Thursday, January 13, 2011

Warped wood, salvaged bicycles, and "can" and "can't" people




Earlier this year my wife and I awoke at 5 a.m. to the stroke-inducing sounds of heated, pressurized water splashing on the floor of our laundry room. Our hot water heater had bit the dust. We called the plumber and mopped and sopped large quantities of water and had the hot water heater replaced and thought it was the end of it. But little did we know, the water had seeped under the floor and gotten to the wood floor of our bedroom. And before you can say “absorbent and yellow and porous is he” our floor swelled up (or “got swoll” in the parlance of the street) and warped like Lady Gaga’s fashion sense.

My wife had the idea to try to salvage some of the wood and do something with it, which made very little sense to me. But I’ve been married long enough to know what not to make a big deal over and I gladly kept the least warped wood in the garage until Margaret’s dad could get it.

My father in law, David Spence, is a sho-nuf woodworking craftsman. He has built stuff for us that you can’t believe, including Morris chairs and really nice tables. If he can’t do it with wood it can’t be done. He had the idea to turn the left-over wood into serving trays, which really turned out nice. They look great on the front as you can see in the picture, but the craftsmanship on the back is just as impressive.

The D-D pieces are for David and Dorothy and together they make an S for Spence. The screws that put the handles on are countersunk so they don’t stick out and you’ve got hanging hardware mounted so you can store it on the wall when your wife is not using it to bring you breakfast in bed. The son-of-a-guns are heavy, too, and would make fine weapons. In fact, the big Korean guy from the old James Bond movie who used to decapitate people with his hat has placed an order for a half-dozen. Margaret's dad even made a headboard out of some of the wood and we used the little end-pieces to burn in the firepit on the patio. All in all, a great use for wood that would have been on its way to the dump if it were not for the keen eye of my wife and her dad’s skill.

I have no woodworking skills, but I do know a little about bikes. This summer I rescued this 1993 road bike from somebody who wanted to get rid of it, cleaned it up and adjusted it and swapped out a couple of components. The bike is a 1993 model and I’m pretty sure the tires were original when I got it this summer. When I took the tires off to replace the tubes, the mummified rim tape just disintegrated in my hands. I replaced all that stuff at very low cost and this bike has made a great commuter bike this year. Mountain bikers and fixie riders fear my lethal kick on Welsh street and the bike (“School Baby” is her name) has even completed the gravel-intensive “Bridges without number” ride of Brazos and Grimes counties. So I’ve gotten a lot of use and satisfaction out of a bike that would otherwise be sitting in someone’s garage.

The ability to see a thing and envision what it can be is valuable, but the ability to see a person and envision what they can be is even more so. There were several instances of Jesus doing this. He saw each of the disciples, Zaccheus, the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the people he healed; not as what they were, but what they had the potential to be. And he engaged them, healed them, taught them, spent time with them and gave them space to participate in something huge.

I had occasion this week to think about people who saw potential in me and told me I could do something and people who saw my limitations and told me I couldn’t do something. I owe a lot to both groups. I had lunch today with one of my profs who is going to pass my book on to a publishing company. He’s the very same guy I told a little over two years ago that I was thinking about writing a book. I had this impulse to write a book, but didn’t know how and wasn’t sure I could do it and was telling him this half-hoping he’d say, “Look, you’re just getting into grad school. You need to focus on your studies and think like an academic professional.” Instead, when I said, “I’m thinking about writing a book” he said without hesitation, “You can do it. Just write about what you know and write a little every day and you can do it.” I could go on and on talking about the parents and teachers and coaches and Marines I’ve known who pulled me aside at the right moment and told me, “You have some great abilities in this area. You can achieve great things.”

But I’ve also had people tell me straight up that I couldn’t do things and they’ve been just as motivating. Some people laughed in my face in high school when I told them I’d be a Marine. People in the Marine Corps told me I’d never be able to go to Airborne School or get into Recon. When I was about to go to language training, my boss, a Colonel, told me I’d never be able to learn enough Spanish to do more than order a meal. When we lived in Miami and I wanted to enroll in a translation and interpretation class I was told I didn’t speak Spanish well enough to be in the class and I had to appeal to the next level of administration to get in the class. In my first semester in grad school at A&M, a professor told me I wasn’t scholarly and didn’t have what it took to be successful in the program. I was able to prove all, all of those suckers wrong. Flat wrong. Bad wrong. But make no mistake, I needed that, too. The sting of those comments was like motivation in rocket fuel form.

For all the people who will tell you to your face that you can’t do something, there must be three times that number thinking it who are just too diplomatic to say it. Since there are more “can’t” people than “can” people, I’m going to resolve to be one of those encouragers, one who tells people they have the capacity and potential to do something great. Because we all do.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I'm back

I reached a point this semester where I had to put myself on a blog-atical and a Facebook diet. It was worth it, though, because I was able to get a bunch of really significant academic stuff accomplished this semester (kinda what you’d expect of a PhD student and I won’t bore you with it) and was also able to complete a couple of personal writing projects. The first is the Spanish to English translation of a novel my friend Jose Palacios wrote in 2009. The second is my own novel I’ve been working on for a couple of years. Both projects are going to a publisher who has shown interest in publishing them (Jose’s novel in Spanish has already been published once in Colombia and another publisher, Alfaguara, is going to publish it again).

I’m cautiously optimistic about my book. It’s a first person narrative about a guy who does surveillance for narco-traffickers in Peru. I don’t normally write stories from the point of view of narco-traffickers, but I had a bunch of disparate narratives that I had worked on and liked but that didn’t really work together. This surveillance guy was an invention to tie all these other stories together and what happens to him is what keeps you reading to the end (I hope). I came to grips with a lot of this stuff via a graduate English class I had last spring on Creative Writing. The biggest part of the course is “workshopping” what you’ve written by handing it out to the other people in the class. They take it home and come back and give you verbal feedback in front of the prof and the other students. It’s somewhat traumatic when eight other people tell you your twenty pages of creative work is crappy, but, more often than not, they also have helpful suggestions that, in my case, shaped the book into something that may be publishable.

When you’ve put a lot of yourself into something and you’re very close to it you can’t have real accurate perspective about it, so I’ll have to see if the final book is really any good. I’ve been a pretty fair writer for a while, but this novel was a tough project. It's a lot like building a house. You may be a good decorator or a great cabinet maker or an electrician, but that don’t mean you can build no house. To build a house you have to know everything from the blue prints to the home site preparation all the way to the best roof to put on. And if you put it all together and build it and the bathroom’s in the wrong place, too bad. As for the writing, you may be a fine writer, but if you can’t hook all the characters together correctly and have a really solid, interesting premise and build in the right amount of conflict and construct a plot that works you won’t have a novel. And I struggled with all those things.

All the writing and studying have put a crimp in my workout program and that, combined with the great holiday food now have me swoll up like a tick on Dracula. Only my cycling shape is somewhat up to snuff for winter. So I need to get it in gear and get serious for bike racing season and the Holy Toledo Triathlon in late March. Monday will be the A&M Cycling Team MLK Day Century (100 mi.) Ride - some of the best fun you can have with your pants on. And the next day it’s back to the academic grind, too.