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Facts and Arguments No hands on deck: Embarking on a task without a set idea of the result

“In my life, I have been many things, but nowhere in my CV is carpentry mentioned, so I have to learn as I go.”

Jori Bolton/The Globe and Mail

Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

'Why," a friend once asked me, "do you like doing so many things that you are no good at?"

My friend was referring to my love of endurance athletics and the fact that I have never finished a race in the top 1,000. But as I lifted another bag of cement mix off my driveway, where the delivery truck had dropped it, and carried it into my garage, I remembered his question.

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I was covered in cement dust, my arms and back singing a chorus of muscle pain. Each bag weighed 30 kilograms and I was on my 17th of 52. Next, I would stack the lumber. I wondered if this time I really was in over my head. There I was, at the beginning of another project – building a deck in my backyard – for which I had no discernible skill.

I'd spent hours creating a design on the computer to help me picture how everything should go together. I thought this would minimize the amount of time I spent standing around puzzled after construction actually started. It didn't.

Once I'd begun, however, this project was going to get completed no matter how hard it was or how long it took: I need to finish what I start, even if finishing involves a lot of work or discomfort, or spending a long time without being able to touch bottom or see the finish line.

I am a slow, plodding construction worker. For one thing, I don't know what I'm doing. In my life, I have been many things, but nowhere in my CV is carpentry mentioned, so I have to learn as I go. Also, I like to work alone, without help. I get nervous when I feel someone looking over my shoulder, especially if there is the likelihood that they know more than I do.

Not that there was much assistance being offered anyway.

"Just give me a holler any time you want a hand," said my neighbour Bill, immediately before heading off to his cottage for two months.

The only help I had was from a man with a machine that looked like a ride-'em lawnmower with a giant corkscrew attached. He came and drilled the holes for my cement footings. He seemed to think I had a lot of them.

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"You could build a whole house on this foundation," he said.

I admit that I slightly overdid my substructure. Like the guy who wears both suspenders and a belt, I was nervous about everything staying up.

The only time I really missed having an assistant was when I needed someone to hold one end of my measuring tape. I used nails, rocks and pure willpower to hold one end of the tape in place while I was trying to measure things. As often as not, the far end would let go of its mooring, hiss and snap toward me like a python chasing a swamp rat and I would have to start over.

Every morning for a month, I went out to the yard alone with very little notion of how I was going to do whatever I had to do. Despite my lack of confidence in my knowledge or skills, however, I found that I looked forward to the daily routine and rhythm of effort.

It had been more than a year since I lost my office job and the predictable cadence of my life was disrupted. Though it was easy to forget the work itself, some part of me missed a regular mandate and an atmosphere of activity.

I came to love the smell of fresh-cut wood in the summer sun; the heavy usefulness of the tools; the sharpness of screws as they burrowed into the wood; the strength of heavy, straight boards laid side by side, making me think of the self-sustaining synergy of a choir.

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I knew I was in over my head. After every step I had to stop and figure out what I was supposed to do next. I had recurring muscle spasms from holding boards in place with one foot while lying upside down to nail them together. By the end of each day I was so tired and sore I could barely speak.

Yet, there was not one moment when I wished I were somewhere else, or a time when I considered that I could have paid someone to build the deck for me. I realized long ago that when I am in over my head is when I feel most alive.

I have always loved the adventure of starting a journey without knowing exactly how I'm going to get to the end.

A dozen years ago, running in the darkness toward the finish line of my first Ironman race after 15 hours of effort, I remember being able express the reason I do these things that I am apparently no good at: I do them to see what is possible.

My deck is beautiful. It is solid and welcoming and a joy to sit on. It's held together by a summer's worth of imagination, labour and perseverance, and by my desire to head for the deep end of the pool, to go somewhere I have never been, and to see what things are like when I get there.

Christopher Cameron lives in Toronto.

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