Becoming a varnish worker isn’t difficult. If you have a vehicle to serve as a combined corporate headquarters, warehouse and service fleet, about $400 for capital and operating expenditures like varnish, sandpaper, brushes and power tools and a wardrobe of stylish second-hand tees, I could get you started today. After years in the business, I’ve plenty of tips to share and I’d be happy to let you serve a few months’ apprenticeship. That’s more than enough time to understand the basic techniques of the craft and begin to develop the good, short-term weather forecasting skills that will be critical to your success.
Things will go even more smoothly if you already possess some important personal qualities: infinite patience, a tolerance for frustration and a sense of humor to help keep things in perspective when your fresh coat of varnish is ruined by fog, pollen, insects, rain, wind, dust or The Yard Crew From Hell, that charming band of brothers who decide to rev up their gasoline-powered leaf blowers just as you’re putting away your brush.
If you’re especially lucky, you’ll internalize what we call “The Rule of Good Enough” early in your career. I never have seen a “perfect” coat of varnish. No matter how glossy, how reflective, how beautifully deep the shine, there always is something - a gnat, a bristle, a patch of dust, a tiny bit of wood the brush missed – to tempt the compulsive toward a re-do. It never helps, of course. You may get rid of the gnat only to discover a determined spider has schlepped across your work. Better to look at wood that’s 99% perfect and say, “That’s good enough.”
Why someone would want to varnish is another question entirely. The work of stripping and sanding is boring and repetitive. Weather is unpredictable and can wreak havoc with a schedule, not to mention cash flow. I happen to like the isolation and solitude, but not everyone does. And it is, after all, physical labor. There aren’t many varnishers who head to the gym after work. There’s enough climbing, stretching, leaning and lifting in the course of a day to keep anyone flexible, and if you park far enough from your current project, you can get a little walking in, too. Simply put, boat varnishing is a 19th century job in a 21st century world. Boat owners on the docks may be twittering and texting within an inch of their lives, but the varnishers, riggers, carpenters and mechanics aren’t - their hands are too busy with the tools of their various trades to take time for electronic gadgets.
As for that question – “Why varnish?” – I always laugh and say, “For the perks, of course.” I may not have medical coverage or a 401K, but there is that just-back-from-Barbados-tan, a crazy assortment of folks on the dock to provide entertainment and a shoes-optional dress code. Instead of tracking office politics, I kibbitz with ducks, herons, egrets and coots. Osprey and pelicans float above, while mullet, drum, jellyfish and crabs drift and skitter through the water. My solitude is sandwiched between the bloom of sunrise and sunset’s poignant glow, while I think my thoughts and devote my energy to making something beautiful.
In truth, the positives balance out the negatives nicely, at least until full summer arrives. For most people, summer means a little laziness, a bit of travel, the pleasures of indolence. I experience summer rather differently. Summer means scorching boat decks, so hot that bare feet are impossible. Eyes burn from sunscreen, and the freezer fills up with gallons of water. The heat and humidity of the Texas Gulf Coast can be so intense that sweat drips off elbows and chins onto those fresh coat of varnish, frustrating because it means unplanned, unpaid extra work.
But by far the worst thing about summer is the way its heat drains away energy, At the end of the day, it can be a struggle to do more than shower, plop into a chair and stare off into the middle distance. A woman I know calls summer “the cereal season”, because cereal for supper takes the least effort to prepare. At the height of summer, we all begin to experience “seasonal slovenliness” as dust collects, laundry baskets fill up and drooping plants beg for their own drink of water. We all have good intentions, but the longer days and unrelenting heat can produce an unshakable lethargy.
Physical tasks aren’t the only chores to be put off. Creativity and imagination suffer from heat exhaustion, too. As the temperatures rise, the ability to focus for long periods of time declines. Thinking about my blogs, I have no shortage of ideas. Thoughts continue to swirl and the impulse to shape words into form is there, but actually sitting down to write is another matter.
I’ve been thinking about this a good bit. Any act of creation requires time and energy – the very energy which summer drains away. Certainly, I’m one of the lucky ones. I have the freedom to rearrange my schedule, to begin work early and continue work until late, seeking respite from the heat of the afternoon. Not everyone enjoys such luxury. The world is filled with people who spend their days in manual labor throughout the year – farm workers, construction crews, roofers, lawn care workers. Constrained by necessity to work for others, they lack even minimal control over their days, and they, too, come home exhausted.
Some say these communities of people have no stories to tell, that they are dull and uninspired, lacking in creativity. I once was told of an English teacher who had her Anglo students write an essay each week but didn’t require essays from Hispanic students. Confronted on the issue, she seemed genuinely astonished, asking, “But what would they (the Hispanic students) write about?”
It’s an old attitude, neatly summed up in the assertion that certain people are better equipped for creativity - by education, by natural sensitivity, by intellect, training or talent, while the masses are mute by necessity. Despite his apologists, D.H. Lawrence gives voice to this assumption in Phoenix II when he says,
Life is more vivid in the dandelion than in the green fern, or than in the palm tree,
Life is more vivid in the snake than in the butterfly.
Life is more vivid in the wren than in the alligator,
Life is more vivid in me, than in the Mexican who drives the wagon for me.
What is vivid here is the worst kind of prejudice, and a particularly sad kind of literary elitism. In fact, the people who tend our lawns, build our roads, harvest our crops and roof our homes may have some of the best stories in the world waiting to be written, if only they weren’t so exhausted and by necessity focused on the basic requirements for life. In the world of “just folks”, hints of wonderfully creative communication abound - with the yarn spinners in cafes, the musicians in the bars and juke joints, the jokesters on the job site, or the story-telling mother on the porch with her children gathered around.
When I see a construction worker, a roofer, a farm laborer or a fellow rolling out barricades for a highway project, I wonder, “What story would he tell if he had the time, the freedom, the energy?
When I see a mother walking her children home in the heat, a housekeeper washing windows in the full afternoon sun, a woman struggling toward a laundromat with an unwieldy bundle of clothes, I wonder, “What verse might she write, if she had solitude, silence and rest?”
Day Laborers at Hopson Plantation ~ Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1940
Out on the docks, the summer heat continues to rise as the fish drift deeper and the birds grow silent, tucking themselves ever more deeply into the dappled shade of their trees. Watching and listening to the silence, I wonder: given a respite from their labors and the freedom to rest in the shade, what songs might our hidden birds sing?
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