head for the deep end of the pool, to go somewhere I have never been, and to see what things are like when I get there.