The Founding Fathers Were Wrong: Part Two - Into the Valley

A personal tale of adventure, discovery, hardship and hope

INTRODUCTION

I’m writing a multi-part series about finding meaning and happiness, in work and in life, and how that shapes the way I think about architecture and the built world.

You can find the previous post below:

Where we left off:

That master mason I’d met in Panama years earlier, Clay Chapman?  

I called him.

SPONSORS

I want to thank the sponsors for this newsletter!  Sierra Pacific Windows and One Source Windows & Doors.  When the owner, Bryan, of One Source reached out to say he and Sierra wanted to sponsor the podcast and newsletter because they believe in what we were doing at Building Culture, I was happy to accept.  I was happy to accept because we use Sierra’s product and work with One Source on the majority of our projects at Building Culture over the past seven years!  I love their product and service, and so does the rest of the BC team. If you are in the market for windows or doors, check them out.

PART TWO

After years of trial and error, finally, I’d found my calling!  I moved to Carlton Landing, worked with my hands, laid brick in the glorious light of day, enjoyed my beautiful wife, and dreamed up the vision for Building Culture, which quickly went on to be the great success you see today.  

Just kidding.  

And if it were true, would you even want to read the rest?

Closed Doors are More Valuable Than Open Ones

Sometimes I’m thankful we don’t get what we want.  For doors shut.  I actually knew I wanted to go work for Clay, but I was too distracted by the shiny object that was Facebook, and convinced myself I could go to work for Clay later.  But I was already 27…there wouldn’t have been a later if I’d taken that job and we’d moved to San Francisco.

I increasingly see shut doors as gifts – guiding me to where I really need to go.  I used to struggle against them, trying to break them down, seeing them as obstacles to my path.  How dare they get in my way!  But now I see them as shaping my path.  They often offer more clarity than open doors. 

There is a difference between being persistent and being obstinate. Persistence can be adaptable and action oriented, while obstinance can be rigid and ultimately static. 

If I find myself trying to break down a door, or wallowing in disappointment at the ‘missed opportunity’, it probably means I’ve attached to some imaginary outcome I’ve judged as good, that feeds my pride, as if I really know what’s on the other side.  Ha!  The arrogance.  

One thing is for certain: you never know what’s on the other side.  It’s all an exploration.  It’s all pathfinding, one step at a time.  If a door is shut, look for the opportunity elsewhere; knock on some other doors and see if any of them open.  

Sometimes it helps me to think about life like a river. I can’t see what’s ahead, and sometimes I need to struggle to get where I need to go (there are class V rapids after all), but I almost always want to work with the current to navigate through.

And so sometimes I stop and ask myself when I’m feeling disappointment: am I in the flow, or am wasting energy struggling against the current?  

Just make sure to get into the river.  The sandy bank feels comfortable and safe. There is no risk of drowning or sudden death. But that’s what makes it so pernicious. It’s a slow, fading kind of inevitable death of the spirit, like boiling a frog from cold water so it won’t jump out. By the time it realizes something is wrong, it’s too late.

A New Journey Begins

Clay answered when I called.  He never answers.  People used to always ask me how to get in touch with him.  I got lucky.

On the phone, I pitched him for a job.  He told me I could come down for a week and learn if I wanted.  There was absolutely no promise, or even suggestion, of an actual job, to be clear.  He was actually kind of indifferent about it – like a “if you want to work for a week I can put you to work” kind of thing.  

The night before we left from San Antonio where we were staying, I got sick.  Really sick.  Sarah had to drive the whole eight hours to rural eastern Oklahoma herself while I sat shivering in the passenger seat, in and out of a feverish sleep. 

I’d gotten dengue in Panama a few months before, and I swear the effects lasted for months.  Or at least had weakened my immune system.  I’d get sick on and off, randomly.  And this was the worst one that had hit me – unable to get out of bed for days.

But when I arrived I tried to push through, too terrified of making a bad impression when I had so much on the line and no other plan.  We went over to his house for dinner.  I had to cancel midway through because I was about to fall over.  I was horrified.

After a few days of recovering in a $40 motel in rural Oklahoma – a particularly unpleasant experience – with Sarah attempting to nurse me back to health with no resources around, I told Clay I was good to work.

I was maybe 40% recovered.

Fortunately, the first day was lite.

My task?  Dig a five foot by three foot hole, eight feet deep down to bedrock for a chimney foundation.  By hand.

Have you ever dug a hole?  Say to plant a tree, or place a fence post?  It’s surprisingly difficult.

Digging a 5’x3’x8’ deep hole? In hard clay?  Holy s***.  That day is burned into my mind. Not just in this life, but into the next.  

I’ll never forget that day.  I even remember exactly what I had for lunch – a Wendy’s double cheeseburger that had mayonnaise on it (I hate mayonnaise) and Gatorade that Clay brought us that was the best damn thing I’d ever tasted.  I never remember stuff like that.  

Me and the other apprentice dug that damn hole in a single day, Clay jumping in at times, into the dark.  And when that was done, we had to prep a jobsite for rain with flashlights.

It’s as tired as I can ever remember being.  Worse, I’d just spent three years abroad in rural living conditions.  I hadn’t worked out or used my hands at all.

My hands were ripped to shreds.  My feet were blistered from crappy shoes.  The next day, and for the following week, my body was the most sore I’d ever been in my entire life.  And I played football – even in college.  I was accustomed to physical pain.  And I’d never felt anything like this.  This wasn’t sore.  Digging holes is a full-body experience, and all I’d done for three years was walk and bike around.  This was excruciating.  And I was still sick.  I was as miserable as I can ever remember.

Yet I had to go to work the next day to prove I wanted the job that didn’t even exist.  I honestly don’t know how I did it. 

Thankfully, no more holes.  I can’t remember a single thing about the following days.  They were pure survival. 

At the end of the week, Clay had us over for dinner on our last evening in town—my only other memory that week. I kept trying to push the conversation towards staying, towards an apprenticeship.  He wasn’t biting.  

As we were saying goodbyes, literally standing at the door, I simply asked, in utter desperation, “can I stay?”

He was silent for a moment.  With a considering frown he asked if I could commit to two years.  I immediately said yes, hope crashing back into me.  Another moment of silence.  He nodded his head, slowly, and said “okay.”

Can you pay me? I asked next, sweating bullets.  

Twelve dollars an hour, he said.

I smiled as if this was some great sum of money, $23k/year.  My wife and I could survive!  

Over the weekend we found a $400 house for rent in the town nearby in a neighborhood of meth heads.  It was all we could afford.  And coming back from the Peace Corps, having a fridge and hot water felt like a luxury.

We ate every meal in bed because there was just a single window unit in the middle bedroom of our tiny shotgun house. But – AC!

Perspective is everything.

We signed the lease, drove back to my parents’ in San Antonio, packed up our meager belongings and came right back.

I honestly can’t believe my wife did this with me.  She is a hero.  And this is a fact: Building Culture would not exist without her sacrifice, sense of adventure, courage, and companionship.  I wouldn’t have made it through it all without her.

Into the Valley

Those two years of hard labor were just that: hard.  Oklahoma has hot summers and cold winters.  And laying brick, digging foundations, roofing, it’s hard work.    

2016. After a session of cutting brick in the hot sun, the dust sticks to you.

I was also in really bad shape physically after several years abroad.  I’d had malaria twice, dengue, schistosomiasis, fungus, and all kinds of parasites.  I felt like crap all the time, making the physical work probably three times harder than it should have been.  

I remember going to the doctor early on, doing bloodwork for the first time since I’d been back, and she was utterly shocked, saying my testosterone levels were that of an unhealthy fifties-something year old.  Along with a bunch of other stuff.  She was genuinely worried about me.     

Sarah was pretty sick too.  While I’d dabbled with paleo before going abroad, now we got really serious about our diet: soft boiled vegetables, fermenting sauerkraut, kombucha, and making bone broth.  Trying to repair our guts and get back to health on a very limited budget.

For the record, this health aspect is a lifelong struggle for me.  I have auto-immune and inflammation issues, and have to work really, really hard to stay reasonably healthy.

Perhaps now you see why I make a big deal about health and tie it back to human flourishing?  Without physical health, nothing else matters. Trust me, I know.

Those two years were also lonely years.  We didn’t have friends – just the other apprentice Patrick and his wife who left a few months in.  We lived in a poor, drug-filled neighborhood, and Carlton Landing was an ultra-wealthy second community that was just getting off the ground with forty-something houses built when we arrived.  

If you could afford a second house there you were easily making $400k+/year, probably much more, and everyone was a decade older than us anyway.

We were dirt poor, I was a construction worker, and my heroic wife was cleaning houses to help us survive.  We were the help.  People were nice, no one was rude at all, but we didn’t exactly fit in.  

And to top it all off, Clay and I had a difficult relationship.  We can easily admit that now, and of course root for each others’ success.  But that doesn’t change the stress of those two years. 

Do these sound like happy years to you?

Of course there were moments of levity and fun.  But overall I’d rate those couple years as pretty miserable.  Not to mention the stress of trying to figure out how I was going to make money after the apprenticeship was up.  So much uncertainty and anxiety about the future. 

What kept us going?  It damn sure wasn’t happiness.  I’d have quit two feet deep into that hole and never come back. 

No, it was the blossoming of something new in our lives: meaning. And walking that journey together. 

We knew we were working towards something, even though we didn’t know exactly what it was.  But we were aiming up, orienting ourselves towards a vision, putting our best foot forward, and yes — acting with courage. 

And at our lowest points, something would always happen to give us some encouragement.  Some breadcrumb of hope.  I don’t know how to explain it, but it was always just enough to keep us going.  Gifts within the valley, in the darkness, goading us forward.

To be continued…

EXPLORATION

I don’t get paid for recommending anything here. These are just things I use/like.

Supplements I Trust: I like Chris Kresser, who is a well-known health practitioner, and I’ve recently started buying supplements from his company Adapt Naturals. There are a lot of practitioners out there today who are starting to realize, in our nutrient-deficient food system (see my podcast with Justin), even with a great diet, you just can’t get everything you need, and are realizing supplementation is essential. But it’s hard to find trustworthy sources. I trust Chris, and buy most of my stuff through his company right now.

Newsletter Rec: This goes along with the podcast I recently did with Justin, but his latest Substack The Great American Poisoning is eye opening, and definitely worth a read. With 60% of Americans living with at least 1 chronic condition, we are the sickest group of Americans in history. And it’s not close.

CONTENT

I loved this podcast with Justin, and I’m really grateful he came on. He’s an entrepreneur in the health space, doing what Building Culture is doing for the built environment in the food space. He is the founder of Kettle & Fire, the bone broth that graces shelves at Whole Foods, as well as three other health brands. He’s articulate, passionate, and very knowledgably. And it’s obvious his business is a mission to him. Check it out!

Thanks for reading everyone. Hit reply if you have any thoughts, resources or anything else to share. Until next time!

Austin

SPONSORS

It’s not just the window manufacturer that matters, but who you get the windows from.  The local distributor is who works with you to customize the package, orders, installs and warranties the product.  I’ve worked with One Source, a local Oklahoma company for over seven years.  My favorite product I get from them?  Sierra Pacific’s H3 casement window.  I personally love casements over double hung in most circumstances.  They are…a cleaner look.  And the whole window opens, which is cool.  It’s an aluminum clad product at a competitive price, and offers a ton of options that most companies do not at the lower tiers.  Kind of like a car: most window companies require the most expensive product line to get certain colors, muntin profiles, etc.  Not Sierra!  Which is just one of the reasons I love them.  You can find Sierra Pacific windows all over the country (ask your local window suppliers), and if you are in Oklahoma, reach out to One Source, who has a showroom in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.  I vouch for them both myself!

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