Week 37: Chop Wood

Q likes to say that it’s good we met each other in college because if we had been classmates in grade school, she would have beat me up.  She’s only half kidding.

It’s not that Q was a bully growing up, though some individuals from her youth may disagree, in particular the boy in her kindergarten class she called a “chauvinistic pig” after he said he could see Q’s underwear while she climbed the monkey bars.  Personally, I think he got what was coming to him, but I’m also aware of which side my bread is buttered.

wood pile from afar

She assumes we would have been less than chums mostly because she preferred the great outdoors while I relished the creature comforts of home.  While she played army games with her cousin Sam, who coincidentally is now a Marine, I playacted imaginary movies with the help of my stuffed animal Wrinkles, who coincidentally will never leave my bedroom because you can’t unsee Toy Story 3.  One of her favorite childhood memories was making a fort completely out of fallen branches and poison sumac vines.  Mine was when the Blizzard of ’98 hit and my dad brought home a spankin’ new Sega Genesis while we were stuck indoors for a week.

It’s not that I was a shut-in, but compared with Q’s Lord of the Flies existence, I might as well have been the Boy in the Plastic Bubble.  Though our personalities mostly account for our preferences in play areas, our circumstances made a difference too.  Though Q will deny this until the cows come home, I think she would have spent less time outdoors had she the luxuries of cable television and an arsenal of video games in her adolescence.  They were just too tempting for a developing mind to ignore.

buckley swinging

And yet, here I am in Week 37, trying to undo the damage of a childhood spent palling around with Sonic and Mario instead of power tools and wild animals.  Had I an outdoorsy childhood this blog probably wouldn’t exist, supplanted with something like BE SENSITIVE, full of weekly challenges such as “Express Feelings Productively” and “Use Pinterest.”

So while we were in Virginia for the holidays, I solicited the help of my father-in-law Bruce, a former MANtor from the Build Something challenge, to teach me how to chop wood.

After arriving at Bruce’s home, we head to the back of the garage to find a wood pile and a large plastic bucket.  Against the bucket rest an ax, a sledgehammer, and a metal spike.  My fourteen-year-old brother-in-law Buckley is on hand to demonstrate how it’s done.  After Bruce explains the basic mechanics, I ask Buckley if he’d like to take the first swing in the guise of the generous and selfless big brother.  In actuality, I’m remembering my piss-poor performance at the hammer game in Coney Island and surreptitiously lifting and lowering a piece of wood behind my back in hopes of a quick tricep boost.

first swing

Buckley splits the log into smaller pieces with little effort, completely ignoring my telepathic pleas to miss on purpose so I can look better by comparison.  He makes a nice crack down the center of the log, wedges the spike in the split, and continues to whack with the sledgehammer until the wood separates into two clean halves.  Buckley breaks the wood down further with precision and little effort before placing the pieces in the bucket and handing the ax to me, showing no remorse as his caring older brother-in-law must now live up to his lofty performance.  Geez, kids today.

Bruce sets up a log for me and surrounds it with scraps of wood to keep it standing straight, and also as a preventative measure should I miss the log completely and drive the ax into the muddy ground.  My first few swings barely make an impact.  Though my accuracy is decent, the log is unfazed by my feeble attempts to crack it open.  It’s more than a little embarrassing when the ax gets stuck in the wood and I need Bruce’s help to wiggle it out.  King Arthur I am not.


After several dents, I’ve finally made a split wide enough to hold the metal spike in place.  I tap the spike deeper into the wood with the sledgehammer with the dexterity of a toddler using a Fischer-Price tool kit, which also is a good approximation of my appearance, given the size and weight of my implements.  When the spike is wedged firmly in the log, I take my first couple swings, both of which miss the mark completely.  On my third swing, I focus on accuracy over strength, and lo and behold, I hit the spike square on its head and it slices the log in half like butter.  It’s satisfying in the same way opening a tightly sealed pickle jar is.

As I start to split the remaining halves of wood into thirds and Buckley and Bruce can see I have the basic mechanics down pat, they head into the house for a few minutes to warm up.  Now it’s just me versus the pile of logs, and I begin to feel oddly calm as I discover the natural rhythm of chopping wood.  There are no cars or conversations within earshot, only the sound of leaves rustling in the wind.  It’s the most alone I’ve been in months.  Even when I’m by myself in my apartment in New York, the encroaching sounds of construction and commotion on the streets below remind me I live in a city of eight million.  It’s a welcome reprieve to find myself in this relative wilderness, with only the sweet sound of metal meeting wood intruding on my thoughts.

strong chop

It’s refreshing to engage in physical activity for no reason or perceived benefit.  I’m not working on building muscle mass or checking off my cardio for the day.  I won’t even be around later to enjoy my day’s output kindling in the fireplace.  I like that in this moment, I have a sole purpose – to be a wood chopping machine – and it’s not necessary to intellectualize it (though I realize I’m doing that now).  I’ve been recently interested in learning meditation, but after ten minutes out here, perhaps there are simpler means to get to the same transcendent end.

After placing the last of the wood pieces into the plastic bucket, Buckley takes me aside to see his BB gun.  He sets up a milk carton filled with water about ten yards away to serve as our target and fires three steady shots into the center of the carton.  The now leaky milk carton reminds of that scene in a Western where the water barrel leaks after a gunfight in the town square, and as I proved last week, any chance to imitate The Duke is a worthwhile venture for the aspiring man.  Buckley hands the BB gun to me and I take aim. My first shot goes wide right, but I recalibrate on the next two and chip away at the folded top of the carton.  We move the our target all over the backyard, even shooting at it from high on top of Buckley’s treehouse.  I imitate Mark Wahlberg in Shooter on every direct hit.  “That’s a wicked dead milk cah-ton,” I shout.

treehouse shot

Before we lose the last bit of sunlight, I head into the garage with Bruce so he can teach me how to use the grinder to sharpen the ax and spike I used.  I clamp the ax head to Bruce’s work table and let the sparks fly as I take the grinder to its blunt edge.  When the tools are adequately sharpened and put in their proper place, we lock up the garage and I’m one day closer to undoing the damage of a Nintendo childhood.

But if I could do it all over again, would I really change my childhood to resemble Teddy Roosevelt’s?  It’s doubtful.  I know far more Simpsons references than Q, and I think it would hurt me to have it any other way.  I was never a Boy Scout, but I know the secret shortcut in Wario Stadium in Mario Kart 64, and frankly, if they don’t already, there should be a merit badge for that.  I had a good childhood, full stop. The circumstances of mine were radically different than Q’s, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t able to find common ground later in life, when I’ve learned to appreciate the outdoors and she has eradicated her bullying impulses.  The real danger is settling for the choices you made in childhood and believing you can’t learn something new once in a while.  Teddy Roosevelt didn’t learn how to swim until he was twenty-four.  I think I can try my hand at the great outdoors every once in a while.



Okay, that was a bold faced lie about Teddy.  Dude used to swim naked in the Potomac River in the winter.  But I think it’s okay to lie to myself for the greater good because chopping wood lent an authenticity to my manly pursuit that I thoroughly enjoyed.  Once I found my rhythm, I got into a headspace that was simply clear, a sort of lumberjack nirvana.  Finishing the day off with BB guns and power tools was simply the icing on top.  3.20.