Sometimes I find myself thinking “Damn, I kinda wish Gray wasn’t doing so well…” – Keith, 3/10/13
Let me take you back a few years. I was handling a particularly bad breakup, well, badly. Newly divorced, a couple of my kids having decided to go live with their mother, my oldest daughter off gallivanting in the wilds of northern California…I was depressed. Depressed enough that I let a fairly stable and even somewhat rewarding job with the local school district slip away, which is quite a trick when you’re protected from such things by a union.
Having never been wealthy, I moved into the “broke” zone. The problem wasn’t one of skill or talent; it was more of motivation. Without the need to provide for a family I suddenly didn’t really see much of a point of trying very hard at anything. My media design business had failed; my second marriage had failed; my cushy desk job had failed. If you’re waiting for me to say So I drowned my sorrows in drinking or something similar, nope; as a cliché I was a failure as well.
Enter my friend Keith. I knew him through social circles, and he was aware of the disintegration of my marriage. He and I had never been especially close, but he took me aside and asked for a “favor.” It seemed he had a sailboat, y’see, and it had been sitting up on the trailer in his driveway all winter, and there were tiny, pitted blemishes on the hull.
What he needed, but didn’t have time for himself, was someone to first sand down the blemishes until they were smooth, and then repair them, and then sand the repairs, and finally re-paint the entire hull. He’d heard that I might be in place where I could use a little cash, and was I interested?
Strangely enough, I was. The thought of wearing a respirator mask and being on my back on a hot driveway through the summer seemed to be just the thing. So for slightly more than minimum wage, I became a manual laborer. I became covered with fiberglass dust and gravel stuck in my back and I sweated gallons day after day.
When the boat was done, there were some new window wells that needed revamping. I remember digging out the wells with pick and shovel, then pounding spikes into 8×8 railroad ties for a terraced effect. We moved from there into re-siding and painting his house, and my daily companions became the tape measure, the table saw, and the power nailer, perched on a scaffold in the hot sun. Then a drainage system needed installing in his yard, and again I lifted pickaxe and shovel, measuring the ditch with a laser to make sure it was the right elevation.
It was a hard, dirty, dusty summer. There were times, especially digging the ditches, that I really felt like life was pretty much over for me – I’d done the things I thought I was supposed to do, and what did I have to show for it? Blisters on my hands and dirty fingernails as I eked out just enough for my crummy mouse-infested rental. Other 40-ish white males were rich from the dot boom, or figuring out their mortgages. Me? I was biking to work for cash-on-hand.
But when the summer was over…the house looked amazing. The boat was a shiny red, and he and his girlfriend took me and another couple of friends out on the boat. By then I’d also started a new relationship, one that would turn out to be vastly rewarding over the next few years. I also had arranged for a job interview for what would become the last desk job I’d try, which was another valued learning experience.
That sweat and toil seemed like a low point at the time, but in reality it was exactly what I needed. Somehow, I think my friend Keith knew that; he certainly could have gotten more skilled and less moody labor for the same price. Instead, though, he reached out and gave me an environment where I could re-set myself, let my self-declared “wounds” heal, and then, without any regret, he bid me on my way.
When I ran into the two of them the other night at a cigar social, he confessed that he watched my Facebook, and from what he could see, I seemed to be doing quite well. As we talked, we agreed that I was in much the same position as the fisherman from that story with the Harvard MBA.
And that’s when Keith said the quote that I began this post with. Seems there are still ditches to be dug, paint to be applied, wood to be cut, water to be carried…and there are times that he wishes I weren’t quite so happy in this little life I’ve set up.
I smiled and offered to help him any time he needed it. Because what he gave me, during that summer, had value that only perspective can reveal. He gave me the chance to rebuild myself from the inside out. The life I have now would not be possible without that reset button. It’s possible he didn’t know what he was doing; it’s possible he just needed some cheap labor.
Either way: thanks, Keith.