I was working in my studio one summer morning – my Zen space, as I like to call it – and a loud noise jolted me out of my skin. I caught my breath, then looked around to see where it had come from.
My neighbor Mark from down the road and his grandson were walking toward the back edge of their property. They leaned over cautiously, a shotgun resting against Mark’s hip, then stayed there for a few moments staring at the ground. I couldn’t imagine what had happened, but I suspected it wasn’t good. I walked close enough to get within earshot but stay out of harm’s way.
Everything okay? I yelled toward them. Mark stood up and waved. All good, he hollered back jovially. Just taking out a hard drive.
I consider myself fairly technologically savvy. I’ve built my own websites, and can tweak a bit of code here and there when necessary. I may be easily derailed by passwords, mostly because I don’t take kindly to being told after the fact what type of characters I can or can’t use. In retaliation, I tend to make them far too secure (and profanity-laced) to remember. But I’m no Luddite. Still, taking out a hard drive with a shotgun? This was new to me.
Alan works in IT management, doing something I can only articulate the way a toddler might tell a stranger what their dad does at work. He… goes to meetings and stuff. Deals with clouds, servers, stacks… things like that. As long as the person I’m talking to knows less than I do, I breeze by and change the subject. How’s the turkey sandwich? I nonchalantly ask. It only falls flat when they know I’m bluffing, or when Alan gets roped into troubleshooting someone’s wifi at a family gathering.
What I mostly know about his job is that there is a love affair with acronyms and jargon. A day off is called ETB, because three syllables is so much more streamlined than two. “Realtime Feedback” is an acceptable way to chew out your boss. And a 411 bridge means he’s not coming home for dinner.
Sometimes it all just sounds so absurd. When he calls me from work, I can’t help myself: Are you free for a one-on-one tonight? Put me on your schedule, I say saucily, then giggle like a school girl. He feigns amusement. I guess he doesn’t find work meetings sexy, who knew? I should be grateful.
I ask him about his day every morning, and he gives me a laundry list in quick succession: Manager’s Circle at 10am, Presentation Socializing at 11, then a one-on-one with my Team Lead followed by a panel interview and Data Integration. Oh, I respond casually, trying to hide my ignorance while I decipher the random word pairings.
My daughter and I used to have a game I nicknamed “dartboard vocabulary”. She’d run up to me at some random point in the day and ask about a term that eluded her. What’s that word… the one that’s kinda like “personality” but starts with a t? “Character?” I’d guess. YESSSSSSSS!!! She’d run out of the room cheering. I was amazingly good at this game. It never took more than a few tries. The key, I grew to realize, was to take whatever letter she thought it started with and put it squarely in the middle. But guessing the meaning of words behind Alan’s schedule? I sucked at this game.
He’d ask about my day in return, and I’d stumble. I’m gonna… make stuff. Cut metal and things. It all seemed so small suddenly. I’ll play it by ear, I’d deflect.
My job is less scheduled. Actually, it’s not scheduled at all. I have deadlines, but they are recorded in days, not hours. As long as I get everything done and in the mail by when it needs to ship, or deliver it on time for an installation, who cares what I do when? I have a process, and lists and whatnot to keep track of it all. But my work is fairly physical, and sometimes I have to balance my heavy lifting with less taxing activities. I decide what to do in the moment. If I’m feeling energized, I cut metal. If I’m tired, I catch up on bookkeeping. If I’m a multi-tasking madwoman, I run etch baths while drafting sketches while emailing customers.
Back in my teaching days, I was scheduled to the minute. Third period ended at 10:32, and then I had four minutes to send my students off, gather up my things, and scoot off to the next room to get set up again. My internal clock was on point. I knew what time it was to the minute at every given moment of the day, whether asleep or awake. But it fell by the wayside when I became self employed. My temporal muscle grew slack, and now I have to remind myself to stop occasionally and do basic things like eat lunch and drink water.
Alan is envious of my days. Every evening when he comes home from work, he asks if he can see what I’ve done, and glows like a child on Christmas as I show him. He marvels at how I create physical things, things that didn’t exist the last time he saw me. He calls me a magician. He remarks that all he did that day was delete a bunch of emails or have a lot of meetings. But I made something. With my hands. And people paid me for it. He marvels at how I make a living in the most visceral sense of the word.
When he gets home from the office, he craves the sort of physical work that I do much of the day. I crave a chair. We change places. He tends the animals, or weeds the garden, or puts up fencing. It gives him the satisfaction of having done something real.
Ting Ting Ting Ting Ting
I looked out of my studio to see Alan putting up metal fence posts near the road. He thought a snow fence might help keep the driveway apron clear during the coming winter. The year before, the snow had piled up so high at the end of the drive that it dwarfed the car. Hopefully this would keep it in check.
Later that afternoon, he asked if my internet was working; his wasn’t connecting. Nope, down for the count. This was not that unusual – when we first moved here, we quickly learned that cell phone service was a thing of the past. Unless you happened to receive a call while standing near the laundry room window, you’d never even know you had one. The internet was slightly better, unless it rained, in which case you were better off reading a book, like the old-fashioned way. We learned that we are literally the last house on the cable line. I didn’t know there was an end to the line, but there is – and apparently we’re it.
Alan went to the laundry room and leaned out the window. He called tech support and they ran their battery of tests, which included the obligatory “Is it turned on? Is the light red or green?” and that sort of thing. I suspect this patronizing line of questioning was insulting to an IT guy, but it was the intellectual toll one had to pay to get across the helpful bridge. They would send someone out on Tuesday.
A young man in a slouchy uniform showed up, and squinted at an electronic device. It looks like the line was cut, he said. He couldn’t tell where, but likely somewhere between the telephone pole and our driveway. Were you doing any digging lately? Nooooooooo….. I answered in the most technically honest way I could. I glanced at the fence posts and tried not to look guilty. He strung a new cable and laid it across our gravel driveway. Someone would be by the next week to bury it.
Does your internet ever go out sometimes? he asked, poking around while he waited for the router to reset. Like, when it rains? Well, yeah – all the time. When he hooked up the new line to the old, he had discovered that the original connectors had never been sealed. Every time they got wet, he surmised, they would crackle with static and interrupt the signal. We assumed it was just like that out here. He caulked it right up, or whatever it is you do with those sorts of things.
The following week, a guy pulled up in a junky white truck with a spray painted business name on the side. He pulled out a shovel and pushed the orange cable into the gravel of the driveway. He didn’t look particularly enthused about his life’s work, but, as Alan always quotes his mom, The world needs ditch diggers too. Perhaps it needs an unenthused cable shovel pusher as well.
That winter, as the snow began to fall, we learned a critical lesson about snow fences: they will just as likely keep the snow on your driveway as off. We outgrew our snowblower almost immediately, and Alan began looking for a plow – ideally one with a truck still attached. He found one at a nearby car dealership and went to check it out.
It was a small commercial truck, bright red with an equally red plow. It had been retired from a nuclear power plant – the logo on the side showed through the thin layer of paint. It had a revolving orange safety light on the roof and giant mirrors on each side, each missing five of their six bolts, causing them to rattle while driving. The floor on the driver’s side must have rusted through at some point, and had been repaired by welding a speed limit sign right onto the floor.
It was an ideal farm truck, Alan concluded. The perfect price – cheap, a massive 8-foot bed, farm red, and full of character. It oozed the sort of laid-back farm unpretentiousness that only a truck of such utility can. He brought it home with pride. It turned out to be the truck we never knew we needed. As we bought lumber, hauled firewood, delivered artwork and the like, the Big Red Truck proved invaluable. Even the dogs loved it – they went for rides to the feed store, their tongues hanging out in glee. We wondered how we ever lived without it.
On a thick, snowy morning, Alan pulled out the Big Red Truck, lowered the plow, and pushed the snow down the drive. It worked like a miracle – 20 seconds flat, and an hour’s worth of snowblowing was behind him. He dropped the plow a notch and made a second pass, clearing the last of the drive and pushing the snow across the road into the ditch. SNAP went the orange cable.
He came back inside with a dusting of snow on his shoulders and a frustrated look on his face. He grabbed his phone and walked down to the laundry room. It wasn’t even in the ground, he said in exasperation. They just shoved in the gravel. By the time he saw the telltale orange color peeking through the white snow, it was too late. He called tech support and waded through the obligatory questions. They would send someone out on Tuesday.
An awful noise pierced the quiet summer morning, starting small but growing louder and more violent. I went outside to see what it could possibly be. There, hanging from the pale spring sky, was the most bizarre contraption I had ever seen. A helicopter was dangling a 100-foot long string of giant round chain saws, each buzzing and whirring about menacingly. It looked like something from a horror movie. It was inching westward, but every so often would swing around slowly in the air, the round saws trailing reluctantly behind.
It was trimming the trees along the clearing near the power lines about a half mile south. The grinding noise went on for several days before finally becoming muffled enough by distance to ignore. I suppose it’s important to keep tree branches away from the lines, but I did wonder about the logic behind using chain saws, or at least perhaps the dangling part. It all seemed so counter-intuitive. Was this really the best technology humanity could muster?
Alan has worked in corporate America for many years now, and he often reflects that even big successful companies sometimes seem to be held together by rubber bands and chewing gum. No matter the size nor the place, look closely enough and you’ll find something odd or even downright bizarre.
I think that’s why he loves the farm so much. When you’re working with your hands, a certain amount of winging it is accepted. That’s what gives farm life its charm. You don’t need to solve giant problems, like how to trim miles of trees or make phone calls float through the air or interconnect the entire world. You just need to plow a driveway. Or cover a hole in the floor of a truck. Or, take out a hard drive. The old-fashioned way. You know, with a shotgun.