How Things Look from Down Here
by A. Byer
Think of me as a guard reporting from some lonely outpost. I am not an important person giving you the news from Bali. I am an ordinary speck of a human being doing what we do: reporting what we see from wherever we are. It is always a unique perspective. You could learn something. Even ants have a perspective you might learn from. Do you know what the bottom of your shoe looks like? You really should. Those slight wear spots and dried black chewing gum bumps change the way you walk. That can make you tense some muscles and loosen others. It can make the tense muscles hurt and you won’t know why unless you know how the bottom of your shoe looks. An ant has things it could tell you.
I am 43 years old, male, and skinny. I have good upper body strength and calf muscles. I am good with wood. I can see what kind of wood you need to use. I can see how a piece of wood can be shaped to follow its grain so it stays strong. I am really, really good with wood.
I had a wife and a child, but after my daughter died in her sleep when she was an infant, I no longer have a wife. I have not had steady work for about 5 years. I put together jobs to keep body and soul together, but I am beginning to wonder why I should bother doing that. No point.
It is not just that I lost my family. That didn’t help, but it isn’t just that. It isn’t just that work is not steady. My dad went through times when his work was less than steady too — so I know how to get by. I do. The difference is that I am not sure I care that I don’t have steady work or a family. I don’t seem to care about anything. I am reporting from this place because I think where I am isn’t right. I am reporting because I need to know if anyone else sees what I see and if anyone else out there can show me what is not right once they know what I see. If we know maybe we can do something about it.
My cousin Evan worked with concrete. He knew how to make it look like marble or like an ordinary sidewalk. He knew how to mix it so it lasts forever. Last year he still had more work than he could manage. He made less money because they paid him less, but he didn’t need much money because he lived on his wife’s parent’s farm. The house was rent-free and they had plenty to eat. He died of a drug overdose in March. Heroin. His wife lost custody of the kids to Evan’s mom because she had the habit too. His wife didn’t seem to be too bothered about it. She disappeared.
I never thought Evan would die of an overdose. I thought maybe he would be crushed by a cement mixer because he tended to really get up close so he could watch every part of what was done like a cat watches a mouse. He loved the way he could get that goo to look any way he wanted and he didn’t want any sloppiness to mess up what he was doing. His mom told me that he had started Heroin after the prescription for his painkillers ran out. She blamed the drug company and the doctors who gave him the prescription. I don’t know what or who to blame. From down here it looks to me that what changed was the pain the pill actually was working on.
Evan hurt his shoulder real bad by trying to lift two bags of cement at once while showing off when his wife came to meet him with sandwiches one day when his work took him close to the house. He had torn several ligaments and stressed out of shape a bunch more. The pain pills helped him sleep and they allowed him to keep working as a supervisor until the muscles healed. All that was as it should be. Half the working people in the county had used the pills since they were invented. The difference now is that it isn’t just the muscle pain that goes away. There is another pain — the pain in the soul — that the pills make better. If you want to fix that pain you need to know what is torn or broken and it is very hard to see that by yourself. Showing where it hurts is not an easy thing to do either. It is like thinking about showing someone an oozing boil in a nasty place on your behind.
I told you that Evan loved what he did. He didn’t have to stay working with concrete all his life. He was just the kind of guy who wanted to make whatever material he was working with almost sing. Whatever he did in his whole short life was about that. He worked his garden so that the soil was rich enough to grow vegetables with a flavor that would knock you out. They weren’t big. He was not going for the county fair prize for the biggest tomato. His produce just had the deepest flavor I have ever tasted in any produce anywhere. Not that I have traveled far and wide, but I have eaten my share of vegetables.
Evan had work, but the work had changed. It had changed just like mine had. There was a formula for the work now. Evan nearly got fired two years ago when he changed the formula for cement that was going to be used in a new strip mall because he knew the concrete would become too brittle since the mall was using a new HVAC system. The change saved money and made the concrete more durable, but he had not followed the formula so he lost a month’s pay and got a warning on his record. That bothered him, it really did. It ate at him. His wife had been worried about him. It is why she brought lunch. It is why he tried to lift the two bags. When he took the pain pills, it helped the pain in his muscles, but it also dulled his shame and anger at what had happened.
From down here, we are beginning to see what a person’s soul looks like: an ants sees soles, we see souls. Ha.
Down here I can see our souls because they hang on our backs for dear life. Down here we carry them on the outside so we know where they are. We didn’t always. We were like people up there until things changed. Before we thought that a soul was just something you are told you have. You don’t have to wear it to know you have one.
I know when a person is carrying a soul outside because they are bent over. They don’t stand straight up. They are always looking at the ground around their toes. After the warning, Evan was so bent over he could hardly see ahead enough to walk down the block. After I lost my family, I was bent too, but I straightened up now and then. It was after other things that I got permanently bent. You know a person is bent over when they can’t see what is a yard right ahead of them.
Don’t lose patience with me. I have not lost my mind. I don’t see some ghostly thing clinging to the backs of people around here. What I see is people ignoring the things they loved as if they couldn’t look straight at them any more. What I see is people not looking ahead to make some better future. When we can’t look ahead, we are bent over. I ask myself what could it be that we could be carrying on our backs that would bend us up so bad. What would be so important that we wouldn’t just take it off or just put it down for a bit. Evan’s death made it clear that it had to be his soul.
The thing that caused the pain inside him was that his whole way of doing things — his way of connecting to things in the world that made him who he was put on notice for extinction. When he lost the month’s wages and had been written up it was like he had been punished for what was in his soul. You carry your soul around after something like that to make sure it is still with you and to get to know it better. You want to see if there is something else to it other than what you always thought was what made you who you were. You allowed it to stay on your back hoping that it might show or tell you who you are now — and it bends you over.
OK — so there is no thing really on your back, but it might as well be there. You are always trying to figure out what you need to be doing given that you can’t be who you always were. You keep listening for some answer and you walk through life as though you are bearing something heavy that will talk to you when it gets ready. You need to hear what it says and your whole being is positioned so you can.
In February of last year I enrolled in a community college program. I decided that the world was changing and that if I wanted to be part of it I had to change what I knew about. I was told that before I could take an advanced math class I had to pass a basic arithmetic course since I had really bad grades in arithmetic in grade school and high school. The thing is, as a carpenter I do lots of arithmetic. I need to use a calculator because for some reason I can’t do it either using pen and paper or in my head. But I can do really complex calculations and I know what I need to figure. I continue to do really bad on the tests, because they only let you use calculators for some of the test. I have been working with calculus books and online lessons and I have been doing really well, but they won’t let me take those courses because I won’t make the cut on the test they say will tell them when I am ready to learn calculus.
I gave up and just took on work out of town. A car driven by a kid who had to drive three hours each way to get decent work hit me and I spent three weeks in a hospital. I was going to have to have about five more surgeries before I got out of the wheelchair. I qualified for a special work program. The first part of the program was a session on how to dress for work and how to manage your budget. That attitude hurt me more than the bashing I got in the car wreck. Who the fuck — I mean really, who the fuck did they think I was? What the fuck did they think I had been doing all my life? I was so badly hurt that I qualified for Medicaid and welfare. They told me that I had to do whatever work I could get to keep the benefits. Like they had to tell me to work. Work is who you are. I found a job checking employees in with a construction company building a strip mall. I had a chance to talk to the owner when he came to inspect. I knew the wood they were using wouldn’t hold where they were using it so I told him. I told him what I used to do before the accident. He patted me on my sore shoulder and told me he hoped I would be better soon. Nothing changed. The wood frames broke. Two workers died. The owner called to tell me he had to let me go, but because he thought I was a nice guy he was going to pay me for three years and he would keep me on the payroll so I could be square with the county. He told me not to show for work or answer any questions anyone might ask or the deal would be off.
I have full medical care now. I have a salary without having to do anything and the government gives me money too so I can afford great food and even put some money aside. I can keep my home. All I have to do is stay out of people’s way and pretend that I am who they need me to be: A person who can’t do much. I need to be a person who has no skills and doesn’t want or know how to get them. Both red and blue politics see me that way. The red sees me as lazy and stupid, the blue sees me as a poor idiot who needs constant help. One side wants me to be the doormat it needs for business, the other has charitable feelings toward me but somehow manages to see that I don’t threaten their jobs by helping me get real skills. I am not that person. That isn’t who I have ever been.
It is a deep hole I am reporting from right now and I need you to see how things look from down here.
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Maybe we need to have a way for people to just learn stuff they want to learn even if they haven’t done well in school. Maybe we should have a way for this guy to prove he can do calculus or whatever he wants to learn.
YES — I would like to really work on this.