Just About Perfect

When I was a little girl, I thought my father was perfect. Most people did. If you asked Pete Manale to help you with something, you could be sure he’d do a bang-up job, whether it was hanging living room curtains with millimeter precision, fixing broken things or creating something decorative. Dad’s never been much of a cook, but other than a lack of culinary talent he’s always seemed to be good at everything, probably because he devotes a great deal of thought and care into each undertaking. (This is code. It means he’s never in a rush, but it’s worth the wait.) It’s a philosophy he reinforced in me, his eldest child: If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

Dad has a very innovative mind, forever dreaming up ways to make things better around the house. Every time I visit, he has something new to show me. His creations are the perfect extensions of himself, equal parts practical and playful. Over the years he’s added two pantries and a corner bookcase in the kitchen, and managed to beautify a run-of-the-mill electric fan.

Then there’s the custom magazine rack Dad built into the wall of Mom’s bathroom, complete with wiring for her phone. They call it the phone booth. Haven’t you always wanted to make a call from the john?

Probably the cutest of his creations is his storage solution for Mom’s many pairs of reading glasses. She has at least a dozen pairs of cheapie drug store magnifiers that Dad finds scattered all over the house. So he designed a shelf above her desk with a built-in row of little felt-lined cubbyholes to protect them from scratches. Pure genius.

I like to think I inherited Dad’s problem-solving, let’s-make-it-better mindset. (At my job we call this continuous improvement, but if I ever start sounding like a consultant here, somebody please stage an intervention!) Anyway, that’s my excuse for constantly rearranging the stuff in my cabinets and closets, something that might drive you crazy if you lived with me. 

When I was little, I enjoyed being Dad’s helper. I’d watch him work, handing him tools and asking a million questions. If he ever got impatient with me, he didn’t show it. It was a sweet bonding experience for us and it taught me a lot about approaching a task thoughtfully. I don’t trust people who toss out the instructions. 

My first clue that my father might not know how to do everything came when he tried his hand at brick masonry. We’d just moved to a new house and instead of a wooden gate to the backyard he wanted to install brick columns and an iron gate. It seemed simple enough. Lay a row of bricks, spread the black mortar across the top with the trowel, repeat. I watched excitedly because I couldn’t wait to swing on the gate.

Except the bricks kept sliding out of place like a layer cake with slippery frosting.

I don’t remember how long Dad struggled with the task but it felt like forever to me. No matter what he did, the bricks would not form a wall. When he finally gave up, I felt disappointed. I’d never seen him fail at anything. But of course, Dad didn’t really give up. The next Saturday, he tackled those bricks again with fresh vigor and a new plan. 

We were no longer living in the house when Hurricane Katrina destroyed St. Bernard Parish in 2005. But I’ll bet that brick and iron gate was still standing. 

Some things from those days aren’t still standing. When I was in high school, my parents divorced, Dad remarried and my mother died. That time, Dad couldn’t fix everything. I don’t know how we all got through those years and it’s still hard to talk about sometimes. But my father was there. Through all the changes, both his and mine, he’s always been there for me.

Lucky for us, Dad is enjoying good health at age 82. He chafes at the restrictions of old age and sometimes he flagrantly defies them. A couple of Christmases ago, Dad tried out my nephew Christopher’s hoverboard. It didn’t go well. The board zipped out from under his feet and he crashed onto the cold kitchen floor flat on his back. Scared us to death! But my crazy daredevil father got to his feet, rubbed his head and asked, “Hey, where’s the seat to this thing?”

He hasn’t lost his sense of humor and he’s still creating things. I’ve tried to talk him into downsizing, selling the house and moving to something smaller and easier to maintain, but he won’t do it. He says he can’t find a retirement community that would let him have his workshop.

Last summer, I was feeling nostalgic for those sweet times with my father when I got an idea for something we could build together during my visit. Dad was a little confused by my request at first. 

“How are you going to take a bench home on the plane?” he asked.

“A meditation bench is really small, Dad. Not like a park bench.” I held my hands about a foot apart to give him an idea of the size. “Space for one butt. About eight inches tall. Flat seat. You kneel on the floor to sit on it.” I pulled up the directions I’d found online to show him what it would look like. 

Dad studied the diagram and then launched into a search on Pinterest, his new jam, to do a little more research. In the end, we settled on a design and found the wood and stain we needed for the project among his everyday supplies. Mom and I went shopping for the fabric to cover the seat, because shopping is her jam.

Dad’s shop is a carpentry wonderland. It’s easy to see what he does with all those Lowe’s gift cards we give him for every occasion, but I’m clueless naming his many fierce-looking power tools. For our modest meditation bench, we used a couple of different saws, at least three sanders, a device that did some kind of planing and possibly a drill. I’m not sure. Other doodads may also have been involved. The man has everything. 

Just like old times, I passed Dad tools and watched him transform scrap wood into something useful. He urged me to try my hand at it. The little palm sander was fun. The big saw that bounced was scary. Dad applied the stain and the next day we padded and covered the seat, securing the material with upholstery tacks. It’s just about perfect. Kind of like Dad.

I know Dad doesn’t understand why I’d want to sit on a little wooden bench and watch myself breathe. (Nobody in my family does. I’m glad they all indulge my oddities.) But he was delighted to build it for me, gifting me with all these fond memories.

Dad tries meditation

And my very own meditation bench will have the touch of my father’s loving hands upon it forever. 

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Has Anybody Seen My Muse?

The sole purpose of this sentence is to transform this blank page into one with words on it.

Whew! Now the page is not blank and I can move forward. Because, you see, I am alone at the keyboard today. My muse is missing.

At first I didn’t realize she was gone. My corporate day job involves lots of writing and somehow I’ve managed to keep producing it. But when I get home and open my laptop – nothing. Possibly my work writing has overtaxed my muse. Maybe she got bored by the content. All I know is that fun little essays that used to write themselves have been eluding me.

Guitar music

As I struggle through these paragraphs, my husband Ret is softly playing guitar, spontaneous notes he’s never played before, weaving themselves into a beautiful song. He calls upon his muse anywhere, anytime, and she delivers. His talent is as enormous as his spirit, and his music perfumes the background of our life together.

Confession: The guitar he is playing is mine. Good thing, too, because my guitar would die of loneliness without his touch.

Another confession: Sometimes I am jealous.

When I was 12, someone gave me my first guitar, a beat-up acoustic with a bolted-on headstock and the name Pete! proudly painted across the body. I loved that instrument and diligently learned to play chords. I was never very good, but I enjoyed making music – until my parents bought new guitars for Christmas: one for me, and one for my younger sister Lori.

Lori is actually pretty naturally talented. We had great times playing together until her abilities began to surpass mine. Suddenly it wasn’t as much fun. As I entered my teenaged years and the agonies of high school, I wasn’t secure enough as a person to be less than great at something, especially when my kid sister was better. My guitar playing languished and I turned to other creative pursuits.

Starving artist

I’ve always had a modest ability to draw. In high school, a whimsicMuse 2 (1)al art muse swept into my life. I sketched faces to my heart’s content and dreamed of becoming an artist. That hope lasted until I took a commercial art class in college. Surrounded by people with stunning talent, reality dawned: If I expected to make a living as an artist, I’d be a starving one. And I like to eat.

Just like that, my sweet little art muse flapped her gossamer wings and disappeared. Every so often, she flits back into my awareness, and at those times, my charcoal pencils come out again. But it never lasts. I think I must be this muse’s moonlighting job.

Or maybe my muse doesn’t like to be compared unfavorably to other people’s muses. Who could blame her? Muses are delightful, happy creatures, playfully bestowing their gifts on grateful recipients. Insecurity, fear and perfectionism probably scare them away.

There’s a passage in the Bhagavad Gita that exhorts the purity of performing an action for its own sake, and not getting attached to the outcome. Lord Shiva says to Arjuna,

“Self-possessed, resolute, act without any thought of results, open to success or failure… This equanimity is yoga.”

In the case at hand, I think this means the joy should come from the writing, drawing and playing itself, not whether it’s good enough, whatever that is.

Thank you, muse

Many years ago, my mother taught me to be gracious and say thank you when someone gave me a gift. Once again, Mom’s right. Gratitude is always the right response.

Because the truth is, my muse is wonderful. She gives me inspiration at work every day. When I’m teaching yoga, she grants me the intuition to somehow know just what my students need. She whispers her approval when I get fun ideas with my home decor, like putting the leopard footstool in front of the little red floral chair, and she gives me great, off-the-wall cooking ideas. And when I am relaxed, receptive and not taking myself so darned seriously, words fly from my fingertips over the keyboard, sketches appear on my tablet and my clunky musical efforts don’t  sound half bad.

Ret, honey, I think I need my guitar now. I want to play.

Guitar under tree (1)