I was rummaging around in some old family photos and found this one of me on the beach at the old family cottage on Lake Huron MI. It’s 1971, I’m 15 years old. I’m standing with the first tree I cut down to build a 20-foot-tall lookout tower. It was the first big thing I ever built. It took a whole summer, but all by myself, I managed to build the structure, platform and roof from scavenged wood I found. It stood for twenty years, you could see it for a mile up the beach but it always made me sad to see because my dad never took the time to help me buy the seven sheets of plywood to enclose it so I could sleep in it. I wanted a pot-belly stove.
I look at myself there, all confident and ready for the challenge, free of any distractions or reasons I shouldn’t be doing exactly what I was about to do. It makes me appreciate the role of parents, even if it’s not perfect, as children how they shield us from the full force of the life they must fight to keep.
I’m 61 now, I’ve built a lot of stuff between then and now, most recently a company to commercialize a one-wheel motorcycle and last summer a men’s book entitled HEART in GEAR, An Engineer’s Erotic Journey to Freedom. I’m now starting the build of a prototype electric Hydro-Foil personal water craft. It feels exhausting sometimes. Who’s the glory for? Why do I do this? I keep coming back to the notion that in my own way I’m holding on to belief that what I’m proving to myself, is life is about play. Building stuff to me, is play.
As I get older, the play takes on a somber tone. I do it now because I won’t be defeated. I do it to prove I will continue to play no matter how brutally hard it gets; how many people are intimidated by my play or think I don’t get to.
For some odd reason, I’m reminded of an article about what it was like for George Washington when he got up that morning at 3am before crossing the Delaware to kick the British out of this country. He told the story how there was no feeling of eminent glory, there was no euphoric egoic drive, it was simply sit-up, turn toward the door, put your feet in your boots, go down to the river with the rest of those that ended up in that famous 25-foot-wide painting hanging in the “The Met” in NYC, then break the ice enough to shove off, knowing you’re going to get those bastards out of their freezing tents in their underwear.
That’s what it’s like to feel one’s autonomy. To prove to one’s self that we have choices, even though those choices may not be the same as other people’s access to choices, they are our choices none the less.
So, I build stuff, it’s what makes me feel free.