Confessions of an Unhandy Man

It’s quickly becoming the time of year when people begin thinking of elaborate, meaningful, expensive gifts that they can give another person. The spirit of love, generosity, and gratitude guides us towards video game systems, cheeky coffee mugs, early editions of favorite books, or Cosby sweaters given ironically to humorless, unappreciative recipients. Some gifts are simple and provide endless joy, like a pair of yellow Spiderman saucer sleds given to two little boys. Some are more elaborate and involve weekends away with people we love.
When I was a boy, my mother bought a junior carpenter’s workbench for me as a gift. It came with adorably kid-sized tools that, while nominally functional, were not meant for serious work. I set the workbench up in my bedroom, eagerly planning the wondrous items I’d produce with its limitless capacity. The arrhythmic, staccato tapping of my tiny hammer, coupled with the ineffective and interminable sawing generated by the miniature, plastic-handled saw thwarted my efforts. Toolboxes became unbalanced, miniature footstools. Birdhouses became horrifying lessons in the fragility of life. Thumbs were smashed and sawdust covered my low-pile bedroom carpeting in a dusting of frustration.
It was at that point, well before I had even been on this Earth for a decade, that I knew I wasn’t much of a handyman. That recognition didn’t stop me from trying to build new and more unsafe creations.

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Veterans, Prairies, and Much Needed Vacations

Here in my home office, I have a series of random items hanging on the wall. They’re collected from experiences I’ve had or items I’ve been given over the years. I have a heavy, wooden tennis racket from the 70’s that was purchased at a garage sale to satisfy the room’s required kitsch factor. I have a few of my youngest daughter’s drawings posted to give her confidence and pride in her abilities.

My M.A.diploma, which sits in a plain black frame, simultaneously reminds me of both personal successes and bittersweet missteps. There’s also a framed group photo of my maternal grandfather’s Army company before they shipped off to fight in World War II. Near it is a frame displaying his medals and patches from his time as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne. He’s been gone for well over a decade now, but echoes remain in my mind and in the world around me.

My recollections of my grandfather aren’t well-suited to the kinds of proud, lionizing rhetoric I’ll read or hear about today. He was a retired, confused man by the time I knew him and most of his days were spent drinking, reflecting, shooting gophers from his back porch, or underlining certain phrases in copies of National Geographic and the Reader’s Digest.

It’s hard to imagine him as a young man dropping from the sky, heralding the death of Axis soldiers in Italy and the Netherlands. In a box in my office, I have his war-time Gideon Bible. It’s beaten, aged, and has the names and apartment numbers of women he knew, in the biblical sense, while fighting in Italy. He lived a long and complicated life, filled with contradictions, defeats, and victories.

Yet, his medals rest in their display case on my wall, reminding me that he overcame a struggle that required far more bravery than I’ve ever had to muster for anything. So, on a day like today where we’re meant to honor all who served our country in the military, I think of his service and how his extraordinarily fortunate survival is directly responsible for my existence, not only as a free American, but also as a human being. Continue reading