Lab Partner

That night the car ahead of me stopped to look at the school sign and take a picture. I saw Virginia license plates and wondered if this person could be someone to talk to. The school was alive with bearded and/or tattooed people, all friendly and casually dressed.

I waited for the Virginia car to park so I could greet its driver, a gorgeous woman who threw her arms around me and announced her name as “T” (for “Taisha”). We took a walk around the property, checking out the camping platforms, the stone oven, and the solar shower which turned out to have a zipper-themed set of doors.

yestermorrow outhouse

Orientation began and we toured the facility, seeing the library, the dining hall, and the various classrooms. After a quick supper I reported to the woodshop, where the instructor, a wiry young man with boundless enthusiasm, welcomed the class. The room was full of machines, pipes, tools, tables and the Fun Meter:

fun meter

There were six of us: four men, two women. I quickly realized I was the most ignorant of the group and Humility settled in as my lab partner. The other woman was half my age and built tiny houses for a living, along with teaching the school’s course on the subject. The men were, respectively, two native Vermonters who worked in high-tech, one of whom had been laid off and was making a living doing home repair, and the other who was still employed but looking forward to retirement.

The other two men were an earnest young man from Brooklyn who carried an enormous bag of Japanese carving tools, and a guy with a magnificent red beard below a bald head. He had most recently worked as a “large equipment operator” in the Antarctic and was a school intern, cleaning and repairing machines in exchange for room and board.

We were handed our homework: read the shop safety manual and “think about drawer pulls.” The manual was a pile of pages about woodworking machines, describing all the horrible things that could happen to you when you operated them. Severed digits, wood kicking back into your face, shrapnel of saw’s teeth spiking your eye–I wanted to run. I never got to thinking about drawer pulls.

On Monday, the first full day of class, the instructor passed out the diagram of the cabinet we’d build, which looked simple enough: shelves, doors, nice box. Then he said, “Make your cut list.”

I watched as my classmates scribbled furiously, checking their tape measures and drawing diagrams. “Cut list?” What was that?

The tiny house builder saw me frozen and had pity. She explained the drawing and its measurements, and suggested what boards might be cut to what length. I pretended to get it,  and inwardly despaired of my decision to come here.

There was talk of “kerfs” and “splines,” “butt joints” and “warps.” Wood, we were reminded, was a live thing that would either cup, bow, crook, or twist, or maybe all of the above. Machines were turned on and off, plywood sheets were drawn from great stacks, tape measures snapped with authority, and I felt utterly ridiculous.

After nine hours of this the tiny house was sanctuary. I took off my closed-toe shoes and sat by the brook, watching the water burble over my aching feet. At least this part was good.

toes brook

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