Ryder helps me “fix” things sometimes. For instance, recently he helped me fix the runners on one of the drawers in his chest. He’d tried to climb on it a month or two ago, and it bent the metal runner arm and had to be replaced. I only did one side, however, and somehow a few days ago the other side bent and the drawer came out again. So, another set of runners later, plus some extra screws to hold the pieces in place above and beyond the ones that came with the pieces, and hopefully the drawer won’t break again.
Ryder helped me by holding the screws for me. It took some work, at first, because he decided it would be more fun to drop the screws under the chest. After a few tries, he held onto them just fine and would hand them to me one at a time when I asked for them. Not the first time he’s helped me fix something, and it won’t be the last.
It’s funny to think about, because I know how to fix a lot of things around the house. I did not, however, learn how to do them at home. I did plenty of chores at my house, but fixing things wasn’t part of any of them. I lived with my mom, and I saw my dad on weekends. When he and I were together, we did as much fun stuff as possible, so we never really broke out the tools. I did spend a large chunk of my childhood summers riding around in a van with my dad helping him clean carpets, but again, we didn’t fix things.
My dad gave me a giant set of tools for Christmas when I was seventeen. I honestly didn’t know what to do with most of them. I mean, I knew what they were for, but I had no real desire or intention to use them. Mainly, they just sat in the garage, forlornly collecting dust, patiently awaiting the day when I might decide to use a 7/16 socket wrench to adjust something. In college, I hated my hours in the scene shop because the power tools were just so damn LOUD. I worked in the costume studio instead, partly because that’s where the girls were and partly because it meant I didn’t have to go in the scene shop. I went out of my way to avoid learning any more about tools than I absolutely had to. I was gonna be an actor, dammit, I didn’t NEED to know how to do anything else!
Cracks me up.
After grad school, when I had no idea how to get work as an actor, I floundered for a while. I began to realize I didn’t know how to DO anything else. I applied for various temp jobs with no success, and I spent a miserable year or so waiting tables at a shitty Tex-Mex restaurant, drinking way too much, making way too little, and hating life. I wasn’t doing anything I enjoyed or wanted to do, I was just getting by, surviving. Then my roommate (who also worked with me at the restaurant) waited on a man who was a contractor and who was looking for employees, and we both went to work for him, doing home renovation.
It literally changed my life.
In the first month, I learned how to build a deck, use a reciprocating saw, a hammer drill, a band saw, pneumatic tools, and some basic plumbing and electricity. I can sweat copper plumbing, I can lay and finish hardwood floors and tile – I rebuilt a master bathroom suite from the floor joists up, including installing a free-standing shower stall AND a marble jacuzzi tub. Over the next year and a half, I painted houses, I laid linoleum flooring, built gazebos, poured concrete, rewired switches and outlets, and installed replacement windows. I suddenly knew how to DO shit. I became confident in my hands, in my ability to start and to finish a project – I learned how to fix and to build things. Very manly.
More importantly, I understood two things: first, the value of knowing how to fix things. Til that point, I had changed the oil in my truck a few times myself, but that’s about it. I laid hardwood floors in my mother’s house and my grandmother’s house. I saved them over a thousand dollars each in labor. I installed new sinks and fixed the toilets in my mom’s house. I helped friends who had bought a house refinish their floors. I saved plenty of people I know lots of money by knowing how to do these things. Second, I understood the satisfaction of completing a project on my own, of seeing it thru from start to finish, dealing with hiccups and snags along the way. It reminded me of a show – of starting rehearsal with just the script, and putting all the pieces together until opening night, when the finished product was put onstage for everyone to see. It was truly eye-opening. I found the joy in the work, and it made me better.
After a few months, I started auditioning for shows again, and before long I was an actor again. My roommate and I were both cast in a community theatre production of Biloxi Blues, and we ended up building the set for the show, too, using tools loaned to us by our contractor boss. A year or so after that, and I was on my way to working as a professional actor, and over the next several years, I supported myself between acting gigs doing various carpentry gigs. When I ran a theatre company a few years after that, I always helped load in and load out all the sets and even designed and built a couple as well. When my wife and I bought our house, I gutted and remodeled out master bath, repainted every room, installed ceiling fans and light fixtures, and ripped out and replaced the French doors on the back of the house. I had some help on some of these things, but I did the majority of the work myself. Even the drywall, which I hate. I had plans for an extension of our deck in mind when we decided to move to California instead. I was able to make our house truly OUR house.
Even out here in LA, I’ve replaced a faucet, tweaked the toilets, and built movable gate pieces for the driveway to close off the backyard. I’m constantly fixing things, it seems, and I owe it all to my time as a carpenter. It has made me feel like a man. Confident, capable, and prepared.
So I love it when Ryder helps me. I let him play with my screwdriver sometimes, and he “fixes” things like the screws on the glider. He likes to use my tape measure to “measure” things. Once he’s old enough, I’ll teach him how to use a saw, how to hammer a nail, and how to measure twice, and cut once. I guarantee he’ll know how to fix everything I know how to fix before he goes to college.
There’s a distinction between an artist and a craftsman. I came across this idea reading about two of the greatest American playwrights, Arthur Miller and David Mamet. Men who wield words like tools, knowing exactly what they’re trying to accomplish and how to get there using those tools. Miller himself was also an accomplished carpenter and woodworker, and Mamet has written extensively on the joys of using his hands to make things. Mamet also states in one of his essays that he considers himself a craftsman, not an artist, and expounds on his disdain for the use of the latter. Artist has always made me cringe a little, too, because it (unfortunately) carries pretension on its back. Craftsman sounds solid, hard-working, dependable, and, above all, shows results. In reality, the two terms aren’t that different, and I think there’s a third term that bridges the gap between them: artisan. Artisan can be accused of leaning towards pretension itself, especially when used to describe cheese, but the historical meaning of that word bears me out: one who is both an artist and a craftsman, able to conceive and execute creative ideas using a well-developed set of skills.
So maybe I’m an artisan dad. Who the fuck knows what that means?? But I like the sound of it, and it’s only a little douchey. In any case, I want my son to be good at everything, and being able to fix shit falls under that category. We pass along what we know to our children, so that they can pass it along in turn. I’m looking forward to seeing what skills and abilities Ryder develops and has an affinity for, and I intend to encourage him to know how to build cool, useful shit along the way. And stop that goddamn faucet from leaking.