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What We Gonna Do Today, Brain?

One of my favorite television programs from my early adult years was a cartoon called Pinky and the Brain. The simple premise is this: two mice--one of them with skills and ambition--attempt to escape from a laboratory after the researchers have gone home

for the night. Every episode starts with Pinky bouncing around, happy-go-lucky and clueless, asking Brain the same question and receiving the same calculated answer.

"What we gonna do tonight, Brain?"

"The same thing we do every night, Pinky--try to take over the world."

Given the option, I am confident Brain would have chosen a more skilled partner in crime, but Pinky was the only one available. Sometimes you just have to make do with what you have.

Let’s just be clear about one thing: Andy is the Brain of this operation—at least the build stage where we are now. He has been a hands-on Bob the Builder from his earliest days. When he was six years old—when other mothers were making Batman costumes to fulfill their little boys’ wildest dreams—Andy’s mother sewed him his very own shop apron. He treasures that little denim apron to this day. When he was ten years old, when the other little boys’ birthday presents consisted of footballs or walkie-talkies, Andy was thrilled to receive his very own router—a woodworking tool for adults.

Although he has never built a habitation box for an overland expedition vehicle before this current project of ours, his brain understands building, engineering, design, fabrication, assembly—all the basic components needed to complete the job. The materials and some of the tools may be new to him, but the principles make sense, and his body has the advantage of an entire lifetime of muscle memory when it comes to working with tools.

I am a different story altogether. I was not raised in a hardcore DIY household. Anything beyond the basics got hired out. My dad worked with numbers and arranged business deals. My mom organized documents and took dictation. These were valuable things, but our two families varied wildly. Andy’s family spent their free time building back patio storage cupboards, or adding a water feature to the yard, or working in the garden. My family played Scrabble and Monopoly and watched TV. As an adult, I am not without skills, but my strengths include things like research, public speaking, and writing. I can sit in front of a computer all day long, several days in a row, without growing weary.

Guess who Andy gets for an assistant on this build? Me, of course. If you'd like, you can call me Pinky.

It is a challenge for both of us. He tries to explain very simple things to me, but somehow my wide vocabulary is of no help to me in this world. It’s like there is a whole different language hidden within the language I thought I knew. Before Andy learned to slow down and give me info in simple, bite-sized pieces, he might say something to the effect of:

"Just index off the leading edge and check to make sure it is square first, then make your hash marks at two inches in from the bottom and the inside edge of the face. You will need to drill pilot holes first before you countersink the screws—either flush or just below grade—nothing should be proud of the surface. Don’t forget—the spacing gaskets need to nest high-side up in those flanges. Placing the hinges in their cups will be next, but because we don’t have a hinge-boring machine, you will need to remove the boring screws and their inserts and use regular hinge screws instead."

To which I would reply, “I lost you back at index as a verb. What does that mean? I didn’t understand any of what you said, by the way, because I gave up when I couldn’t follow even the first few words.”

We are getting better—him at explaining, and me at understanding the terminology and tasks, but the work is still not easy for me and rarely feels rewarding. My hands, so adept at typing, become clumsy clubs when holding tools. My normal default, when faced with a task for which I don’t appear to have any aptitude, is to get flustered and frustrated, sometimes to the point of giving up entirely. Working out of one’s comfort zone, of course, is uncomfortable.

But this is a job worth finishing, and my efforts, clumsy and slow as they may be, are helping us move forward. Every morning of helping him rip down material on the table saw, every afternoon of sanding bamboo cabinet doors, every evening of drilling holes for latches and hinges, advances our progress, bringing us one step closer to getting Walter, our trusty travel rig, on the road. My insecurities, and there are many when it comes to jobs requiring physical and spatial skill, cannot win. They cannot get the best of me this time.

Andy and I are partners in this endeavor. We have been partnering together for more than thirty years now—sometimes well and sometimes not so well. Moving into the nomadic future we have planned; we will be faced with unknowns daily; we will be pushed out of our comfort zone on the regular. We need to be ok with doing new things—even if we do them badly, even if they don’t come naturally to us. There is no better training ground than working on a project of this magnitude, of this import, together. If we can finish this job together without either of us losing our bleep-bleep or quitting, we will certainly be able to face any challenge life on the road throws at us.

In the cartoon, sadly, Brain's plans are thwarted every time. Night after night they must reset and start over. We are truly hoping this attempt of ours--to leave behind the typical American Dream built around walls holding us in--is more successful. We are ready to leave this rat race.

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