(PORTIONS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN JUNE 2009)
One of the best decisions that I ever made was to take a deep breath after 10 years in the newspaper business, some of it spent covering big stories in exotic locales, and ponder my future, if not necessarily my navel. The upshot was that I quit the business to learn something that I had long yearned to do -- be a carpenter.
I ended up apprenticing to a fine carpenter, but until that happened, I toiled as a laborer, which was an education in class snobbery. There I was, shovel in hand, flinging dirt from a big hole as I viewed business men and women walking by at ankle level. They looked down on me -- figuratively as well as literally -- and none could have guessed that only a few months earlier I was covering the world's biggest stories, and would be reading Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet that evening while they watched Dallas.
During my apprenticeship, I learned how to build houses from the foundations up, including doing hand-cut cedar shake shingle roofs, interior trim and other finish work, installing skylights so that they never would leak, and some of the other more complex aspects of the nail-bending trade, all while not falling off a single roof. (I did have some close calls navigating roof slates on icy mornings.)
More or less contemporaneous with my second career was the decision to move to a farm where I pitched in with the milking, planting, harvesting and other chores.
While I had felt out of balance, I did not realize how cattywampus my chi (Chinese for life force) was until I had spent a few months away from rush-hour traffic, fluorescent lights, typewriters and the occasional word-processor screen. (Widespread use of computers was a few years off and the Internet well over the horizon.)
The housing market collapsed in the first months of the Reagan presidency and I went back to the newspaper business for another 20 years, finally hanging up my spikes six weeks before the 9/11 attacks, but never again did I feel as out of balance as I had. This is because I made sure that I leavened my day-job loaf with hiking, gardening, cutting wood and swimming -- lots of swimming. The joys of working with my hands was a wonderful lesson that was easy to learn and impossible to forget.
If there was a downside, it is that when I would come home from an especially exhausting day of handwork I seldom felt like doing anything other than eating, drinking and screwing. But I eventually learned to balance those primal urges and resumed book reading and writing in a journal.
My post-newpaper job was cushy in the extreme -- working with visiting scholars in a rare book library at a university for about 10 years -- and then re-retiring for good at age 65, enabling me to work with my hands as I had not for nearly 30 years. This includes gardening, building stuff, refinishing furniture and cooking. On a typical day I am outdoors more than indoors despite keeping a torrid page blogging, as well as writing a couple of books and working on a third, and in some respects I have never felt better as I inch toward septuagenarianhood.
My blood pressure is the lowest that it has been in many years, I've lost weight because I no longer eat takeout food, and keeping up with two 100-pound dogs and four cats helps keep me trim. (The tropical fish are easier.)
Hey, if you've spent your life sitting on your keister, it's never too late to trade in your executive desk chair or Barcalounger for dirty fingernails even if it's only some of the time.
Image by Asbestos