Survival of the Fittest: Men of a Certain Ability
How guys really bond.
In the TNT show "Men of a Certain Age" (starring South Orange's own Andre Braugher!), three middle-aged guys discover the "unique bonds of male friendship" while hiking up mountain trails, attending their kids' school functions and, best of all, eating out. But except for an all-too-brief encounter with a home electrical system, the show has so far missed one of the more "unique" (that is, women won't have anything to do with it) types of male bonding. This type occurs when men from different backgrounds come together to fix, install or, in extreme cases, build from scratch something that is way out of their league.
Picture a freezing, poorly lit attic on an otherwise peaceful street in South Orange. Two men, related by the marriage of one to the daughter of the other, are lying on the floor with a loaded, plugged-in nail gun between them. Off to one side is a large pile of fiberglass insulation, whose transportation from Home Depot has already taken up the better part of a morning and left the men feeling that, in a just world, their work would be over.
Now, however, comes the hard part. The idea, of course, is to attach the insulation material to the sloping attic ceiling in a credible manner. Here "credible" implies the opposite of "haphazard" and means at the very least avoiding the "common mistakes" associated with do-it-yourself insulators on the Internet. Hint: if the house feels colder after it's been insulated, you may have committed one of these.
Less common but perhaps more worrisome is the possibility that whoever is operating the nail gun will mistake his partner for a piece of insulation—or, for that matter, a deer—in the shadows. Neither is wearing the kind of bright clothing that hunters use to distinguish themselves from their targets. Fortunately, the nail gun has a safety catch, and after several "practice shots," the men have become reasonably sure they know when it is on or off.
An hour of what feels to the men like solid productivity goes by. By this time, it almost should not need to be said, women and children have evacuated the premises, much like when the Titanic hit an iceberg. This has left father- and son-in-law all alone to deepen their relationship and reflect on what it means to be a man in America today.
"Um, is that—?"
"You may want to move it out of the line of fire," advises the older man as he adjusts the angle of the nail gun. Then he returns to what he was saying about the route he will take when this is over and he can finally drive back to his own home.
The younger man is relieved that his and his father-in-law's thoughts are both tending in the same general direction of being through with their task. They are obviously becoming more in sync by the minute. Nevertheless, as he lies on his back holding the insulation in place and waiting for the next nail to be fired, he also cannot help but feel a certain nervousness about his position.
"The traffic on 280 –" his father-in-law is saying. "No one looks—"
"It's important to look," the younger man agrees a bit too enthusiastically as the gun describes a small arc through the air. A pyong sound alerts him to the fact that something has been nailed to the ceiling. After checking to see that it is not any part of his own body, he says to his father-in-law, "Maybe we could take turns with the gun."
Ignoring this suggestion for the moment, the older man lowers the weapon and squints at their handiwork.
"Does what we've done so far look crooked to you? I can't tell."
They have installed 10 pieces of insulation without seeming to have made much of a dent in the pile. A lot of naked attic ceiling still remains to be covered.
The younger man sits up. "A little. And some of them are bunched up. That's not supposed to happen."
"I suppose we could go back and redo what we've done so far."
"I guess we could."
There is a moment of silence in which both men give serious consideration to this. They are men on a job, and with such men there is an unspoken code. Some things do not need to be said.
"Or we could always," the younger man finally offers a counterproposal, "have lunch. Maybe it will look straighter on a full stomach."
The older man regards his son-in-law in a new way, as if realizing he might not be so dumb after all. Then he hands him the nail gun. "When we get back, it's all yours!"
This is an emotional moment, a ceremonious transfer of power from the old guard to the new. The moment is marred only slightly by the fact that, while it is being handed over, the gun goes off not once but twice, sending nails into parts of the attic that were not expecting them so soon.
"There really should," one of the men suggests after they have both caught their breaths, "be a safety catch for the safety catch. So you're sure when it's on or off."
Agreeing that this would be a good idea and that there are plenty more to be had where it came from, they head off for a working lunch.
This is how it is on job sites where things have progressed too far to make turning back seem an attractive option. When the Leaning Tower of Pisa was going up, there was probably one guy who kept saying, "Does it look a little off to you? Looks a little off to me."
Meanwhile, the other guys on the project were discussing what it meant to be a man in medieval Pisa and why it had to involve fighting so many duels.
"I just wish for once I didn't have to kill the next jerk who looks at my sister cross-eyed."
"I know what you mean. Wouldn't it be great if we could sit down and talk stuff out?"
"Something really doesn't look right," the one paying attention to the actual tower might say, while continuously shaking his head.
"Hey, busybody, why don't you go order yourself a lunch special somewhere before what you're looking at is the handle of my dagger sticking out of your rib cage!"
By the time citizens of Pisa realized that something was wrong with their tower, the men had moved on to other construction jobs without leaving so much as a forwarding address.
Flight was not an option for the creators of the Spiraling Downward Attic Ceiling of South Orange. But the younger of the two did make sure he was out of the house when his wife showed their handiwork to the professionals she hired to do it over.
"What happened here?" One of the pros was reported to have asked as he surveyed the damage.
"I tried to throw some business to a couple of guys in my family," she explained.
"Never mix this kind of business with family. Always trouble."
"I know that now."
Still, all must not have gone exactly as promised with the new crew either because when he came home, her husband was given the assignment of going up to the attic and seeing "what it was those guys were doing there." As he climbed the attic stairs, he heard loud voices. When he reached the top, he saw a scene of utter desolation: old insulation torn out, the new half installed and three of the guys having an argument about the keys to the truck they had parked outside.
"Don't worry," he reported back to his wife with a certain satisfaction. "They're just bonding."
David Baker is a South Orange resident and an English professor at Rutgers-Newark. He writes a column for Patch on midlife fitness.