Archive | March, 2012

Power Drilling, Mindfully

29 Mar

Back in January, in addition to becoming a volunteer at the New Rochelle Animal Shelter and walking Waylon, I also attended the orientation for Habitat for Humanity, then spent an afternoon, with my eldest son, working at a Habitat house in Yonkers. But January ended, and February went rolling right along, and I never got to write about it – or to go back.

So in the month of March, I decided to make a once-a-week commitment to Habitat.  There is a Habitat house under contraction about five minutes walking from me.  The house is a modular one, so there’s much less work to be done on it than on a typical Habitat house, and consequently, many fewer days that it is being worked on.

Still, my schedule and the White Plains house’s schedule converged one Wednesday in the first week of March, and I made plans to join the work crew.  The day dawned cold and overcast.  I layered up as best I could, and headed to the work site.

Rain the previous night had soaked the ground and turned the work site into mud pit.  Although the house is modular, it didn’t come with front steps; those will be built by Habitat volunteers.  In the meantime, there is a stepladder where the front steps will be.  I climbed up the ladder and into the house, where a crew was operating a power saw in what looked to be the kitchen.  I asked one of the guys where I might find the site manager.  I to look for Steve in the basement.

Steve had been the site manager when my son and I worked at the Yonkers house back in January, and I was glad to hear I’d be working with him again.

First, Steve is unwaveringly cheerful and positive.  Faced with a steady stream of manually challenged, inexperienced nincompoops, such as myself, he has to act like he’s happy to see us and then come up with jobs for us to do.  Real, actual building-a-house-type jobs.  Which he does.  Cheerfully.

Second, Steve teaches as he works.  At the Yonkers house, I‘d been given the task of sanding down the spackle that had been puttied over the screws holding up the drywall, and circling with chalk any screw heads that poked up through the sanded spackle.  My son, wielding a power drill for perhaps the second time in his life, re-screwed-in the screws I chalked, so that they could then be re-spackled.  I assumed that this job was being done for aesthetics – to make nice, smooth walls.  However, Steve told us that the spackle over the screws actually has a safety-related purpose.  Drywall, he explained, is fire-resistant.  But to be truly effective, it needs to be airtight, so the fire can’t seep through any cracks.  That’s why the spaces between pieces of drywall are spackled. Metal screws also needed to be covered with spackle because they can heat up in a fire, and then pop out, creating little air holes that the fire can travel through.

The whole January afternoon with Steve had been filled with a steady stream of this kind of interesting information, making our hours of rather tedious spackling and drilling fly by.

In the basement in White Plains, Steve was excitedly instructing three Wall Street-types, who were holding rulers and chalk line markers.  (They were wearing jeans and sneakers, but there was no doubt in my mind they were Wall Street guys.)

“Hi,” I said, interrupting the pow-wow.

“Hey, Cathleen!  Great to see you,” Steve responded.  He pulled off one work glove and held out his hand to shake mine.  “Thanks so much for coming. Let me just finish up with these guys and then we’ll get you going on a job.”

I wandered around the basement, which was filled with pieces of wood, a pile of metal pipes, an assortment of stepladders, and fair amount of mud.  The basement was divided roughly in half, with the Wall Street guys working in one half, and another group of four guys working in the other half, cutting and measuring wood that they were then using to create a partition in the basement.

Steve gave me a choice of jobs.  The first involved testing screw jacks for the scaffolding that they would be putting up around the house.  The second was to join the Wall Street dudes measuring, marking, and drilling holes through the joists.

The first option seemed like make-work, and I would be doing it alone, which didn’t sound fun, so I took option two.

This gave Steve a chance to do a little teaching.  The Wall Street guys had already started working, but Steve explained to me that we were marking and drilling the holes in order to run wires through them.  The wires would hold up insulation that was being put in to make the house as energy-efficient as possible.  (The insulation Habitat uses is made from recycled blue jeans, by the way.)  The joists were about 9 inches tall, but the insulation was only 7 and a half inches thick, so we had to measure and drill holes about an inch and a half up from the bottom of the joist because, in order to be effective, the insulation needed to be touching the floor above it.

The marking process was a multi-step one.  First, we had to measure the length of the ceiling joists and figure out how far apart we could space the drill holes so that there would be no more than 17 inches between wires.  Then we marked the drill points on two joists, one at each end of the room.  We then stretched the chalk line marker between the two marked joists so that it would chalk all the joists in between.  Then, on each joist, at each chalk mark, we had to measure an inch and a half up from the bottom and draw a dot there, to signal exactly where to drill.  Two of the Wall Street guys were already working on one section.  I paired with the third guy and we set to work, measuring and marking, then hauling out the chalk line.

Once we had chalked our joists, we started schlepping – schlepping the ladder from one place to another, then schlepping up the ladder to mark the point that would be drilled, then schlepping back down, and repeating the whole process over.

It was repetitive and boring.  To mark up a single joist, I had to schlep the ladder to three different spots.  And there were a lot of joists to mark.  The basement was cold and muddy.  Mud transferred from the bottoms of my shoes to the steps of the ladder, then onto my jeans as I leaned against the ladder for support.

I kept at it until all of the joists we had chalked had been marked.

Then I picked up a power drill, thinking, “Hey, I drilled four holes once.  I can do this.”

I went back to the first joist I had marked, and began drilling  holes through each of the black dots I’d made.  I still had to move the ladder three times to drill all the holes on one joist.  I was still muddy and cold.  But I kept at it.

I would like to say that we finished the job that day, but we did not.  The Wall Street guys left at lunch.  I stayed another hour, drilling alone, until the other crews packed up.  And then I regretfully took my leave of the basement and the mud and the power drill.

Even though I was chilled to the bone, and my pants were crusted with mud, and I had accomplished very little, it felt like good work.  Mindful work.  I had done one small, repetitive job with my whole heart.  That, combined with other small, repetitive jobs, will one day result in a cozy, well-insulated house.

Someday, the people who will own this home will walk across their floor, and it will feel warm, and they won’t even notice that warmth.  They will take it for granted.  But a little piece of that warmth will be because of my marking and schlepping and drilling.

What more could a woman want?

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