Slow to Learn by Jim Ross

Despite being a klutz with tools, I’ve taken on a steady stream of handyman work in recent years because of my volunteer service with, of all things, the local ballet company in my hometown of Ocala, Florida. My two daughters dance, thus qualifying me for automatic induction into the “Backstage Dads” regiment. We dads move props in and out of the Ocala Civic Theatre before and after each run of ballet shows. We repair sets and handle behind-the-curtain mechanical and physical tasks. We wear black T-shirts, cuss under our breath, and roam the theater’s back shop, which looks like an airplane hangar jammed full of lumber, wrenches, saw horses and crusty paint cans.

On performance nights we change sets between scenes while costumed ballerinas, desperate to reach their appointed spots on stage before the curtain rises, sprint past us like 7-11 robbers one step ahead of the law. When pre-, post- or intra-show problems arise — a piece of painted foam must be glued back onto the Nutcracker throne or a fog machine’s heating element fails — we make quick fixes. Chaos is the default setting. Fritchy Smith, a backstage dad emeritus, remembers the curtain rising on many Opening Nights to reveal props still wet with fresh paint. I believe him.

The current leader of the Backstage Dads is Jody, a contractor who builds huge screened-in enclosures around outdoor swimming pools. He also hunts, fishes, pilots boats, and has repaired every prop crammed inside the ballet company’s three storage units. He can work any tool, solve any problem, beat any deadline. His wife calls him MacGyver.

My wife calls me McLovin — or she would, if she had ever seen Superbad and acquainted herself with that character’s epic nerdiness. I can’t even properly attach the kickplate grille to the bottom of our refrigerator. I struggled to “build” my son’s Pinewood Derby car from a factory kit designed for 8-year-olds. This handyman ineptitude is lifelong. My dad imparted some tips (“always buy good tools!”) but I didn’t learn much from his tutelage. My father-in-law is a jack-of-all-trades who showed me how to apply grout around a bathtub and connect a refrigerator to a water line. Unfortunately, my knowledge retention is poor, and what little I remember never seems to help on the next job.

With minimal skill and even less confidence, my only hope is to think my way through each manual task. I survey the job and plot a strategy. I organize the parts on a towel, ready for deployment. I follow instructions, use all the provided hardware, stick with hand tools, watch how-to videos on YouTube, and pray.

Sometimes it all works. I once gently pried the thumb-sized front panel off the water regulator on the upstairs bath tub, tightened the loose screw, and snapped the panel back into place. No waterfall erupted.  More typical was the night spent years ago disassembling a crib so it could be moved from one bedroom to another.  In frustration I bent back an uncooperative piece and cracked the wood. I visited a repair shop west of town where an older man walked out, looked at the severed leg, and had the decency not to ask what had happened.

One Saturday morning back in October I used a rust-tinged hand saw to attack a huge thicket of tree limbs that had fallen and split my neighbor’s wooden fence, leaving half the mess in her yard and half in mine. Jody would have used a chainsaw and been finished in 10 minutes. I would have severed a finger or obliterated the entire fence if I had used a power tool. So I spent an hour trimming around the edges. I was, of course, unable to remove the main limb, which was thick as a telephone pole. When I finally gave up the limb was still there, jutting through the fence like a man’s arm holding an elevator door open.

Lack of skill doesn’t deter me from tackling jobs. After all, the work must be done, and I can’t afford a professional house call every time a sink clogs. Humiliation usually isn’t a concern, either, since my family doesn’t exactly line up to watch me adjust the lawnmower’s self-propel belt. My male ego is as fragile as the next guy’s, but fear of feeling like a sissy no longer holds me back. I do the best I can and live with what I can’t rise above.

Hence my willing, if unlikely, conscription into the Backstage Dads. Compelled by paternal duty, loathe to let the team down, and resigned to my limited usefulness, I present my clumsy self for duty at every ballet show, rehearsal and Saturday morning work session. The dads have worked with me long enough to know I’m a stiff, but they’re nice enough not to say so out loud. We’ve become good friends over the years, even though I can’t swap hunting and fishing stories because I don’t partake in either activity.

My skills have improved somewhat over time, if only because of osmosis. I can climb into the theater rafters and lower the cloth backdrops onstage. I can find and reset the circuit when our dry-ice machine overloads the theater’s electrical system. Still, when you’re as unskilled, and unsure, as I am, a terrifying moment is never far away. One night, during a dress rehearsal, I couldn’t untie a cloth drop that needed to be unfurled during a lightning-quick set change. The stage was almost completely dark, and the ties binding the drop were gnarled and unyielding. “Help!” I whispered as loudly as I dared. Jody darted across the darkened stage and rescued me with his pocket knife. He had one, of course. I didn’t, of course. The curtain didn’t come up on time, and I stood panting in the stage-right wing, happy that the shadowy darkness concealed my red face. I knew what all the other volunteers were thinking: It’s his fault. Jody said I panicked and couldn’t perform. Actually, I couldn’t perform and then I panicked. And then I thought what I always think: The other dads would have gotten it right.

In addition to our theater work, the Backstage Dads also provide design and construction services. On that Saturday in October when I had the disastrous backyard encounter with the errant tree limbs, Jody and I stood inside the ballet studio examining a picture of a huge gingerbread house. Sally, one of the “Costume Moms,” informed us that the artistic director wanted a life-sized replica of this house built for our December run of The Nutcracker. Jody peered at the picture, no doubt mentally picturing the framing, bracing and connecting required to build this prop. I nodded knowingly, mentally picturing the finished product but having no clue how to create it.

A few weeks later, the Backstage Dads gathered in the dance studio parking lot amid an impressive array of lumber and power tools. Randy, who is an engineer, was there. So was Bryan, who is a general contractor, and Richard, who works road construction. I wasn’t just a fish out of water; I couldn’t even see the water.

We gathered around Jody, who sketched a drawing and wrote the letters “NTS” next to it. “You know what that means?” he asked. “Not to scale!” He popped a two-by-four beneath the skill saw that sat on his pickup truck bed, made a quick measurement, and drew two sure lines on the board (wisk! wisk!) with a pencil retrieved from behind his ear. Then came a brief screech and the smell of fresh sawdust as the blade lowered onto the board and obliterated the lines.

That’s how it went all afternoon: measuring and cutting wood; drilling holes and connecting braces with bolts; bringing a gingerbread house to life from nothing but a pile of wood and a dream. My contribution, per usual, was picking up lumber scraps and steadying boards while the other guys wielded power saws and screw guns. Once, a year or so earlier, Jody had handed me the staple gun and offered to hold a board while I did the main work. It’s OK, I told him after a few miserable efforts. I don’t mind playing straight man to the main talent.

As always I marveled at the other dads: their easy manner, their ability to envision the next steps. They knew when to adjust a connection, even if only a quarter of an inch, and when to just bang the union into line with a hammer. They worked expertly, neither fast nor slow, and confidently, knowing that any mishap could be remedied. On days like that I feel like I’ll never be a proper backstage dad, no matter how carefully I observe, no matter how much knowledge I try to absorb.

The funny thing is, despite my inadequacies, I derive undue satisfaction and pride from my work with the Backstage Dads. In December, when The Nutcracker run finally started and that crazy A-frame gingerbread house was pushed on stage, with a garish Mother Ginger riding on top, I stood silently triumphant in the stage-right wing. I helped steady those boards. I grabbed a nut driver from the back shop and helped swap out the metal casters on which the structure rolled. My contributions couldn’t have been less consequential, but I acted like I had single-handedly built the Taj Mahal and was preparing to speak at the royal ribbon cutting.

You would think I’d feel this sense of accomplishment for something I’m actually good at, like my day jobs: writing, editing and teaching. But I usually feel relief, if I feel anything at all, at day’s end. I operate more like a harried M*A*S*H surgeon than a craftsman. My days as city editor at my hometown newspaper are full of quick edits and hastily written stories. CNN distracts me with the latest “breaking news” alerts and celebrity trash, with Twitter and Facebook waiting to capture my attention even if I can manage to ignore the boob tube.  At home, grading sessions begin with appropriate intensity, but before long I tire of correcting the same mistakes (time, date, place for sequences; don’t capitalize titles after the person’s name) and my fingers wander to my smartphone. The college journalism class I teach starts at 7:20 p.m. on Tuesdays, and I’m often still grading papers in my parked car at 7:05. Only a drop-dead deadline can shake me into full action.

Perhaps manual work brings out the craftsman in me, albeit with dismal results. But it’s not just the nature of the work. I’ve come to see that pride of craftsmanship is dependent, at least in part, on full immersion in a task. My handyman skills are so poor that I have no choice but to fully concentrate. I’m all in, if also all thumbs. Writing, editing and teaching also are crafts, of course, but my proficiency lets me get by without full engagement. I don’t plan to start wearing work gloves and a tool belt to the office. But my work with the Backstage Dads reminds me of how thrilling even a minor accomplishment can be when you turn off the auto-pilot.

The Nutcracker is our most ambitious show each year, but the company also stages a spring ballet. The last time the Backstage Dads were all together was a Sunday in April, after the final performance of that year’s spring show, Cinderella. We packed up the props and costumes and trucked them across town from the theater to the storage units at the ballet studio. Then we gathered around Jody’s pickup truck in the parking lot to enjoy the traditional round of post-show beers.

I arrived a few minutes late to find the guys leaning on the sides of Jody’s black metal trailer, which was hooked to the back of his truck. The trailer’s mesh-metal sides stand just high enough to serve as forearm rests. A light rain had fallen on and off that afternoon, and a bit of pale sunlight leaked through the damp sky. “Let’s get you something stronger than that,” Jody said, pointing to my green Sprite bottle and reaching for a cold Miller Lite. Can’t do it, I replied. My wife was out of town and kid duty awaited me at home.

Then came a surprise: The guys praised my ability, demonstrated one week earlier when we moved into the theater, to manually roll out the air bubbles that had formed beneath the gray sheet-vinyl floor we tape onto the stage for every show. This de-bubbling work was hardly complex: I had taken a cardboard cylinder, crouched down like a sprinter with his feet in the blocks, then pushed the cylinder fast and hard across the floor, from stage right to stage left, until the little air bubbles between the stage floor and the vinyl floor dissipated. The smoother the surface, the better for the dancers. On that day, for some reason, it all clicked and the vinyl behaved, snugly hugging the wooden theater floor in bubble-free beauty.

The dads’ compliment was throwaway, but inside I was thrilled. During my years as a Backstage Dad no one had ever praised my work. After all, there’s only so much you can say about a man’s ability to sweep out the wings and hold a flashlight while someone with real skills tries to figure out why the fog machine’s water reservoir is leaking.

With another show behind us, we all said goodbye and headed home: them in their pickup trucks, me in my 13-year-old minivan. Buoyed by the unexpected praise and unsaddled by beer buzz, I was ready to take on a handyman challenge. I was even confident enough to get a chainsaw and finally do away with the rest of that thick tree limb in my backyard. But by then it was too late.

Several months after my ineffectual encounter with the oak, my neighbor hired a crew to remove what was left of the tree section, on my side and hers, and to erect a new fence section. It’s funny how quickly things can change. That spot in the yard was a half-finished mess when I left for work one day. By the time I got home, the problem was gone — and it didn’t seem like it had ever been that big of a deal in the first place.


Jim Ross is managing editor and columnist at the Ocala (Fla.) Star-Banner and an adjunct journalism instructor at the University of Florida. His journalism and essays have been published in the Star-Banner, the St. Petersburg Times, the Gainesville Sun, Clockhouse Review, the Little Patuxent Review blog, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Paper Tape and The Morning News. He lives in Ocala with his wife and three kids.