The Tao of Do-it-Yourself

In case you missed it, my story The Tao of Do-it-yourself received an “Editor’s Choice” award from the Fiction Writer’s Platform, a website showcasing the work of emerging writers. Reader comments on this story have ranged from “Loved the imagery and the story told in a fabric of artfully woven weight and lightness” to “Wow, Kate! That was so real and soooo reminded me of my family and my nephew who is living with me! Great characters, hilarious anecdotes” to “Excellent story. You manage to skirt the edge of depressing, flirt with parody, and somehow wind up at hopeful.” Add your own reactions and critiques of this tongue-in-cheek tale of family, home repair and endearment in the comment section below.

Innocent as a cue ball after a bad break, my balding nephew rolls his eyes and scratches his head. Harry asks why I always wear the same bracelet says, “Does it give you some kinda power or something?”


We’re standing in the garage, sweating in the late afternoon heat, cussing at the sometimes-automatic, roll-up door. It’s stuck in the “up” position and can’t be left like that overnight. Not in my Sacramento Valley neighborhood. It’s the kind of place were the sheriff’s helicopter often warns us through a bullhorn to stay inside and lock the doors, suspects are at large. In the night, the air rattles with the sound of foraging in recycle bins. Neighbor dogs bark in constant alarm.

So, I’m balanced on a wobbly stool checking the motor, surprised Harry has even noticed this incidental bit of jewelry. In our family, Harry’s powers of observation aren’t considered sharp as a push pin. I mean, for crying out loud, the kid can barely read, dropped out of high school in the ninth grade to watch day-time TV, but still thinks he has a shot at becoming an astronaut.

“Something like that,” I say and touch the narrow silver cuff on my wrist. I twist the band around my sweat-lubricated arm, teeter left on the narrow step, recover, and keep on tinkering. “But, it’s not like I’m Wonder Woman, if that’s what you mean.” I reach up and steady myself on the door’s metal bracing, put my fingers in a glob of grease, glance around for a rag and wipe it on my white shorts. I look down at Harry to get my bearings.

As I look, my compassion thickens, like warm dough plopped on a bread board – heavy, but yielding. I want to answer honestly and gauge the mental torque needed to ratchet down what has become truth for me. But, on yet another sweltering spare-the-air day, I wonder if trying to explain how a kindly counselor helped me come to this understanding will be worth the trouble.

I mean it’s an important personal belief, but one that dances away as soon as I loosen my grip and talk about. It’s psycho pop. And, Harry’s mind is such a weedy landscape – rough outcroppings dotted with dense, prickly growth. The bracelet I’m wearing is a found artifact, retrieved from under a desk at a bank where I used to work. I took it home without saying anything to the other tellers, considering it my just reward for chasing paper clips and rubber bands. I put it on shortly after Harry arrived, weeks ago, if I was counting.

The flat silver band, set with three turquoise buttons, isn’t an authentic Hopi piece. It’s more like a failed night-school art project, but with a faintly Southwestern motif. I totter. Harry reaches up and steadies me, takes my wrist and rotates my arm for a closer look at the bracelet. A droplet of sweat from the end of his bulbous nose spatters my pulse-point. I gently withdraw my hand as he tries to peer at the pitted blue stones. Although the piece is amateurish, it fits me fine. “Pretty,” he says as I wipe my wrist and reach up again for the motor.

At twenty five, Harry has the precociousness of a ten year old. He gazes at me hopefully like a fifth grader presenting a cardboard art project. I blink at his innocence, flash on his parents, and recall how literal and narrow his upbringing has been. Explaining the esoteric to him is a lot of work on a day when the afternoon temperature simmers in the triple digits and the damn garage door still won’t close.

“Thanks,” I tell him, teeth clenched. “It’s junk. I found it a long time ago.” I repeat my mantra silently, rubbing my bracelet as I puzzle over the motor: I’m a lovable, capable, worthwhile and successful person. For good measure, I rebalance on the step and throw in: I’m cultivating an attitude of gratitude, then quickly add, Let go and Let God.

“Get me the pliers, honey,” I say, coming out of my near trance. I conjure the verse I’ve memorized from the Tao Te Ching and mutter: “The Master keeps her mind always at one with the Tao.” The pliers slip off the nut and I nick a knuckle. The Tao is what gives her her radiance. The Tao is ungraspable. I wipe the blood on my shorts.

“You need a good grip on the handle, Aunt Tooz.” Harry is watching my efforts, making absurd hand gestures. “Like this. Tighty righty, lefty loosey. You’re turning the nut the wrong way. Want me to do it?”

I glare at him and turn against the screw, twisting in the opposite direction. It might be budging, I think, and turn harder. How can I frame a comfortable answer about the practice of positive affirmations, about reprogramming negative thoughts for positive outcomes, maintaining radiant auras, one that he’ll get, one that doesn’t sound too spacey? I wipe sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand and smear blood and grease on my face, swat a cobweb draping from a rafter.

I keep pushing, but the nut won’t yield. I think about overhead wires sparking and the door-opener’s motor burning out. I think about catastrophe and the grave possibility of being under-insured. I think about Harry’s dim bulb frizzling between his big ears trying to figure the whole thing out. I think about the Master, good Chi, and take a deep yoga breath.

And, I remember how his mother, Paulette, my bubble-headed former sister-in-law, who eventually ran off with a trucker whose CB handle was “Chicken Lips,” for God’s sake, and picture her pushing Harry’s playpen up against the TV. She had him watching soap operas, propped on a pillow, before he could crawl. Paulette bragged about how baby Harry knew the bad guys from good. Whenever the bad guys did something evil on screen, she said he stuck up his little middle finger. “Smart little fucker,” she’d boasted.

“Hand me another screwdriver, would you sugar?” I wave toward the back of the garage. “They’re right over there on the right side of the workbench.” He gets one and places it firmly, handle first, into my palm. “Thanks,” I say

I remember standing in my brother’s kitchen, right in the middle of a “General Hospital” episode. I can still see her slouching in front of the TV with her greasy mullet hair cut and an angry pimple on her chin. I picked up little Harry then, kissed his fat neck in the sweetie-pie fold underneath his jaw, tickled his tummy, set him down, and stormed out. I, for one, was happy when she finally took her sorry-assed day-time drama on the road.

After that a series of baby-sitters raised Harry. And, by the time Harry had completed junior high school, he’d been arrested for setting the neighbor’s house and car on fire on two separate occasions. After the second arson, the neighbors sold their house and moved to another town. They didn’t leave a forwarding address so Harry just kept the stuff that came for them from L.L. Bean, children’s show shoes, I think. It was about this time the school psychologist up in Foothill Farms called my brother in and told him Harry was a sociopath.

My brother resented wasting time away from the job, what with the overtime pay and all, and blanked on the reason for the meeting. He did hear the diagnosis and took it to mean Harry might have trouble getting a date. When Harry got his 14-year-old girlfriend, Celeste, pregnant three times in one year, my brother was not only grateful for Roe vs. Wade, he was relieved his son’s social problems were cured.

For the past 10 years Harry has worked odd jobs and moved around with Celeste and the two kids that eventually resulted from seeing the reproductive process through to its logical conclusion. They’ve rented studio apartments in seedy sections of small valley towns and stayed in motels where the front desk clerk stands behind bullet-proof glass to accept overnight housing vouchers from the Salvation Army. They’ve lived out of cars parked on back streets, tents in public parks and, in the winter, vacant summer homes they busted into in remote foothill resorts.

About a month ago things finally fell apart between Harry and Celeste. She and the kids moved in with her mother and her mother’s new boyfriend, a Pentecostal minister with a taste for snake handling and porn. Both his legs were amputated after the bread truck he’d been driving rolled. Wonder Bread, I recall. So, my brother dropped Harry off at my house, not knowing what else to do. I looked into Harry’s soft, brown eyes, big as a bull’s at a slaughter yard, and yielded.

My brother said Harry just needed a job to get on his feet. Because I’d recently bought a four-bedroom house that needs fixing and have a couple of spare bedrooms, I buried my resentment at having the problem dumped on me and said “Yes.” I always say yes when I should know better. But, to tell the truth, I felt lonely and did need some help. My brother handed his son a twenty dollar bill and said, “See, ya.”

Since then Harry and I go on the Internet together in the evening when I get home from work. Harry’s teaching me how to use MySpace and Facebook. He’s looking for a new wife. I’m just looking to be amazed at the peep-show into other people’s lives. I read somewhere that social scientists call this sort of thing “ambient intimacy,” which I gather is like drinking tepid coffee in a hospital emergency room. You get a bad taste in your mouth while wondering what everybody else is doing there. So, although my online dial-up service is numbingly slow, Harry and I enjoy taking in the swill.

But, the thing about my bracelet is this: I found it many years ago and took it home. I put it in my jewelry box and it sat there unworn for almost 25 years, that is until Harry showed up. Like I said, it’s not fancy and doesn’t go with anything I’ve ever owned, but lately it has acquired soothing qualities that I rely on to cope.

“Aunt Tooz, maybe you should let me do that.” Harry is leaning back, giving the overhead motor a long look, shifting to see it from different angles. “Don’t you have a ladder?”

Harry thinks the problem is the transformer. He tells me he saw a door act like this once at the Santa Clara County jail. He did six months there after he got picked up in San Jose for vagrancy and being drunk in public, plus some bench warrants from San Joaquin County. He said one day a power surge blew out the electrical transformer and caused the jail’s Sallie Port to freeze open.

The prisoners got really excited when they saw daylight, he said, but calmed down after extra guards rushed to the gun towers above the broken gate and started spraying rubber bullets. Everyone went back to their cells for a body count before lock down. Harry said it took two days to fix the damn gate and all he did was sit in his cell and get chow through a slot in the metal door. From his barred window he carefully watched the maintenance guys fuss until they got the big grate working again, which is what makes him a garage door expert.

Swaying on the stool while keeping after the nuts and screws, I ignore his suggestion of help and ask for a Phillips head screwdriver, Number 2. He asks where I keep them.

“How the heck should I know?” I mumble. “I just moved in.”

Everything needs tightening and adjusting, I think. Who the hell knows about the Zen of screwdrivers? I huff and get down off the stool, ask him to find the ladder. I see it in the corner of the garage and figure it will take him 20 minutes to figure out where it is.

I dash into the house in search of a short-handled Number 2. The phone rings. It’s was my sister telling me how good the rack of pork ribs she’s just pulling off the barbecue tastes. She called to brag about the succulence, not invite Harry and me to dinner. I tell her I’m busy with the dead garage door and ask if we can talk about her meat some other time. She asks how Harry’s doing. “Fine. Great. A real help,” I say.

I can tell she’s miffed when we hang up because she got cut off before dishing out her usual ration of negative, which our family possesses in heaping portions. I find the screwdriver in my bathroom, on the vanity, next to my jewelry box.

But here’s the truth. I put the bracelet on about six months after they took a ten-pound tumor out of my abdomen. I put it on in the off chance it would save my life, which sounds dramatic because clearly I’m physically recovered from the surgery and healthy as a hyena. But, it wasn’t just the tumor they removed.

It was this big wad of negativity they took out—the regrets, failures, fears, resentments, losses and anger. What they took out was a big load of unhappy ugly. Before the surgery, like a tired rosary, I’d mentally finger these knobby gobs of hurt, emotionally rubbing them in my gut until I wanted to kill myself or throw up.

While recovering from the surgery, I realized I was hollow and went to see a family counselor, a honey-haired New Zealander with a Kiwi accent and a sense of humor. She’s the one who insisted on the bracelet. She said a lot of the way I was feeling, including building a truckload-sized tumor, had to do with what I was thinking and, if I could change the negative thoughts, I’d start feeling better right away. I thought: For this I’m paying $150 an hour?

She pushed me to change my thought patterns, but I resisted. I said to myself, if you don’t grapple with reality, why bother with life? If you can’t face your problems straight up, you’re not worth much. She insisted my thoughts were driving my feelings and that, if I’d let the negative thoughts go and switch to thinking something else, I’d feel much better and find the positive things going on in my life. “Yeah, Yeah,” I thought.

She suggested wearing a bracelet as an ever-present reminder to let the negative stuff go. She recommended touching the bracelet whenever black thoughts popped up as a reminder to lighten the shit load. She didn’t put it quite like that, but that’s how I got it. After a while, I started sailing on my own and put the bracelet away — until Harry showed up.

So, going back to the garage, I hear a rumbling. Harry’s hitting the roll-up door button. It clatters closed and the air in the garage gets dark and tight. Harry hits the button again. Metal screeching, the door lumbers open and there’s a whiff of fresh air. “Just needs some chain lubricant,” he says like a heart surgeon after a bypass.

I get the ladder from the corner. He sets it up under the motor. I climb the rungs. I’m reaching up, working the screw driver again, checking that everything’s tightened down and trying to find an easy way to explain to him about the transformative power of positive thinking—Dale Carnegie, Chicken Soup for the Soul and all that happy horse manure.

I’m looking up, talking to the rafters: “It’s about the Tao and being one with the universe.”

“What’d you say?” I look down and blister his bald head with my stare. He wiggles out from under my negative gaze and trips over his feet, stumbles on the leg of the stool, bumps the ladder and I fall to the garage floor. Broken ankle. When we get back from the emergency room, I hobble into the house on crutches and collapse on the couch.

“Boy.” He plumps a pillow behind my head. “Lucky you didn’t break your neck or shank yourself on the screwdriver.”

True, I think, and the garage door works!

He turns on the TV. “You missed General Hospital,” he says, flipping through the channels, “but you can still watch Days of Our Lives. Good thing I’m here, huh Aunt Tooz? Otherwise who would’ve driven you to the hospital?”

True, I think. What if he wasn’t here? What if I didn’t have any family? What if I really was alone? The TV, a hand-me-down from my sister, who got it free from somewhere, makes a low hum and pops. The screen flashes white and goes blank. A puff of smoke comes from the back. Harry runs out the front door, searching for the circuit breaker, which luckily has already tripped. Harry rushes back in and says he can fix the TV, says he took an electronics class when he did a stint at the boys’ ranch up in the foothills. He asks if there’s anything he can get me before he gets to work.

“Maybe,” I say, laying my arm over my eyes and stretching out my leg, resting the heavy cast on a pillow. I rub my bracelet and say, “How about a Vicodin with a glass of water and, ah – go get my jewelry box.”

Harry kisses my hair, strokes my cheek, and heads down the hall. I yell after him, “I’m glad you’re here sweetie-pie” and feel my chest loosen, my heart lighten. When he comes back, I rifle the trinkets in my jewelry box and find a braided copper cuff. “This one would look great on you,” I say, handing it to him. “Try it on. It’ll help you stay positive. Keep you on track.” He puts it on, offers thanks, and trots back down the hall toward the bathroom. I yell, “Whenever you have a bad thought, touch the bracelet and send that thought away.”

Over the sound of the toilet flushing, he hollers, “I always do that, Aunt Tooz. Hanging onto negative stuff just brings you down. Want ice in your water?”

Tears of gratitude for shared understanding puddle in my throat and I swallow. Before I can answer, there’s the sound of breaking glass from the bathroom.

Harry booms from behind the closed door: “Don’t worry! I can fix it!”

I clutch my bracelet and close my eyes. “The Master keeps her mind always at one with the Tao,” I silently chant as hard as I can.

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