Labor therapy

June to August 2011 marked my last ever commitment-free summer.  I spent the majority of the time in Cali and Seattle, picking up web programming and devising a startup.  Soon I found myself spending 80% of my waking hours at my computer. Though I flew west bearing four books, I had finished only two by late July. Between code, e-mail, chat, Twitter, blogs, and distractions, there was seldom time to think – let alone disconnect.

My salvation came in the form of a kitchen table, purchased at IKEA for my friends’ new place. It was almost perfect for their dining room, but the wrong color: a faux-antiqued chestnut stain.  I offered to re-stain it a more modern ebony.

The last time I had undertaken such a project was over six years ago, staining a small bench at my house.  So when the painstaking process of sanding every surface of the table and matching chairs — over 40 pieces and 130 surfaces — took a whole week, I found myself frustrated and anxious to finish every day.  Nightfall was my enemy.

Yet the time I spent outside on that deck, sanding from sunrise to sunset, was actually quite calming.  There was fresh air, an absence of electronic distraction, and time to think. Sawdust is so sublimely hostile to our gadgets and devices that they dare not enter the land of the workbench.

Calculating it out, the week and a half I spent sanding and painting was the longest contiguous time I had not been in front of a computer, for about as long as I can remember.

While my hands were at work, it freed my creativity. Ideas, which would normally linger on the tip of my mind’s tongue, were consummated into full mental soliloquies. Every day I spent on the table, I came back inside with ten ideas to note down.

Working on a project with my hands was about the closest I’ve gotten to a vacation in years.

Many digital natives like me pass time at the office as so-called “knowledge workers.”  Our tools are our minds.  So on most days, we try to satisfy our inner thirst for kinesthesia by running on treadmills and playing Wii sports. But with music blaring and a TV on, the sense of solitude is missing.  As is the feeling of creation when you make something from nothing.

So let this be a reminder that a vacation to get away isn’t always the answer. Pick a project, build it, fix it, cook it, paint it.  All it took for me was some wood and thirty bucks at a hardware store.

P.S. here’s the actual finished table, in case you were wondering: