One Brick at a Time
“Mediocrities everywhere… I absolve you…” Antonio Salieri, Amadeus
When I was a kid, sometimes my dad, a master carpenter, would bring me along to his jobsite and set me up with a menial task. Don’t say ‘Aw’ or anything; these were not father/daughter bonding affairs. Most of the day I sat waiting for him in his cluttered work van, looking at siding samples or reading a crumpled up customer estimate for forty-five minutes while he was ‘just running in for something’ at Lowe’s, or he was blah, blah, blah-ing about cars with some guy while they stood in said guy’s driveway. By the time it came around to actually do some work, I was grateful, even if my help was uncompensated.
Over those childhood years, you would think he might’ve taught me something useful, like taping. What I’d give for drywall skills… Instead, most of my time was spent holding a two by four steady as he made a cut on his chop saw, sweeping sawdust, scraping stickers off windows, and walking around a yard picking up dead shingles and stray roofing nails.
Then one summer, he was building a two-storied brick home in Myrtle Beach and he needed my help because the mason, he said, was getting sloppy with his mortar. My job was to scrape the dried mortar off the brick. This time he agreed to pay me $5/hour, it was a week’s worth of work, and since I had never scraped brick before, it sounded like a good deal.
The task was simple. I was given a metal putty knife and instructed to scrape the dried mortar away from the brick face without disturbing the “bead” of mortar between each brick. The work was tedious. If the undesirable mortar was hanging out, say, like a polyp, then I could’ve popped them off with a flick of the wrist, which might’ve been more satisfying. In reality, I found myself scraping away at thin smears of mortar, while trying not to scratch the brick too fiercely. Occasionally, at the peril of my reckless daydreaming, a rather large chunk would break off from the bead, falling to my feet. This would make my eyes get big; I quickly moved on and hoped the mason didn’t notice.
I worked at this for eight hours the first day, breaking once for chili dogs and a Coke (in a can; my fav). By the end of the day, my hands were sore, desiccated, and bloody-knuckled from scraping against the brick too many times. To my delight, I was not to suffer alone on Day Two! Along with my brother, our landlord would be joining me in my brick-scraping efforts for the rest of the week! I would have company, and I don’t care how bad a job is, good company makes all the difference.
So the three of us set to work that Tuesday morning, equipped with the scraping tool their choice: putty knife, 5-in-1, or a steel bristled brush. There was also a five-gallon bucket of hydrochloric acid for carefully brushing onto, and power washing off of the brick, while wearing a plastic jacket and goggles in eighty degree heat because HCl is a strong acid that can burn the skin and eyes. Despite the monotonous nature of the task, it turned out to be on the sunny side of all right. Having someone to talk and joke with easily passed the day.
The landlord, a lovely man who had become a family friend, was flabbergasted to learn that “noise” are nothing more than vibrations traveling through air. I explained that the noise we “hear” is created by the mechanism in our ears sending signal to our brains; a little something I picked up in physical science class. He repeatedly exclaimed his disbelief, and swore to ask his professor (he’d gone back to school to study radiology) if it were true, which he did at a later time, confirming my veracity.
Then the landlord shared with us a mathematical conundrum that begins like, ‘A guy walks into a hotel with so many dollars’ and at the end of the story the money doesn’t add back up, and you can’t figure out why the hell it don’t. “What?” I exclaimed, blinking. “How can this be?!?” I was floored because we were dealing with simple addition and subtraction here. It should add up! To this day, I don’t know. I’ll google it and share it below if you’re interested. I’m sure there’s a simple explanation, but I’m still going with magic.
The rest of the week went by quickly and at some point, we all ran out of fascinating tidbits to share with one another. I reflect on this one week of my life (a long, long) time ago because even though the job was irritatingly mundane, and arduous on my tender paws, it’s a fond childhood memory of mine.
We all think we should be doing something more interesting, more impactful, whether it’s making more money, helping more people, creating more art… How happy I’d be if I could just write and read all the live-long day, instead of hammering out a few paragraphs during an hour lunch break. How good it would be, alone with my thoughts and ideas, forever rid of the incessant complaints of my coworkers over their paltry emails and voice messages. But who am I kidding? Would it really? Is there a trade-off?
Last summer the company I work for let its employees go down to part-time due to a dip in business over Covid concerns. For the first time since I was, like, a baby I got to stay home for two to three days a week. And what did I do with all this newfound free time? I napped, of course. I hardly wrote a thing, hardly read. Granted I was catching up on the sleep I lost in the two years it took my son to learn how to sleep through the night, but in fairness I have been forced to consider that, perhaps, the productivity of creative exploits is a direct result of the squeeze in finding free time, the challenge presented in each interpersonal dispute, and, of course, the monotony of the nine to five. Will it always be this way? I don’t know. It could be that inspiration grows through the cracks of our surrender to, and acceptance of, our boredom. Chop wood, carry water — the Buddhists are probably not wrong about this.
Here’s my suggestion: let the mundane aspects of life motivate the action necessary for your personal bliss. Scrape off old habits and bitter thoughts of resentment, defeat, and self-doubt. In the meantime, take time to acknowledge the beauty of ordinary things. For me, it’s about dabbing a little bit of color onto my lips in my rearview mirror every morning. It’s about purchasing a coveted Irish aran sweater on ebay in August and then waiting patiently for that first perfect brisk autumn day to finally wear it. Its about taking ten years to write your novel because sometimes you just have to write that poem about an old friendship you regret went wayward. Taking that sip of tea the very second the threat of scorching your throat has passed. Stopping for a couple minutes to close your eyes and really listen to a yearning melody that tries to rip out your guts, then hitting repeat. And stopping, for crying out loud, for a body waiting at a pedestrian crosswalk (because it’s the law, but also because it’s the right thing to do.)
Be patient with yourself. You may be going through exactly what you need to right now. This is what I’ve been telling myself anyway.
A/N: I promised to include the math conundrum, but after googling it, I’ve found that there is a perfectly acceptable explanation. So, not magic it turns out. It’s called the missing dollar riddle, if you’re interested.