the builders

The Best Advice So Far - the builders

I was wakened from a sound sleep by the ungodly grinding of a saw cutting through what sounded like concrete or metal right outside my bedroom wall. The whole place shook, setting the nearby jar candles to skittering. It was immediately clear that this was not going to be a situation solved by fingers in the ears or pillows over the head. So I got up.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, there was a loud crunching and a thunk.

That sounds like it’s right in the house, I thought. And then the noise suddenly cut off. Moments later there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find one of the construction guys there wearing grubby jeans, a tank top and a backward ball cap. His ears were studded and gauged, and one tattooed arm leaned against the wall of the stairwell that leads up to my floor. “Hey, um… what’s on the inside of the wall we’re working on?”

I knew something very bad had happened. “My bedroom,” I informed him. “Bedroom closet to be exact.”

I led him through the entryway and into the bedroom. I live in an old farmhouse with open closets, so I had used the bedroom closet for storage, placing a low white bench with drawers and storage cubbies in front of it on top of which a full-length mirror leaned back against the door opening. I took down the mirror.

The workers had broken through the outside wall into the room, a five-foot strip of the wall revealing daylight beyond. But that wasn’t what caused the sharp inhale or widening of my eyes.

It was the horde of ants covering the walls… and everything else inside. Coolers. Lawn chairs. Luggage. Bedding. I could get at none of it until I removed the plastic storage bins. But those, as it happened, were impaled on a large bolt that had come through the wall. Meanwhile, the ants were happily beginning to explore outside the closet.

As this isn’t really about the incident, I’ll montage. Cracked bins ripped through. Running back and forth to the fire exit stairs with closet contents, even as ants ran up my arms and dropped into the other rooms. Workers doing impromptu extermination with a shop-vac. The cloying fog of Raid fumes permeating.

Throughout the ordeal, I’ll admit that I growled aloud more than once. And since the construction worker was doing his best to contain the situation, I wanted to be clear that my irritation was with the situation and not with him. I said as much to him, followed by stating aloud some of my own advice (more for my sake than his): “These are the times when I have to ask myself, ‘Will this matter in a year?’ And if the answer is no—which it is in this case—then it’s not worth wasting time in the present getting up in arms about it.”

Thus began my conversation with the builder.

If you were to have driven by my house and seen this guy standing outside on his ladder, swinging his hammer, you probably wouldn’t have given him much thought. Just another common laborer. And if you had noticed him beyond this peripheral glance, you might have made assumptions about him based on his job, clothes and tattoos—assumptions about his background, lifestyle, intelligence, education level, worldview.

But allow me to tell you what I learned about him.

As I say, the temporary crisis didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. However, mere minutes into our interaction together, we found ourselves talking openly about stuff that did matter.

His name is Zach. He’d been raised by two women. One was his mother. The other was his grandmother, a woman for whom he now happily served as a primary caregiver. Every day. Like clockwork. His expression of love and respect for his mom and grandmother, and his happiness to help, were among the first things he told me.

Zach shared with me some of the pain he experienced growing up and the problems it led to in his early adulthood. But he’d worked hard to overcome those issues.

He’s a voracious reader who enjoys deep conversations about life.

In fact, he’s been having an ongoing conversation online with a young Muslim man from the Middle East. This distant friend had shared his desire to visit the United States, but expressed his concerns about how he might be treated because of his ethnicity or religion. Zach was honest with him. “Some people here will be suspicious and act on fear. But many, many won’t.” He invited the young man to stay with him personally should he make the trip, promising to introduce him to good people and places.

Zach is educated. Prior to being a builder, Zach had been the director of a public school program for kids on the autism spectrum or with other behavior-related challenges. He told me about some of his students over the years, adding that he’d finally decided he needed to take a break because his compassion for the kids was starting to get the better of him even during his off time. He felt he needed to do something a little more physical and less emotional for a while.

This had led to his current job. And his favorite part of that job… was the math. I’m sure he’s told me five or six times during our conversations in the last couple of days, smiling despite himself each time, “I love numbers almost as much as I love people!”

Two mornings later, Zach and a co-worker were back bright and early to continue repairs. I threw on jeans and some flip-flops and ran out to tell them that the exterminator was due back at 8:00 and might be spraying from the exterior, which would mean that construction might be delayed a couple hours.

As we all stood around awaiting more information by phone, we got to talking once again. The other worker was a stocky, heavily bearded guy with his knit cap pulled low. Even wearing his dusty mechanic-blue jacket, tattoos were clearly visible, rivaling Zach’s. If not for his clothing, you could easily imagine him having been a Viking downing tankards of grog at some alehouse of yore. He flicked the ash off his cigarette and took another puff.

I introduced myself. His name is Doug. He shook my hand and the three of us chatted for a few minutes.

Zach and Doug then took off for a bit as the exterminator arrived and did his thing. Once they returned, Zach went into the bedroom to assess what needed to happen inside the closet. A few days earlier, based on our conversation, I’d given him a copy of my first book, The Best Advice So Far; and I’d just handed him a copy of the newly-released TRIED & (Still) TRUE. Doug was immediately curious. “You write books? Cool. What’s it about? Where can I get one?” As Zach continued with his tape measure, Doug and I got another chance to talk a bit.

Here again, one might make assumptions about the kinds of things “someone like Doug” might talk about in the few minutes standing with a stranger in a hallway while on a job. You’d likely be wrong.

I could immediately tell that Doug has a quick wit and sense of humor. Once we got to talking, he laughed often.

Doug also plays in a band. If you went only by his black “DOOM” T-shirt, depicting what looks like someone trying to pull demons out of hell, you probably wouldn’t guess that his primary instrument is upright bass or that his band, Cactus Attack, finds it tricky to schedule their tours on account of two of his other band mates being full-time teachers.

I handed Doug his own copies of the books. He read the backs, brows intent. “This is my favorite kind of book. I love philosophy. Thanks, man.” From there, Doug shared with me his observations about how people too often seem to be looking for differences between themselves and others rather than similarities. “I talk to people about this all the time,” he said. “You’ve got to slow down and make time to get to know people and their story before you make judgments. Even people who do things you might strongly disagree with usually have a reason that makes sense to them, and I think it’s valuable for us to be able to understand those reasons.” We talked about religious cults, terrorists and factions within modern feminism, with Doug passionately making the case for empathy and education at each turn.

Later, when the three of us were in the mix again talking, I suggested the word “malapropism” to describe a habit Zach said he sometimes falls into, at which point Doug interjected, “Actually, with you, Zach, it’s usually malaphors, not malapropisms.” This was interspersed with his thoughts on Socrates and Plato, peppered with other underused words such as pedagogy.

There was clearly much more to both of these great guys than might at first meet the eye.

Though I say this often, it’s worth repeating: names matter. By asking someone’s name and giving your own, you open doors of possibility. So often, if we aren’t careful, we can get to treating people as little more than background noise, obstacles to overcome or means to achieving an end. Names serve as a reminder that the other people all around us are just that—real people, with lives as full, interesting, meaningful and complex as our own.

In addition, while most of us would agree if asked that one should “never judge a book by its cover,” it takes intention and consistency to actually live it. And it’s been my observation that the standard most used in judging book covers is little more than “does that cover look enough like my own?” I’ll quote Doug here from our conversation: “What a boring and small life it is to surround yourself only with people who are exactly like you.”

To quote Bill Nye the Science Guy, “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” If we truly embrace this, the world and the people in it become an endless source of connection, fascinating stories, learning and growth.

My friend Chad often says, “Follow your natural curiosity.” I agree, 100%. However, I think so often anymore that we forget how to be curious. We leave it behind, somewhere back in the ether of childhood. As we get older, we allow that natural curiosity to be replaced with fear. Yet the more we give in to this, the smaller our worlds become.

In fact, if there were one takeaway here, it would be to rediscover your curiosity. And then follow it.

The Best Advice So Far: Rediscover your curiosity. And then follow it.

You’ll encounter new stories and change your own story in the process. Zach and Doug are two recent reminders of the benefits of doing this, here in my own little corner of the world. Now I encourage you to go find out who your own next surprise might be.


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