I was staring out the dusty screen door of our canary-yellow, cookie-cutter rambler when I first realized he had superpowers. My bangs glanced off the cheap metal door as I followed his deliberate movements back and forth across the patio. My mother hooked me around the waist, dragging me back as she slammed the glass slider closed, “Come away from there. Don’t you know that stuff will kill you?” But I was rapt and would not budge. He looked like a different man in his white t-shirt, faded jeans, and boots. I wondered if this was the real him – the real person beneath the Brooks Brothers suit, bow tie and shiny wingtips. The canoe, or what was going to become a canoe, was resting on two sawhorses he fashioned out of spare two by fours. That was him. He wouldn’t buy it, if he could make it. A mask covered most of his face. I could tell it irritated his twice broken nose by the way he harshly brushed it with his forearm. With gloved hands, he carefully lifted a fiberglass sheet over the shell smoothing it down gently. It sparkled white in the sunlight like tinsel on a Christmas tree. He inspected each piece bending down to sight the line of the hull along the fat ribs before starting the process again. He was making a boat. I guess I knew someone made boats. I didn’t know you could make your own boat. It occurred to me that maybe not just anyone could make a boat. That this was his superpower. He made things from nothing. He would stop periodically and survey the scene like a king, chest swelled with pride. Watching him, I learned there must be something deeply satisfying about rowing a boat you made with your own hands. In so doing, you earned the pleasure of it all. And somehow, building that boat built him.
But it wasn’t just that boat. He would get an idea to do something, the harder the better, and the next thing you knew he’d buy a book or find some expert to talk to. My dad had a gift for getting people, no matter how shy or reluctant, to spill all their knowledge and, sometimes, even a few secrets. From our next-door neighbor, an odd man who wore a button down and dress pants even in his garden, he learned to grow hybrid roses with buttery blooms of swirling yellow and pink that made me think of lollipops. He built bunk beds and bookcases. He carved clawed feet for the chairs he made and personally stood by as a plank of mahogany was planed into sheets that would fit our whole family for Thanksgiving. Throughout my childhood, I watched him build. He always started the same way- with a book. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized I had inherited his thrill for a challenging task and his sense of pride in doing something for myself. When I was in high school, we moved back to Washington from Georgia. Rather than buy a house, my dad decided to design and build the house himself. With a rudimentary understanding of the process, he bought some machetes and we set out to hack a path to make way for the backhoe. Even when he seemed frustrated that he could not get something to work, he persevered. The harder the problem, the harder he worked to solve it. Although there are still some light switches that turn nothing on, he rejoiced when he finished wiring the house. I rejoiced right along with him. At the time, I felt like I was rejoicing that we were finished wiring and were one step closer to finishing the house. But I can tell now that I was rejoicing because we conquered wiring. We didn’t give up and call an electrician. We stuck in there until the last wire was connected and everything turned on. It felt so good to accomplish something that was really hard. I know that building that house built me in many ways. There is nothing that motivates me more than a complex problem. Give me a book, Google or an expert and I will conquer that hill. The steeper the better.
I felt that same exhilaration and sense of accomplishment last week working on a difficult project with my team. We were recreating a complicated data display in a new software platform. After several days of learning, and learning from our mistakes, we did it. I felt like doing the touchdown dance right there in the conference room. The easy things in life do not build you. Taking on the challenges in life, even seeking them out, that is what builds you.
I selected this picture of my dad for this post. It was taken in October of 1964 when he was working as lineman to put himself through college. It reminds me of how hard he worked to achieve his dreams. Based on the date of the picture, he was married with a child, going to college and working as a lineman. He never took the easy way. Once he set his mind to something, there was never a hill he could not climb.
A note about the title of this post, The House That Built Me is the title of a Miranda Lambert song that always resonated with me.