Things don’t always go as planned. Life is funny like that. You start planning out how you think it’s going to go and life totally farts in your face.
We bought a house right before Covid. I say we, but technically my wife bought the house. After my divorce I wasn’t in stellar financial condition. Divorce takes away half of anything you have and turns the other half into a pile of shitty memories, embarrassing mistakes and poor decision making.
But actually, I like that the house technically belongs to her. I love thinking of it as hers so when I'm working on the house I feel like I'm doing things to improve it for her. It’s one of the ways I show her my love. And if I fuck this marriage up too, then at least she’ll walk away with a little sweat equity.
One of the things I love most about the house are our neighbors. Dan and Mary. They’ve lived in the house next door to ours for over 40 years. I’ve never lived anywhere for 40 years. Too much wanderlust. It’s been fun to move around but I’m jealous of people with roots.
I really like Dan. He's kind of the man I'd like to be. He knows how to do everything. He was an engineer. He understands how complex systems work. He knows how to fix a sump pump. And he understands HVAC. Everything in his workshop is neatly labeled and his calendar is marked with when to change the air filter on his furnace and when his hot water heater’s next regularly scheduled maintenance visit is.
I wasn’t aware that hot water heaters required regularly scheduled maintenance. I should know these things. And I should get a calendar.
Dan has had a good life. He worked for one company his whole career. Built a house. Raised his kids. Sent them to college. Paid off his mortgage. And retired on a pension. He and Mary are well into their seventies, but you’d never guess it. They’re always working on something. Last summer they built a 250 square foot outdoor tool shed. By themselves. It even has electrical.
Dan can fix his own car. He has every tool and knows how they all work. He even acted as the contractor when they built his house. He's just one of those guys who can do anything and has all the answers whenever you’re wondering how something works or why something isn’t doing what’s it’s supposed to.
It gives him this cool air of confidence where he's really mellow because he knows that he can solve any problem life throws at him. I’d love to have that kind of cool confidence. But I’m the opposite. I’m constantly worrying and wondering what’s going to break next and what on earth I’m going to do about it, how much it’s going to cost me and what I should have known to do to avert the disaster in the first place.
I like to fix stuff too. I’m an aspiring DIYer. I’ve been slowly accumulating experience, taking on jobs that require watching YouTube videos and building my collection of tools and hardware to do the work. I just don't always succeed like he does. And when we talk about how to fix something I get nervous around him because I don't want him to think I'm a complete idiot.
The other day, Dan sees me dragging in a big box that had just been delivered. I bought a new table saw. I needed one if I was going to be able to do the things to the house that I thought I could handle. I've had one before. This is not my first table saw. But this is my first new table saw. Which is very exciting for me of course.
Dan says, "Hey Jeff, new table saw. Let me know if you need any help."
"Thanks, Dan." I say. “Gonna be turning some flat front kitchen cabinets into Shaker style."
He smiles and gives me the thumbs up, and I go on my way feeling pretty good about myself and the look of approval I just got from Dan the man.
I get the saw unboxed and set up just fine. It’s pretty easy. It’s a cheap table saw. Not a hunk of junk that can’t do the job. But no bells and whistles. Basically, all you have to do is set up the stand and plug the sucker in.
It even comes with the blade installed and ready to go. I splurged and bought a fine-tooth blade that I intend to swap it out with so I can make cleaner cuts. I have a fair amount of experience working on a table saw but I've never changed a blade. It's not difficult, but I know you need special wrenches and I know I don't have them.
I really don't want to bother Dan with this. I should be able to handle this myself. It’s simply swapping out the blade on a no-frills table saw. People do this every day all over the world. Millions of people have changed the blade on their table saw. There’s no reason I can’t do this myself.
So I go to Home Depot to buy some table saw wrenches. Which evidently, don't exist. And when I ask the Home Depot guy about it, the Home Depot guy kind of looks at me weird and keeps asking why my saw didn’t come with any. I keep telling them mine didn't and just want to know what I should do about it and they kind of just shrug and tell me my best bet is the hardware aisle.
The whole experience leaves me feeling sad and confused and incompetent and very un-Dan. I fight through it and make my way to the hardware aisle. There are no table saw wrenches, so I look for alternatives. I end up buying some automotive wrenches that I think might work.
There's no way around it. I’m gonna need to ask Dan for help.
I go next door and he's underneath his grandson's Miata doing something I wish I knew how to do. I’ve never even been underneath a car. I wonder what it’s like. I wonder if I could handle it down there. Do I have what it takes?
"Hey, Dan. How's it going?"
From beneath the car, he says in his cool retired engineer voice, "Real good, Jeff. How's that new table saw working out?"
"Great, Dan." I say. "Um, do you know much about table saws?" I kick myself for asking this question. Of course, Dan knows about table saws you idiot. Jesus, you’re a writer and you couldn’t find a better opening line than that?
From under the car, I hear a slight chuckle, then a hesitation and then, "Well, I know a thing or two, what's your problem?"
I explain the situation. I want to change the blade and I don't have the wrenches to do it. He slides out from under the car, because of course he has his own mechanic’s creeper, and says, "Well, let's take a look at your saw and see if we can figure it out."
I feel guilty and small for taking him away from his work. That’s his grandson’s Miata he’s working on. Can you imagine the pride and care he must take in working on his grandson’s car? I’d like to do that someday. That would make me feel pretty darn good about myself.
But I really want to get to work on these cabinets. It’s an inexpensive way to give them a whole new, updated feel. I think of my wife and two scenes flash in my head. One of her throwing her arms around me as I finish installing the last newly refurbished cabinet door that transforms the kitchen into a delightful bright and airy space. The other is me informing her of my failure. She does a good job of masking the disappointment as she pats me on the back and says thanks for trying.
I ask Dan what he’s doing on the Miata and he says a few things I don't understand which makes me feel smaller. He walks into my garage and compliments me on how I've set up the cabinet doors neatly on a drop cloth. He says something about my operation looking top notch and I feel a tiny bit bigger as I swell with pride. Dan's approval means the world to me.
We walk over to the table saw. It's a cheapy I got off of Amazon, but it'll get the job done. Dan compliments me on it, but I know he's just being nice. He wouldn’t have bought this table saw and he sure as hell wouldn’t have bought it off of Amazon. He would have gone to the table saw store. He would have bought a few table saws from them in the past and they would know his name.
He walks around the table saw like a man on his second visit to the car dealership. He checks the cord to make sure it isn’t plugged in. Then he flips the power switch just to confirm that the table saw is safe to work on. Total pro-move.
He inspects the blade and confirms it will indeed need to be changed out using the proper wrenches if I want to put on a new one. Without really even looking he leans over and reaches around to the back of the saw. I can see that he's feeling around for something. I hear a click and a pop and a clank and he pulls out the wrenches that were tucked away into a recess on the back of the saw.
"Here you go, Jeff. These are your wrenches to change the blade with. Every table saw comes with them."
As I continue shrinking to a microscopic level, Dan hands me the wrenches. They're wonderful. They're exactly what I need. And Dan's so cool about it. He even makes a comment about how cleverly designed my table saw is and how nicely the wrenches fit into the recess.
He looks down and sees the automotive wrenches I bought. Which upon comparison to the actual table saw wrenches are very different and not even close to what I needed. I don’t even tell Dan that I bought them for the table saw. I don’t want him to know. I don’t want to live with the shame.
"Hey, are these metric?" he asks.
I have no idea if the wrenches are metric and what exactly that means, but luckily before I can say something stupid, he confirms that they are indeed metric wrenches. I don't know how he does this, but I don't question it.
"Can I borrow these for a bit?"
Holy. Shit. Dan wants to borrow one of my tools?
"Of course, Dan! You can have them! I mean. You can borrow them. Cool. Yeah. Metric wrenches. All yours, Dan."
And then, HE thanks me. And I feel enormous. Not only have I got the table saw wrenches I need—but I’ve just loaned Dan some tools. I’m walking on air. I feel like I’ve finally made it to the big time. I feel like Dan.