The Mayday Experiment: Girl Power and Power Tools

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It was 8 a.m. when the doorbell rang, the ordinarily melodic tones turning to scratchy demon fire against my eardrum. Anyone who knows me knows I’m absolutely not a morning person, and typically force myself to go to bed around 4 a.m. — so after a bleary look at the digital clock at the foot of my bed, I jumped up and threw on clothes, thinking it could only be my landlord or the cops, since the UPS driver rarely finds my door at any hour.

Pulling on clothes and wiping the sleep from my eyes, I ran across the space to the door and turned the finicky key, cracking open the door to let the searing sunlight into my sleepy, unlit cave.

A nondescript guy stood there with a big grin on his face, in a T-shirt and flip-flops, and excitedly asked in a booming, morning-person voice: “Is this your tiny house”?

Stifling a yawn, I responded that it was.  His next question: “Who’s building it for you?”

Confused, I replied, “I am?” — and soon I was stifling eye-rolls as well as yawns after I heard his condescending and incredulous response: "Wow, all by yourself?”

Were I fully awake, I might have been stifling more than an eye-roll as the implication of his words sunk in: “You mean, a GIRL is building a tiny house all by herself?” Because I’m pretty sure if I had been sporting a prickly morning shadow on my face, that question wouldn’t have crossed his lips. It would be assumed: Of course I’m doing it by myself...although any man would most likely need help, too, especially for raising walls. It may be a tiny house, but it’s still a big job, despite how easy the truncated TV schedules of all the tiny-house shows make it look with a full crew behind the scenes.

Regular readers know that I am not doing this “all by myself,” but collaboratively with friends: First, Philip Spangler, whose building skills and knowledge absolutely outweighed my own, and now with Victoria Salvador, who recently got her certificate in construction management and is currently cramming for her Architects Registration Exam.

Even though friends are helping, it’s not as if I don’t know how to build things: It’s my job to properly terrify students every year with their first use of a table saw in 3-D Design (terror = proper respect = keeping one’s fingers!), and I’ve been building sculptures, stretcher bars, walls and crates for most of my adult life as an artist.

My dad was a master carpenter, and I spent hours searching his floor for just the right curls of wood to stick in my hair as a little girl, pounding bent nails destined for the trash into my own chunk of 2” x 4” clamped to a bench. In a way, I was the son my dad always wanted; though he had two fine sons already, I shared his love of horses, his need for immersion in nature and his interest in building things. But, alas, my dad didn’t really want another son; he wanted a daughter, and my lack of interest in the girly arts confounded him.

Well into my twenties, I would beg my dad to teach me things in the wood shop, to help me build things for art shows and home-improvement projects. It was the only time we would bond, and the only time I ever saw him, post re-marriage, without my humorless stepmonster in tow. I would show up with projects and plans at his house, and we would spend hours in his garage/wood-shop building — but each time, the learning experience was thwarted by my dad’s impatience and inability to trust me with power tools, as he would grab things out of my hands or do the task for me rather than let me learn how to do it myself. As a result, it was years before I felt confident in a wood shop. My comfort level finally increased once I was required to teach it, though I always knew in technical terms how to use every tool from hours of observation and quasi-successful forays. This even affected my choice of major in college: I gravitated toward painting only because I had heard from other girls in the art department that I could expect the same tool-grabbing, exclusionary, sexist treatment from the sculpture teacher at the time.

This attitude isn’t exclusive to just a few men; it’s something both Victoria and I encounter regularly and compare notes on. Often when she is researching a part or material for the tiny house (a task I don't even know how to begin sometimes, and I am so thankful for her knowledge), she’ll return with tales of men assuming she’s stupid and then engaging in mansplaining, which we’ll laugh over while sipping our end-of-day tea. Any woman who works with power tools or in construction experiences the same. And yet I’m used to being treated as knowledgable by my fellow artists as well as my students, so every time I encounter this attitude, the feeling is galling.

Still, when I was growing up, it seemed normal – after a while, almost unnoticeable – to be treated like a high-functioning toddler by adults of the testosterone persuasion. I’ll never forget one of the first times I really noticed and took offense to it, however. In my twenties, when I was installing a show late at night at Pirate Contemporary Art Oasis, my cordless drill died dramatically, amid a shower of sparks and electrical-scented smoke. At the time, a 24-hour Builder’s Square existed in Edgewater, and I drove there frantically at 3 a.m. to buy a new drill so that I could complete the task at hand. The power tools were ensconced in a case, and you had to ask a salesclerk for the appropriate tool — so I hunted down the lone guy manning the front of the giant store while his co-workers loafed rowdily in plumbing.

After telling him I needed a drill, his response stopped me in my tracks. In a voice dripping with snark and condescension,  he asked: “What color”?

With a looming deadline and a desire for sleep, I was not in the mood for this and snapped back: “To match my eyes, dumbfuck.”

Surprised at my push-back, he shamefacedly mumbled something like, “Well, you know…Makitas are blue, DeWalts are yellow…” but we both knew what he had meant. I assured him I was capable of pronouncing “DeWalt” and familiar enough with using one that I’d burned the last one out from serious overuse. I also assured him that if any other hardware stores were open at 3 a.m., I’d take my business to one of those. (This one closed for good soon after, anyway — I can only hope because of the rude sales staff.)

Which is why I felt so vindicated last week as Victoria and I labored to sand down an errant 2" x 4" cross-brace that was preventing us from installing the pantry flush against the wall in the tiny house. Hot and sawdust-covered, we were nearing peak frustration with a task that we had assumed would be easy but, as so often happens, was taking longer than expected both through errors and unforeseen problems like our rogue 2” x 4”. As I leaned into the belt sander and knocked down the excess protruding corner, two guys pulled up in the alley in a white van and hollered into our open door: “Hey, is this your tiny house?”

I steeled myself for the questions, but invited them in. Both were carpenters working on a job down the street; they said they drove by it every day and had been really curious about it and were eager to check it out and learn more about the project. As they looked around, one said, Wow, this top post is a 4” x 4,” practically!” The other nodded and said, “This thing is SOLID. Well done.” 
Somewhat surprised, Victoria and I shot each other a look and thanked them, and Victoria added, Yeah…usually guys assume we don’t know what we’re doing! Which is sometimes true, but we figure it out…”

The guys shot each other a look, too, and laughed. “Look," one said, "guys have to figure it out JUST as much. We just pretend we know what we’re doing”!

At the end of the day, isn’t that what we’re all doing? A year ago, I didn’t know how to build a house, but nevertheless, a house is getting built, bit by bit. It may be tiny, but it’s still a house.

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is writing about her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on westword.com every other week. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here or here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.

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