My father is a carpenter. He has often claimed to despise his line of work. It’s backbreaking, the tortuous physical aspect is demeaning, and you breathe in dust and fumes all day. Self-employed, he was regularly stiffed by his customers, who tended to be incredibly wealthy and who thought it was a delightful hobby to feign dissatisfaction in order to detract thousands of dollars from his agreed upon price.
Client: “These marks are fine, but I don’t like these marks.”
My Father: “You wanted distressed wood for your cabinetry. You pre-approved the sample and I told you there are always variations in the antiquing process.”
Client: “Well, I’m not paying full price for this.”
And so each person involved played out the role they were bred to fulfill. The wealthy client stole thousands of dollars from my father to satisfy her insatiable sense of entitlement, and my father went home without enough for the mortgage payment and grumbled about how much he hates his job and the assholes he has to deal with. Repeat.
And he really did hate his job and those assholes. But there is no way he hated the work. I spent a lot of time with him in his workroom when I was a kid and as a teenager I went to work for him as an assistant carpenter, and I can tell you that no one who hates doing something is capable of putting as much heartfelt care into it as my father did into the things he built. Everything he made had to be perfect. He never took a shortcut. He labored over every detail, every joint, every surface, and every cut to get it just right. He was hell to work for, always walking over to me and grabbing a tool or a piece of sandpaper out of my hands and saying, “No, like this,” before he launched into a detailed explanation of exactly why what I was doing was wrong and why the way he wanted it done was correct. Then an explanation of how to use the tool for other applications. Then a speech about the type of wood we were working with and why we were using it. Then a lecture on the many methods of joining wood and a lamentation of the disappearance of dovetailing. Then the Talking Heads would come on the radio and he wood whistle along, only joining in to sing with glee, “My GOD! WHAT HAVE I DONE?”
In his heart he is a deeply unsatisfied man, but the things he built gave him satisfaction whether he knew it or not. He filled other people’s homes with beautiful objects executed with inconceivable craftmanship, and so our home was filled as well. The long sturdy table, the cabinets, the bookshelves, the tiny rowboat with an outboard motor. He carved me a wooden doll and spent an afternoon building me a cage for a caterpillar that lived for nine hours in captivity. And it didn’t end with wood, he also made kaleidoscopes. He takes things apart and puts them back together with something bordering on obsession. Guns, trucks and motorcycles are reduced to lines of parts on a tarp and are resurrected weeks later, the same objects they were before except shinier and more functional. He is a man who has to do things with his hands, and who is compelled to do them well.
He has never made a pair of shoes, but if he did they would look like this:
This is the pair of high heels that my father the carpenter would make for me. He would select strong, supple leather and meticulously cut out and hand sew the pieces. He would stand hunched over a work table weaving and braiding the trim and not realize he had a cramp in his neck until he stood up when it was finished. He would carve and sand each 1/8″ slice of wood to build the stacked heel. The contours of the leather insole would ebb and flow in a mirror of the contours of my foot. He would give me arch support and pad the area where the ball of my foot would rest. He would install a thick, strong rubber tread on the bottom that would give me traction but be invisible from every angle. The nail heads would be evenly spaced and lie flush with the leather on the shoe, but here I must confess that if my father were to actually build this shoe then the nail heads would not be visible. They are, however, my favorite detail of this shoe. They look proud. They make it known that this is not some shoe that was hastily glued together by underpaid children in a factory, this is a shoe that was built by a builder. A builder who may have also been underpaid, but who loved to build it anyway.