Universal Language

I signed up for the Building Construction Technology curriculum to give my life some…structure, and so far college-level shop class has provided the scaffolding I craved. For one thing, it has given me a new schedule. Writers’ hours be damned. I clock in like Joe Lunchbucket every morning at 7:30, and slide down the back of the dinosaur, Flintstone-style,  at 3:30.

More importantly, after so much subjective creativity of writing a novel, so much wrangling of ideas into language, with no right or wrong answers, I am delighted by the rigid parameters of construction school. There’s a textbook. (Carpentry Fundamentals: Level One…Is that supposed to be a pun?) There are rules. (Half-inch drywall should be hung on the perpendicular, 24 inches on center.) And there is commonsense. (Don’t forget to allow 1/8-inch for the saw blade.) If only someone could tell me to bevel off a couple degrees from my novel in progress, or shove a shim or two under the romantic plot, life as a writer would be so much easier, wouldn’t it?

Or maybe not. Today, I saw the saw the hard science of construction soften into a familiar challenge. There’s an Egyptian gentleman in the class who knows a helluva lot more about carpentry than any of us. He speaks very little English, so it’s hard to know whether he wants our help or just wants us to stand back while he gets the job done. But today I persevered with my questions about his techniques and strategies for turning a bundle of warped two-bys into a barn door for the school’s equipment shed. He’d been at it for a few days and, I thought, was pretty close to the final nail. That’s when he explained he was just getting the structural elements in place to make sure they fit. Then he would dismantle everything to jigsaw and router all the pieces, then he’d put them back together again.

The language barrier being what it was—not to mention my ignorance on the matter—I asked several times why he had to do that. The book does not say anything about assembling and dismantling.

“This is not from the book,” he said, shaking his head. “This…,” he pointed to the door, where I saw an elaborate scrolling vine of light freehand pencil marks, far beyond the utilitarian call of this door’s destiny. “This…,” he tried again, but words eluded him. In his frustration to explain his craft, I recognized my own struggle to capture thoughts in language. I knew exactly the word this carpenter was searching for: Art.

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