Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Zen and Hardwood Floors

I have been regaling my friends on Facebook for the last few days with pictures and updates on a project my wife and I undertook to put a hardwood floor down in our den. As of about midnight last night, the construction was complete (a small piece of quarter round and a threshold cap have to be tacked down, but why quibble). As I was falling asleep last night, I kept coming back to something I had said to my wife earlier in the evening: "There's nothing like finish carpentry to keep you humble". I had said that after screwing up a miter cut on a piece of baseboard and having to re-do the entire piece. But I could have said it about construction as a whole. And the project reinforced and reminded me of some of the things that it is easy to forget in your day-to-day life. At least I forget them all the time.

Construction mandates precision. Or, should I say, good construction mandates precision. If you are off on your measurement, your cut, or any step along the way, your end product looks like hell. Or doesn't work at all. I remember one of my first ironworking jobs as a kid. We'd put up the girders and I-beams for a floor, and bolted them into place. Then, we strung heavy cables between the spans and used turnbuckles to crank the huge pieces of metal into plum. It ain't easy and takes a lot of muscle. I remember us being about a half -inch off on one and saying that that seemed close enough. The journeyman I was working with said (I'll excise the incredible profanity every sentence by an ironworker contains) "@#$(# kid, if every floor is half a #*@&$ing inch off, by the time we get to the top we'll be two @#*ing feet off).

So it was on this project. Every time my attention would wander, there would be a mistake. Sometimes that mistake would not reveal itself until it messed something up further along. Then you have to go back, find the mistake, and fix it. You have to stay in the moment and sweat the details. Cursing doesn't help, whining doesn't help, getting angry at your partner doesn't help. Trust me, I tried all of those. You have to pull it back, center, and focus on the task at hand and nothing else. Zen. There is a classic Zen aphorism, "before Enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after Enlightenment, chop wood and carry water". In other words, the path (or the Way as some Zen philosophers term it) lies in paying attention to what is in front of you, and being fully in it. Doing it as well as you can, no matter its simplicity. If you are a fan of the old TV show M*A*S*H, in one episode someone asked the arrogant but brilliant surgeon, Dr. Charles Emerson Winchester, why he was such a great surgeon. His reply was "I do one thing at a time, I do it very, very well, and then I move on." In "The Book of Five Rings", a classic of martial arts literature, Miyamoto Musashi lays out nine precepts that the warrior should follow. One of those is: "Pay attention, even to the simple things."

Every job is like that, or can be. In my law practice, when I focus on the details, the big picture is always clearer. The police reports and witness statements have to be read again and again, because just because a cop says someone "confessed" does not make it so when you read it or listen to it. The pictures have to be looked at carefully and completely. I saw evidence of rigor in a picture once that I thought I had looked at three times before, and it changed the whole defense. And, at the most basic, you have to read the statute and see what it actually says, not what you "know" it says because you've been doing this so long. Focus, stay in the moment, pay attention to each step along the way. The end result will take care of itself. Good things to remember. And I got a pretty nice new den floor out of it, too.