Home Improvement: A Writer's Search For Masculinity

Odds are I will lose my fingernail. Ever since I whacked my ring finger with a framing hammer, a raisin-colored crescent has been expanding its territory north from the cuticle. My powers as a writer are inadequate to explain how much my finger hurts. I know the words "throbbing," "excruciating," "permanent tactile damage" are part of any description I might attempt, but I am in too much pain to think in coherent sentences. I will say that the error in hammering has made me even more tentative toward simple acts of construction, which means I am flattening my fingers every fourth nail.

This was not my idea. My dear wife in her never ending pursuit of unattainable house perfection, volunteered my physical services to work alongside a contractor I shall call "Phil." The goal, she insisted, was to save several thousand dollars by providing the grunt labor to construct a new roof, patio and fence. The money we saved would be plowed back into the house for a fancy kitchen remodel of which I was certainly not invited to assist. The kitchen remodel was news to me, but I had noticed an increasing pile of house magazines and several rough sketches she had made: never a good sign to a husband.

My goal toward home improvements is to ignore them altogether. I am happy if the ceiling does not leak, if there are no visible rodents gnawing at my toes and if there is an operational toilet. I would be satisfied to squat in a trailer near the railroad tracks on the edge of town, which is pretty much how I lived before I met my current wife.

Beneath her irrefutable offer was an unspoken challenge to my maleness. Do you still have what it takes you-know-where to keep a tool belt erect? Can you hoist an 80-pound bag of concrete mix or carry a full sheet of plywood up a 12-foot ladder without popping out your third hernia? Can you operate a nail gun without recreating the Crucifixion scene? Can you get through a day without a nap or half-hour CNN breaks? Do you want to continue having sex with me?

With the exception of the last question, all the answers were easy "no's," but I didn't need to tell her that. My ego was on the line and I rose to the challenge. Besides, there was the possibility of more red meat in my diet. "Rib eyes? T-bones so rare they twitch? Porterhouses the size of hubcaps?" I asked. "We'll see how it all turns out," she answered, taping sample paint chips on the living room wall.

So at seven a.m. on a blistering July morning when the humidity is higher than the temperature and the Misery Index approaches the same level as the last days of my first marriage, Phil pulls up in a really big black truck pulling a really big black trailer. He wears jeans, a John Deere shirt, and a cap that advertises the advantages of nuclear power. Phil is small, but even in his fifties he still has a powerful frame; the kind of build you see on firemen and police SWAT teams. He is not like me: he can fix and build, and screw down objects in vises. He knows which way to hold a level and how to use a miter box. He has a shop with a sawdust-covered floor. I have a den with a computer and reams of paper.

When Phil arrives, I've barely gotten through my first cup of French Roast and I still have to put on my sunscreen and take my Mega Man vitamins. But the most important question of the morning is, what should I wear? What image should I portray? Weekend Warrior or veteran carpenter? I quickly rummage through my closet. Not knowing Phil's political affiliations, I decide against any controversial T-shirt -- no save the animals, "US Out of North America" or "Nadar for President." I grab my oldest Gap khakis (pleated and cuffed, of course) and a crisp, blue denim work shirt. (Big Mac, "authentic workwear since 1922") I put on a Dekalb seed cap, the one with the flying corncob, and I step into the suffocating heat. Phil lifts a paint-splattered radio in greeting. "You like Rush?" I have an immediate urge to pee.

Soon, to the sweet sounds of Rush Limbaugh condemning eco-nuts and femi-Nazis, I am helping unload ladders, drills, saws, rolls of metal flashing, long iron bars resembling giant forks used to take off the old shingles, post hole diggers, shovels and picks and axes, coils of air hoses and extension cords, and a two-hundred-pound contraption called a "metal bender." By seven twenty I am exhausted. My stick arms are twitching with overuse. My mind is becoming empty. Phil is whistling Travis Tritt's "It's A Great Day to Be Alive." I am worried I may never get to check my email again.

The first day I learn three truisms about construction projects. First, everything is too heavy to a lightweight writer, including a box of nails. It doesn't matter if you lift with your knees properly bent. At some point in the project, you will experience searing back pain. Secondly, all ladders are unstable. Even here, in the flat mid-section of America, terra firma is hard to find. Lastly, a scrotum does sweat. Changing (or cutting off with scissors) underwear at lunch is mandatory. Phil loves the weather. "It's hot, but it's a wet heat," he jokes. And another Phil-ism, when the heat is so intense I am seeing mirages of Alaskan glaciers: "You can't beat the Midwest!" I want to pummel him.

In my soft hands, every tool is potentially lethal, especially the nail gun, which should be outlawed in all major metropolitan areas. Hooked up to an air compressor, this baby has enough pressure per square inch to successfully launch a coup in the Caribbean. It also weighs more than a computer mouse and ceramic cup-my usual working tools. My initial attempt in nailing in a two-by-six board into the side of the house (on top of a swaying, eight-foot ladder) results in shooting a dozen nails in before I could blink. When I finally open my eyes I check my feet and hands for stigmata. Phil, smiling, gently pries the gun from my white-knuckled fist and, reaching for a crow bar to dig my errant nails out of the siding, remarks without a hint of irony. "It's got a bit of a hair trigger, doesn't it?"

Of course neither one of us wears safety goggles. In addition to all the flying nails, swinging four-by-four posts, and tottering ladders, the new wood is treated with arsenic. A warning tag is stapled to the end of each board -- the EPA's effort to rescue us and protect it from any multi-million class-action lawsuit. "This wood has been preserved by pressure treatments with an EPA registered pesticide containing inorganic arsenic. Some chemical may [such a wonderfully vague, weasel word] migrate from treated wood into surrounding soil over time and may also be dislodged from wood upon contact with skin. Exposure to inorganic arsenic may [or may not] present certain hazards." The label recommends washing clothes that come in contact with these boards separately, and wearing a dust mask and gloves. How do you keep a dust mask on a sweaty face when the humidity is the same as Borneo?

Arsenic is only one of many health hazards in building. The old shingles we remove from the roof, as well as the new ones, glisten with a fine, irritating coat of fiberglass. I go through several pairs of gloves and still end up pulling shards of glass from my fingers. What this is doing to my lungs won't be known for years.

In the new book Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You, David Ropeik and George Gray list on-the-job deaths by industry for the year 2000. Construction tops the grim list with 1,154 deaths. Sixty-five roofers and ninety-one carpenters are among the unfortunate. Only eight lawyers, six butchers, and, surprisingly, only six power line workers perished on the job. Writers are not listed, but no doubt they are included in deaths from peptic ulcers (4,507 in 1999).

My knees are also breaking apart. Days spent kneeling while cutting and fitting the tabs of shingles take a toll. When I ask Phil for kneepads, out come the references to Monica and President Clinton. I would usually try to verbally fight a conservative but, because I am in such a delusional state of physical breakdown and dehydration, I find myself agreeing with Phil on everything from timber management in the West ("Letting timber companies clear-cut all old-growth trees on public lands to prevent forest fires? Sure. That makes sense."), to how to handle terrorism ("A preemptive nuclear strike that would take out all countries ending in the suffix 'an'? Yeah, why not? Now that's forward thinking!") After a lengthy exchange about corporate corruption, Phil puts his Stanley measuring tape (now made in Taiwan) down and hurls the worst insult I've ever received: "You know what, you're not a liberal at all. You're a conservative like me!" Huh? I'm too thirsty to fight back.

The five weeks I spend with Phil crawl by. Under his patient tutelage, we slowly build the patio and the five-foot fence that cleverly follows the contour of the lot, and re-roof the house with some ingenious French cuts on the valleys. Mistakes occur -- all of them traced to me. I rewrite the old carpenter's adage, "Measure twice, cut once" to "Measure at least twice, then make several cuts at varying lengths." I drop hammers on Phil, break drill bits and somehow manage to nail a row of shingles upside-down.

At the end of each day, I come bursting into the kitchen expecting to wrap my blistered hands around a side of beef or a rack of ribs. But, alas, with the exception of an occasional meat loaf or some skinless chicken breasts stewed in a crock-pot, it's the same fare: rice-based stir-frys and quiches made with Bisquick. It doesn't matter. I eat everything in sight, including the raw beets.

The real reward comes at night after my shower. With the bathroom door closed, I stand in front of the mirror with my legs spread apart. I crack my bruised knuckles. I spit. I flex. I scratch. I belch. I discover new muscles. Blonde streaks in my hair match my bronze tan. Even my calves look toned up. Not bad for a forty-six-year-old writer of minor status. After all, I am now Carpenter Man, wielding union-made tools to build a New America. Never mind that my elbow is swollen, my cancer risk has tripled, my knees resemble spoiled heads of cauliflower, and I can't get Toby Keith's song "Courtesy of My Red, White and Blue" out of my head. I am an alpha male, a bull!

I swagger into the bedroom feeling as randy as a nineteen-year-old on Spring Break. "Hey, Baby," I whisper, in my sexiest Barry White voice. I've taken to calling my wife Baby" during the entire renovation. It just feels right. "Want to play with my Philips head?" But my baby is fast asleep, surrounded by a pile of House Beautiful's stacked up around her like a fort. My amorous plans sink into flaccidity. The cat is purring, though.

I contemplate my next move. It's nine p.m., still plenty of time to exercise those idle muscles in my brain. A stack of book galleys I am assigned to review beckons on the bedside table. These are forthcoming books with complex ideas on Islam, slavery in the Sudan, historic elections in India and art history. They represent my former life of bylines and deadlines; my exciting low five-figure writing career. I look over the thousands of pages of Times Roman type and I am overcome with a single, overriding idea. I grab a beer and the remote, click on the Cubs game and fall asleep.

About the author:
Stephen Lyons is a native of the South Side of Chicago and, after living for almost thirty years in the West, now resides in a small farming town in central Illinois. He's been employed in nine different states as a tree planter, daffodil picker, dude ranch cook, ice cream vendor, magazine editor, phone solicitor, newspaper reporter, professional tofu maker, grain truck driver, assistant dairy herdsman, and agricultural extension editor.
He once worked for a week in Colorado pulling nails out of two-by-fours, and for one twelve-hour day picking hops in southern Oregon. He was fired from the hops job after accusing the foreman of having bad karma. He was also fired from the phone solicitor job when he was overheard telling prospective customers that the deal (a lifetime of magazine subscriptions at creative interest rates) was a scam.
Lyons is the author of Landscape of the Heart: Writings on Daughters and Journeys, a single father's memoir. Author Terry Tempest Williams wrote about the book, "Stephen J. Lyons has offered us his grace and compassion...These essays are the deliberations of a sensitive and intuitive mind, a mind not afraid of exploring regions of the heart, so often side-stepped by men. Mr. Lyons's writing reads like poetry and has the effect of a lingering memory of love."
Stephen writes articles, reviews, essays, and poems for a variety of national magazines, newspapers, and journals including Northern Lights, Salon, Newsweek, Sierra, USAToday, High Country News, Manoa, Commonweal, The Sun, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Whole Earth Review, Hope, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is a member of National Book Critics Circle.
Lyons' poetry appears in the anthologies Passionate Hearts, Bless the Day, and Split Verse. His prose appears in Living in the Runaway West and Idaho in Black and White. Lompico Creek Press published an essay by Stephen in its just-released anthology Love is Ageless: Stories about Alzheimer's Disease. University of Iowa Press will publish prose by Stephen in its forthcoming anthology Father Nature, writings by fathers about children and nature.
This past year Lyons was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for "Seymour's Last Dollar," an essay about his step-father that appeared in the October 2001 issue of The Sun. This year he received a 2002 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Prose Writing.
Stephen is a lively reader and he has appeared at many writing venues including Elliot Bay in Seattle and as guest writer at the YMCA's Writer's Voice in Billings, Montana. For appearance fees or to send Lyons feedback, email him at: midlife@austinmama.com