A Few More Things I’ve Learned in my Time as a Tradesman

Anthony Bourdain has a great quote that floats around the internet from time to time, saying how you can tell a lot about a person who has worked in a restaurant. There are, he goes on to say, a lot of soft skills that kitchen experience teaches a person, like the ability to accept criticism, to be punctual, to handle the dual role of servant and provider and all the subtle dynamics that entails.

Put a pin in that for a moment, and bear with me.

Earlier this year, I continued a recent reading binge by tearing through Musashi Miyamoto’s ‘Book of Five Rings.’ I’d had it recommended to me for years, told that it was a tome of ancient teachings and great wisdom and all the rest, blah, blah, blah. What I found was that, so much more, and not quite that at all – all at once. In it, the author states pretty clearly that the book you’re holding is a manual for his particular view on swordfighting, and it stays very true to that.

But one thing that he emphasizes in the Ring of Earth (if I remember right; don’t take me to court over that) is how alike all things are. He draws the distinction in terms of weapons, but extends the principle throughout: a sword may seem heavy and unweildy at first, but it’s that way for everyone; a bow may seem difficut to pull at first, but everyone gets stronger with time and practice; even a halberd is complex and tricky, but with training one learns the in’s and out’s. The point being that that trend continues for everything: pottery, painting, serving food, making shoes, carpentry – everything. Whenever you’re new at something, it seems difficult and nebulous, but the more you immerse yourself in it and learn about it then the more you are able to navigate it; and the more you realize that’s what everyone in the world does with everything. The only thing that separates you from an expert (or a novice from a master, in other words) is time and devotion of study.

Coming back to my point with Bourdain, there’s a TON of sh*t you pick up working with folks in the trades, some of it I’ve touched on before, and not all of it is as direct as how to cut a miter or fit a stud. There are a number of valuable soft skills and observations that come with it, and here are what I think are a couple of the highlights.

  1. You learn to tell the difference between a joke that has venom in it, and one that doesn’t.
  2. You learn to take pride in your work, if for no other reason than the things people will say about it when you don’t.
  3. When you see someone’s work around town and you get that “Hey, I know that guy” mental ping, it comes with a reminder that we’re all in this together. Sometimes we forget that our cities are just collections of people that work somewhere.
  4. (I’ve done this for years, but) Talk about people like they’re standing behind you. Keeps you considerate, and bad gas gets around.
  5. Patience pays off. It just might take a while.
  6. That said, swearing makes you stronger. Use that power.

Anyway, thanks for letting me rant. Get back to your day.

Ciao.

Life, Death, Redemption, and Cute Little Birdies

Hey all. On a trip, so gonna make this quick, but it weirdly came to mind as worthy of sharing.

I was on a job out in a rural part of the county a few months back. It was a big house up in the hills behind a winery, so it had a really nice view from the front deck we were working on. The house itself was shaped a bit like a horseshoe, and the whole inside curve of that shape was lined with floor-to-ceiling windows. It was cool.

Well, I’m walking along that path to get some tools from the truck when I look down and see a bird on the concrete walkway. It’s on its back, wings splayed, kind of contorted out of shaped. Aww, poor little guy, I think, and start looking around for a bush to set the remains in. It was pretty obvious he’d gotten ambushed by one of the windows, and speed plus little bird spine equals…well, this.

Then I get a little closer and see what I didn’t want to: little sharp, stuttering, haggard breaths.

“…Fuck,” was of course the next mental diagnosis of the situation. Now, rather than a dead bird, here I had one that was dying and very likely suffering from its injuries. Didn’t want to move it, for fear of scaring it and causing it to twist painfully with reflex. Couldn’t just leave it there, for fear of a coworker stepping on him, if not just the unsightliness (is that a word?) for the owner. Wanted to mercy-kill it, but all I really had on me that was appropriate was my framing hammer, and that would have been a bad look if the aforementioned owner came around right as I was dropping it on the little guy.

I asked my older coworker for advice on what to do, and his answer was something akin to, “Hmm…dunno. Sucks.” I came back by the bird, and by now the dog of the house was staring at it, salivating, on the other side of the glass. So I bucked up, knocked on the door, and told the owner – just hoping she wouldn’t let the hounds out to brutalize the little guy with ‘play time.’

She saw, laughed, totally agreed, and we figured we’d just try and leave the little guy in what peace he might find in his last minutes; knowing that around evening time, nature (or a cat) would take its course.

Eventually, I come back and find the bird sitting upright, and I’m shocked. That ruled out a broken back, far as I could tell. He sat up straight, but his head was a little off-kilter. Broken neck still, maybe? I think, and I approach him a little.
[By the way, I swear to God we got work done that day, even though this view may not make it seem like it. lol]
His eyes flittered in and out of sleep. He’d lean forward with the loss of consciousness, catch himself, and sit upright again, like he was dozing off. As I got closer, he regarded me with one of his eyes, but he could. Not. Give. A. Shit. That I was coming within inches of his person. His birdsman…ship?

That was a first. I don’t think I’d ever seen a little finch dealing with results from a concussion before.

Later on, a landscaping crew came by, and before I could warn them about the bird [Again, guys, serious about my job, I really was working on the deck as my primary interest of the day.] I saw that one of them had picked the little guy up and was lightly petting his back between the wings. Who am I to say he shouldn’t? So I just watched from afar and smiled at the sweet moment.

Towards the end of the day, I come ’round the bend doing a final clean up of the day [See? Working.], and I notice the bird was gone. I check the hedges nearby, seeing if he was set in the shade. Nothing. I asked the owner if the landscaper had moved him, and she told me that no, he’d pet it and put it right back where it was. Then I’m ’rounding the bend for the final time that day – and I swear to God this is true – I hear a single ‘tweet’ from above me on the roof.

Now, I’ll never know if that landscaper was actually a Mexican druid with healing abilities or not, but I’d like to imagine that the bird had just taken a massive hit to the dome, suffered a bad concussion, and just needed some time to shake the cobwebs out; and that that ‘tweet’ was some kind of, “Hey, buddy, thanks for not smashing me when you thought I was dead.”

Altogether, it was a tale of trial, hardship, patience, adversity, and the ability to rally and overcome, all wrapped up in a neat little quarter-ounce package with wings.