Speaking of my own little universe

supernova explosion 242 x 210Usually when I am so wrapped up in my own world trying to will things to happen the way I want, bad things happen, like things blow up or get overlooked or somebody gets hurt. I am determined not to let that happen anymore

I didn’t mention that while I was grunting and sweating and cursing at those last few pieces of tile in my basement the other day, my phone rang twice. The first time, I could tell someone left a message. But then it rang right away again, so I thought it might be important. I went upstairs and looked at my missed calls. The first call was my mom, something about Christmas, which I can’t even really think about on the 4th day of December, so I didn’t call her back.

The second wasn’t her again, but my friend Michael, who I’ve been hiding from. Michael is one of only a few people on the planet who knows what’s been going on with me the last several months. He had called a couple of weeks ago on a Sunday and wanted me to call him back, but I never did. Today when he called, I didn’t want to either. I figured I’d get around to texting him and apologize for hiding because that’s what I do when people reach out to me. It’s very hard for me to reach back. But then I remembered a conversation we had a few months back, walking through Bloomington on an unusually warm Sunday.

I said that Sundays were hard because I felt like I should be doing something with someone and if I wasn’t doing something specific, I just ended up wandering around feeling lonely and doing nothing at all or spending money I didn’t need to spend. He agreed. He said he always called his mom on Sundays, and in the two years since she had died, he always felt at a loss about what to do since he couldn’t call her anymore. He told me he had saved one of her voicemail messages from one Sunday when they had played phone tag, and he didn’t have the nerve to erase it.

Then I realized maybe his calling me today wasn’t about me. Maybe it was about him. A lot of our friendship was about me. From the first time I cried to him about being sexually harassed at work and he wanted to kick the guy’s ass, to my tearful text from Starbucks telling him what a mess my life was in, to my visit last fall to Bloomington when I just needed someone to think I was beautiful and tell me how stupid everyone else is.

So I called him back. He didn’t pick up but I left an apologetic message promising to call him a little later, and made an excuse about how crazy my life has been, and that I was wrestling with the tiles when he called. I wanted to ask him if Sundays had really gotten any easier, but I didn’t want him to hear the catch my voice would have made when I said it. So instead, I just asked how he was doing, hoping that he knew it was about him this time. Later, I called my mom back, too.

Power of the will

Boy hitting ballOne thing I have struggled with the most learning how to lay tile is a trait I have that could be a good quality or a defect. I’m not sure which. It’s the idea in my head that I think I can will anything I want to happen, the way I want it to happen. Sometimes it’s like hubris, but sometimes, I swear, I can do it. Like when I close my eyes and will one of my kids to get a base hit—or sometimes a double.

Not for the team, but because he or she really needed to make a hit at that particular time on that particular day in his or her awkward point in childhood. And I swear it works pretty much every time. But I kept remembering the words of one of my home improvement consultants when I first borrowed his wet saw and I was still fiercely afraid of it. He said, “Just take your time and let the saw do the work.” Neither of those things come naturally to me; taking my time, or letting someone (or something) do the work.

It was the same with golf and me. You may already know this, but the club heads have angles that do the work for you. They lift the ball—I think that’s called loft—into the air to provide the best landing for the distance and type of shot you are up against. The club head angles make it roll a little after it lands or stop short, or whatever it’s supposed to do. So all you have to do is focus on swinging smoothly and hitting the ball straight on.

I could never do that. I could never trust the club to do its job, which is why I never played much. In my mind I had to control the whole thing, so I scooped the ball off the fairway, which just caused huge chunks of grass to fly up in the air, or I hacked at it thinking I could submit the ball into going where I wanted just because I wanted it to go there.

Same with cutting tile. I kept pushing the tile in the direction I wanted it to go, thinking I was cutting a straight line, but then the blade would protest and stop when the pressure got to be too much for it. Finally, I figured out that the saw would cut straight if I just let it. Its straight diamond edged blade and cutting guide weren’t going to bend when all it had to do was cut through some ceramic and baked terra cotta. So I started letting the saw do its job and I did mine, and when the cuts looked crooked, I assumed it was my astigmatism or the unplumbed walls and moved on.

Today, however, I was working in a particularly tricky area between three doors that all come together in the corner of a small hallway. I had a short window of time to cut my tile outside before the rain stared, so I ran out, reminding myself to go slow and let the saw do the work, and I cut the few pieces I needed.

But when I got back inside to fit them into the various corners and openings where they belonged, only one of them fit. I know walls aren’t exactly square, but this time it seemed way off. So I got out my t-square and held it against one of the angles I had cut. It wasn’t square. Then I did the same with the next one, and the next one. All three angles were crooked. Instead of being ninety degrees they were more like somewhere between one-hundred-five and seventy-two.

So now what am I supposed to do with that? Apparently a wet saw can cut crooked if you put too much pressure one direction or the other against the blade. It was not a good day for me. I thought I had submitted to the truth only to find out it wasn’t the truth at all. Plus, I had to recut all the pieces. Then I lay them all down in the hall and when I got to the last piece–the one in the middle of the doorway–something really bad happened. It didn’t fit at all.

I was NOT going to drag that stupid wet saw out again. There was nothing I could do but will it to fit. And how was I gonna do that? I was up against two walls and stuck in the corner and the adhesive was starting to dry. So I hacked away at both sides of the door trim until the tile just barely fit. But there was no room for grout lines. So I willed the grout lines into existence. I grabbed the flat head screwdriver I’d used to gouge out the wood trim around the door and wedged it into where I wanted the grout lines to be. I twisted until I got enough space to shove grout spacers around three sides and that was it.

I couldn’t help but wonder the whole time how many paid professionals do this sort of thing alone in someone else’s basement. I figure they probably do it all the time because in the end no one will notice. They probably just do it without calling the tile an F’n bitch as loudly as possible because they don’t want anyone to know they messed up at those prices.

So I thought I was done, but it looks like crap, so maybe in this case a different approach would have been better. I guess I just need to figure out when it’s appropriate to will things into place in my little universe and when it isn’t. Like trying to will a person to be a certain way, or trying to make lemonade out of grapes, or trying to save things that don’t want to be saved.

A perfectionists first attempts

Sometimes things just don’t turn out the way we want

When I was ready to tackle a real project, like usual, I opt for the hardest thing first, something that requires skills I don’t have–not yet anyway. I’ve been trying to learn how to lay tile and I suck at it. It’s hard work, especially when the tiles are 13 X 13 and have to be hauled down to the basement family room. I cut them outside on the driveway where the water can spray and stain the worn black top (another thing I need to fix). Then I carry them three or four at a time down the stairs and fit them together much in the same way I do jigsaw puzzles. If it looks like a piece sorta fits, I shove it in the empty space just to fill the hole. So what if when I step back to look at it, the piece that is supposed to be the chimney of the little red cabin is really the one for the fallen tree trunk on the other side of the lake. The leaves around them are all the same color, aren’t they?

Trouble is, that way of doing things often leads to examples such as what we see in this picture. One where, I don’t know, maybe I was tired, maybe my contacts weren’t floating right, but well, you end up with something like this. I know I do this with a lot of things. I make it work even when it shouldn’t or doesn’t want to, or has outlived its usefulness. And truthfully, whatever it is, it never works very well. But sucking at things is not something perfectionists are good at.

I am teaching myself piano and my fingers are growing stronger and I can play chords now. I am learning how to do other home repairs and I’m getting pretty good at using tools. But I suck so much at tiling that I’m in danger of going down a path of compunction and never making it back. I know being a perfectionist isn’t a positive personality trait. It’s a bad one. We make everyone around us miserable because nothing is ever good enough and we spend most of our time feeling frustrated and unhappy. We care way too much what everyone else thinks and live in fear of making a mistake, as if mistakes are some kind of grand failures and we are too super-human to ever fail. As a consequence, we never do anything very exciting. I know because I struggle with this every day. Doing things like laying tile with these types of results can send someone like me into hiding for days while I sit and pray for someone to come and deliver me from it–or do it for me, to be more exact. But deliverance never comes.

I’m sure there’s something I’m supposed to be learning from this, like ‘just keep trying and you’ll get better,’ or ‘try, try, again.’ But I don’t have time for all that learning the slow way. I’ve gotten lots of good advice though, and even some offers to help. But the people who have really put down tile before and are good at it know how horrid it really is and never offer help. From other people—those who have never done it before–I’ve gotten lots of helpful comments like, “My husband just took that wet saw thing down to the basement one weekend and came up Sunday night and it was all done.” I wish I lived in a magical world of tile fairies like that.

But when it’s late and I’ve been working hard for several hours and I have a section of tile that looks like this, I can do one of two things: I can rip it out and try shoving more pieces in where they don’t want to go, or I can move on to the next section and try to forget about making everything turn out the way I want it to, just try to do better next time. So for today, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m just going to move on for now and if I get the rest of this project done and that section of uneven edges and weird lines is still bothering me, I’ll go back and fix it later–if I can. Otherwise, I will just have to get it through my head that everything can’t be perfect all the time, and throw a rug over it.