The trouble with being proficient at something, or even being perceived as proficient, is that people will inevitably come seeking your talents. My father-in-law, Jim, for example, is so handy he can solve most any household problem. Plumbing, electricity, carpentry, you name it. When something goes sideways around our house, I am most definitely not the person who is likely to come to the rescue. That person would be Jim. Some people might feel deficient, or even guilty for having so few skills as a homeowner. I never have. If I was more handy, my wife would expect more of me and I’d have less time to daydream, read, write, wander, garden, smoke cigars and stare at our chickens. As is, I just call Jim with our problems and he seems happy enough to solve them. Another bonus is that he has never sent me a bill.
Which brings me to my snowplow, the result of several winters’ worth of bills.
We used to rely on my friend Dave to plow our long driveway. I met Dave because he was part of the construction crew who built our house, and when, years ago, I inquired if he knew anyone who could plow us out, he was eager enough, and his rate wasn’t exorbitant. But the last few winters rightly wore on Dave, and two years ago he informed me that he could no longer be our plowman. I was bummed; I like Dave and consider him a friend.
With Dave out of the equation we went looking for a new plowman. My neighbor across the road had a long-standing relationship with a plow-guy and he added us to his list of clientele, though, at a significantly higher rate than Dave. After scratching a few sizeable checks, I thought to myself, Alright Butler, this doesn’t make sense. So, I bought a plow.
Am I a proficient plowman? No. I’m a beginner, a novice. An apprentice with no master. A guy who writes novels and has a long beat-up driveway. I’m a plowman the way many of you are landscapers. Does owning a walk-behind lawnmower mean that you’re a landscaper, or ready to operate your own lawn-service business. No.
And yet, this winter, two of my neighbors approached me about plowing their driveways. Was I happy to do so? Absolutely. It’s really as easy as dropping the plow on my driveway, pulling out on the road, and turning into another driveway 25 yards away. One of these neighbors has asked that if and only if a blizzard occurs, I plow their small driveway — no problem. If I was a better man, I might have volunteered my services, but in truth, I was a little nervous about my lack of experience. What if I damaged their driveways? Backed into their garage? Ran over a garden gnome?
The fact is, I like plowing. Plowing is almost the opposite of writing novels. There is instant, immediate, tangible gratification and results. One moment, a driveway is buried in snow. Moments later, a path is cleared and made safe. Writing books takes years and even if you’ve written a good book, there is no guarantee of getting it published, or getting a paycheck for your efforts. My wife, for example, can’t really see the time and toil I put into a rough draft of a book. Whether I’m checking a Packers score on espn.com or pouring my soul into a book, it looks the same. And if I’m being honest, most of the time when I’m sitting in front of my laptop, I am in fact frittering away time doing something utterly unproductive. Whereas, when I clear the driveway ... Writing a book is really an act somewhere between prayer and perhaps buying a lottery ticket. It’s a passion with an unknowable result. Plowing snow is real, tangible work.
So, I’ve got myself a little plow route. Two, sometimes three properties. During the winter of 2013/14 or 2017/18 when Dave was working around the clock to clear driveways and parking lots, he probably would have beat me over the head with a shovel for claiming that my puny three-stop route constituted “work,” and he would have been right to do so. But, it is what it is. I never claimed to be a professional and sure as heck didn’t go seeking any clients. They gently asked me for my help.
“Help” looks like this: I allow the truck (a 2003 GMC Sierra 1500) about 15 minutes to warm up. Last time I plowed, I had to scrape ice off the windshield using a Chuck Berry CD case. When the cab is good and toasty, I crawl in with a cup of coffee. I like tuning the FM radio dial. I sing along with Whitesnake, Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard; 1980s Hair-Rock seems to be my preferred plowing soundtrack. Then, I go about clearing asphalt. I take my time. I do good work, I think. Sometimes, I light a cheap cigar. And, because it isn’t really my job, my time and wages are irrelevant. This can’t even be described as a “side hustle.”
I’m just, somehow, a guy who owns a plow, moving snow around before he goes back inside to stare at the computer and wait for words to come.