Authors: Nina MacLaughlin
The Making of a Carpenter
is a work of nonfiction. Certain names and
identifying characteristics of the people who appear in
these pages have been changed.
ow do we decide what’s right for our own lives? A close friend posed this question to me, and it echoes often in my head. What shape do we want our lives to take, and, if we’ve had the fortune to figure that out, how do we go about constructing that life? In Ovid’s
, the gods are the reigning agents of change, and repeatedly “give and take away the form of things.” People are transformed into owls, bears, horses, newts, stones, birds, and trees. Without the gods to guide us, to cast their spells of transformation, how do we become something other than we were?
I used to be a journalist. Now I work as a carpenter. The transformation, like the renovation of a kitchen, happened first in big bashing crashes and now has slowed as it gets closer to complete. In college, I studied English and Classics and engaged in the abstractions of ancient history and literary theory. A journalism job followed, and with it, continued interaction with intangibles (the Internet, ideas, telling stories with words). The world around me, material reality—the floors and cabinets, the tables, decks, and bookcases—all of it was real enough to knock or kick, but it was an afterthought, taken for granted, obscured by the computer’s glow. After nearly a decade working at a desk in front of a screen, I longed to engage with the tangible, to do work that resulted in something I could touch. I grew more interested in making a desk than sitting at one.
, mortals are transformed by the gods for two reasons: to punish and to save. My shift from journalist to carpenter was neither punishment nor salvation. It was an unexpected veering, a welcome re-forming. Under the guidance of my boss Mary, a carpenter and unexpected mentor, I’ve been given entry into the material world. I’ve watched, again and again, as one thing becomes something else—the way a seed becomes a tree becomes a board becomes a bookshelf. For people, such transformations are subtler, and perhaps more difficult to achieve. We cannot take a hacksaw to our habits, after all. But as Ovid writes, “By birth we mean beginning to re-form, a thing’s becoming other than it was.” This book is a story, a simple one, of things becoming other than they were. It’s a story, like all of them, of transformation.
rom the sidewalk on Memorial Drive where the Mass Ave Bridge begins on the Cambridge side of the Charles River, the view across extends a little less than half a mile. To the south, the Boston skyline rises above Storrow Drive. Closer to the water, and lower to the ground, brick predominates; glass and steel rise behind. To the west, moving upstream against the current, the Citgo sign lights up over Kenmore Square, and if it’s a home game during Red Sox season, the floodlights over Fenway make it daytime in the park. The river bends and snakes its way out of the city, through twenty-three towns, sidewalks and river paths giving way to shoreline with pine and maples. Great blue herons stand in shallows on stalky legs and box turtles with warm shells sun themselves on rocks and logs. For eighty miles, the river wends through eastern Massachusetts from its start at Echo Lake in a town called Hopkinton. To the east of the Mass Ave Bridge, back near the city, sailboats dip and swerve. Oars on the eight-person sculls thunk in the oarlocks as crew teams run their practice and glide underneath the bridge. The Red Line train crosses over the Longfellow Bridge about a mile downstream. Beyond, the new Zakim Bridge rises above the river, suspended by white strands that look like the skeletons of wings. The river meets the harbor, freshwater merges with salt, and the Charles River is altered and absorbed into the Atlantic.
For seven years, I crossed the bridge on foot, once in the morning, sun at my left shoulder, and once in the evening, when sunsets sometimes blushed the sky. It was part of the three-mile path I made from my apartment in Cambridge to the newspaper offices where I worked in Boston. On the way home, depending on weather and time of year and if it was a deadline day, bands of pink spread across the sky upstream, or else it was cold and city dark, and lights became the thing, streetlamps, headlights, taillights like embers, all blinking and sparkling up the road ahead. The river glittered with Cambridge above it, squatter than Boston, lower to the ground. Sometimes, the moon. Sometimes, a few stars. The wind blew stronger on the bridge. Tourists handed me their cameras and asked me to take photographs with the river and the skyline. I dodged joggers and cyclists on the sidewalk afraid of the bike lane. I was usually alone when I walked the bridge, occasionally drunk, a few times crying, one time kissed by someone I didn’t like too much. The walk across the river was a ferrying for my brain—toward a desk and noise and tip-tapping of keys, clicking and interviews and story ideas, and away from my desk in the evenings, toward quiet and home, toward a bar, toward not having to talk or think or be clever or click. Oh I am fond of that bridge, the whole stretch of it. It’s the longest one to span the Charles at 2,164.8 feet. That’s 659.82 meters, or 364.4 smoots.
Oliver Smoot was the shortest pledge of MIT’s Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity in 1958. Late one night that year, he was tipped head over heels, over and over, across the length of the bridge, Boston to Cambridge, by his fraternity brothers. They made an official tally of 364.4 smoots, plus or minus one ear. Ever since that fabled measurement, twice each year the boys of Lambda Chi Alpha have repainted the markers on the sidewalk across the bridge that delineate every ten smoots. (An exception has been made for smoot-mark sixty-nine, which as of this year, had the addition of “heaven” painted underneath.) When the bridge was reconstructed in the 1980s, the sidewalk slabs were made in smoot-lengths, as opposed to the six-foot standard. Oliver Smoot’s contribution to measurement continued well after his fraternity days. A plaque at the base of the bridge commemorates the 50th anniversary of the smoot, and notes that Ollie went on to head both the American National Standards Institute and the International Organization for Standardization.
I trotted across the bridge, face reddened by wind in winter, sweat soaking the back of my shirt in summer, and I went to my desk at a newspaper where I’d landed a job out of college. First I did listings, which meant inputting the city’s every concert, contra dance, art exhibit, comedy show, poetry slam, and movie time into a massive database week-in, week-out. I wrote about cheap Salvadoran restaurants, interviewed David Copperfield, profiled an art-porn collective, reviewed documentary films, covered a conference on virginity, and wrote about books and authors and the literary scene in Boston. Eventually I got bumped up to managing editor of the website, which meant I was tasked with making sure every story showed up in the right place at the right time. It meant a lot of clicking.
For a long time, I loved it. I loved the rhythm of the thing, the peaks and lulls, the energy of a room of people, mostly men, on deadline. All the furious typing, all the opinions and shit-talk, listening to writers on the phone with sources, the concentration and filing and release—the newsroom possessed a charge. And I was proud to be part of it. What good fortune, to be able to go to a place every day and be surrounded by all these smart maniacs telling stories, all working to produce this thing that had a history, that was part of the fabric of the city, that was committed to long-form, investigative, issue-based journalism and had the strongest set of arts critics in Boston.
What a set of weirdos sat at these desks with me, what a collection of brains. There was the sharp-witted, chain-smoker with untucked shirts and rogue charm who had worked moving houses before becoming a journalist. There was the practitioner of make-the-world-better journalism and expose-injustice journalism, who sat at her desk and worked with the focus and fire of someone possessed until you got her out to the bar, where she’d talk about how she’d followed the Grateful Dead. The managing editor was a first-rate grump, a big-hearted cynic who had helped start the paper, and still believed in its power and necessity. The arts editor with the encyclopedic memory threw cursing fits, slamming books on the floor of his cube, his standards unmeetably high. And the features writer, from hard-knocks Brockton, wrote a weekly column about the city’s strangest characters, which struck me as maybe the coolest job in the world. In my head, she towered tall above me; I saw her not long ago, and realizing that she and I were the same height came as an immense shock and had me questioning, for a moment, if perhaps she’d contracted some shrinking disease. Such is how these people loomed.