Do It Yourself

Last weekend I helped lay a tile floor in my father-in-law's kitchen. I had previously worked on a couple of tile installations, but only as a helper, so that's pretty much what I set out to do last weekend — carry boxes, haul mortar, sweep the floor, and so forth. Tom and Jack handled the more challenging, calculation-intensive tasks of laying out the pattern and measuring and marking the tiles for cutting. (We had decided to lay them all diagonally, which is trickier but ends up looking much fancier.) One thing I did a lot of, much like the last time I helped out with a floor like this, was cut tile.

A tile saw, for something that hooks up to both a garden hose and an electrical outlet (!) and features a whirling, diamond-tipped saw blade, is actually pretty straightforward in use. Nothing happens too quickly; you turn on the blade, push the tile into the rotating edge and it just kind of gnaws its way through the ceramic, an inch every few seconds or so. Compared to other parts of the job, like spreading the mortar evenly or figuring out the angles in the corners, it's almost idiot-proof. Just follow the line.

In our system, Tom was up in the house marking those lines, in black crayon, or pencil if the crayon got lost. It was up to him to determine where exactly the 45-, 30-, and 60-degree notches needed to be removed from each square. As he marked each one, sitting on the floor with a measuring tape and mortar-caked hands, he handed it to Jack, who carried it out to the driveway, to me. Then I'd glance at the tile and the faint black line, give Jack my most capable-seeming nod, pull on my earmuffs and fire up the tile saw to start the cut.

Most of them came out pretty well, I'd say. Straighter than I'd imagined, especially since we couldn't use a guide, and you kind of had to just eyeball the blade along the mark the whole way through. Only a few of the tiles ended up cracking before they could be installed, and practically none of those were my fault. By 10 or 11 hours into day one, we were all pretty sure it would come out looking good.

Here I should mention something about laying tile: it basically sucks. The results are nice, of course, but there's no getting around the fact that you're hauling thousands of pounds of rock, trying not to get dust and glop everywhere, and spending the better part of a weekend hunched over on the floor. To be honest, I had been secretly hoping Jack would change his mind about the whole project, or perhaps just put it off a couple months longer. And when the time did come to get started, I resigned myself to a forfeited Saturday and Sunday and just hoped the job went somewhat smoothly.

A few hours later, as I stood soaked in cold water, hunched over, pushing the 90th or so tile into the whirring blade and hoping against hope that I wouldn't chip this one, I had for the most part gotten exactly what I expected. Hand me the tile, let me cut it, here you go, give me another one. Let's get this over with.


In the late afternoon of the second day, Tom cut his arm pretty badly. I knew something was wrong by the way he called my name from the next room — there was something in his tone that told me this wasn't just another "Hey Colin, can you give me a hand with this?"

Sure enough, the utility knife had gotten him good, and he knew he'd need a couple stitches. And, because he's Tom, he elected not to go to a local clinic and pay the insurance co-pay, but to instead drive himself the three hours back to Beaufort, bleeding, and go to the free Naval hospital.

I realized I wasn't going to change his mind, so I wrapped a few loops of electrical tape over his makeshift bandage, gathered up a few of his tools and wished him luck on his drive.

I knew he'd make it just fine. I also knew there was still the better part of one room and a section of hallway left to tile, and I went up into the house to see what he'd been working on when the accident happened. (I didn't spot any blood spatters that needed to be cleaned or anything; he must have closed the wound as soon as it happened.) It was good; he had accomplished quite a bit since the last time I had come in. But still, there was a ways to go. I sat down on the floor, stared at the open space that would have to be finished, and started measuring.

It was slow going -- about three or four times slower than when Tom was doing it -- but eventually I figured out how to mark the tiles accurately. And since Jack was still at the store, I would carry my marked tiles out to my station in the driveway, fire up the saw, pull on the earmuffs and cut the line myself.

As I pushed the tile into the blade, and started the first half-inch of cut, I noticed that it felt different. As the saw dug into the ceramic, the tiny gouge following the line I had drawn back in the house, I could picture how the tile would lay once it was cut. I could see where the edge defined by my line would go, and I remembered how I had drawn it -- a little generously, actually, so that if I cut too much it would still fit well.

Knowing that, it was much easier to make the cut. My mind focused on following the line, and on holding the tile steady, and not rushing the blade. (If you push too hard, the saw blade binds in the tile and slowly grinds to a stop as the electrical motor emits a low, loud hum that sounds a lot like one of those "wrong answer" buzzers.) And when I was finished, I toweled off the tile, carried it up into the house and set it into place. It fit nicely.

That made it easier to measure the next tile, and I realized that the marking part wasn't so hard after all. Besides, if I made a mistake, no big deal. I'll just cut another one and try again. And each time I carried another freshly-marked tile out to the driveway to make the next cut, my mind was already envisioning not only the cut, and which side of the line the blade should follow, but the next tile I'd be cutting, and how many tiles it would take to finish the room, and how well the overall job was coming out.

The last 40 or 50 square feet of floor took me almost six hours.

Tom had done the rest, several times as much area, in not much longer. And even though it was the end of the project, and my hands were tired, and my back hurt, and I was covered in crusty tile adhesive, those six hours went faster than any other part of the job. I actually knew what I was doing.


The next morning I went into work, still a little sore in my legs and back, and got going on the week's assignments. We get daily "traffic sheets," which list all the pending projects, and mine listed three or four ads, brochures and other things to work on that day. After the morning meeting I went back to my desk and started writing.

It was a fairly productive day. I made some client-requested edits, made some creative-director-requested edits, re-saved and reprinted some documents, and wrote a few headlines I liked. It was everything they had asked of me for that Monday.

And when I walked into my boss's office at the end of the day to tell her I was quitting, I really just wanted to get it over with. I knocked quietly on the open door, asked if she had time to talk, and sat down. "I've decided to go freelance" I said. "Full time."

She gave me a stunned look and didn't say anything. I took a deep breath and explained that I had been wanting to try writing on my own for a while now, and had done a few projects here and there, but didn't anticipate leaving until I had more steady work. But a client had just offered me a six-month freelance contract, and I'd have benefits and everything, and, well, I had to take it.

"I'm sorry," my boss said, getting a distant look in her eyes. "You're going to have to say all that again."

Over the next two hours we discussed my decision, how it had come about, and why she felt it was a mistake. She explained that, even setting aside her personal interest in the situation -- the agency's only other writer had just left a week before -- she really thinks it's something I'll regret.

"Think about it, Colin," said the most persuasive person I have ever encountered. "I admire you for what you're trying to accomplish; I really do. And I think it's a brave thing to take on, but you've got a lot of opportunities going for you right here. It just doesn't seem like you need to leave here to pursue your goals."

In the end, I agreed to think it over. Cathy is a very smart person, with a lot more life experience than I have, and I truly believe she had my best interests in mind. And, being Cathy, she made a lot of compelling points.

"Why couldn't you take more responsibility and ownership of your work right here?"

"Why gamble your livelihood on something uncertain when you've got a promising, secure position already?"

"Why not wait a month and see what it's like around here without that other writer?"

But her most resonant inquiry, the one that echoed in my head throughout that evening and into the next day, was the same thing they asked when I turned down another full-time, on-site copywriting position:

"What makes you think this other situation -- doing basically the same thing, except for an agency 250 miles away -- will be so different?"

I never really had a good answer for that. It's just something I feel, I guess, and truthfully, I feel it'll be completely different. I've been an ad agency copywriter my whole career so far; it was my first job after graduating from college. I've been at several great agencies, no two alike, and learned a lot at all of them. But since the beginning, I've always gone into an office every day at 8:30 and sat down at a computer and did whatever people told me. I've always gotten a deposit into my bank account every two weeks, no matter what, and in exchange taken care of any writing the agency needed, no matter what. And Cathy knows that -- it's part of why I'm good to have around.

So when I went back into her office two days later, looked her in the eye and said, "I have to go through with it" I don't think she was all that surprised. She sighed, and tried to wish me the best, and we briefly discussed things like what projects were pending and when my last day would be. I didn't think of it at the time, but if I had I could have told Cathy about the tile cutting and what happened after Tom cut himself.

Then again, it may be a good thing I didn't, since I'm sort of symbolically stabbing her in the arm.


I think this new decision will be different because I'll be more mindful. I think I'll see what I'm doing as something I chose, not just what was set before me. I think I'll learn things I couldn't have learned otherwise, about project management and self-promotion and presenting my ideas and writing and even, yes, discipline. I think it'll be hard.

But I'll have Penelope here to help me, and I'll get to work here with her and Vince and our cats. I'll get to take on new clients and learn about their businesses directly from them, and not hide behind a cheerful account executive who's paid to be more presentable and likable than me. I'll get to write invoices myself and chase down payments myself, and listen to myself haggling over money. Reeeally looking forward to that.

I'll get to know that when something went wrong, it was my mistake, and nobody else's, and that when everything goes right it's still a miracle. I'll get to take a walk around the block when I need a few minutes to clear my head, or not take a walk and know that nobody is stopping me. I'll get to buy my own notebooks, and get the cheapy kind instead of the oversized, hard-bound fancy agency kind I carry around now. I'll get to know how the afternoon sun moves across the dining room, where I guess I'll put my computer.

I'll get to wake up early and write before Penny gets up, when my brain seems most active, and spend two hours writing my ideas and another hour writing the email that explains them all. I'll get to meet my friends for lunch sometimes, I hope, and listen to their stories about what's going on at the agency with great interest, and have new ones of my own to share. I'll get to be in every meeting about my projects, for better or worse. Most of all, I'll get to stop wondering what it would be like and actually go and find out for myself.

I finally get to see what happens when I follow my own line.


penelope said...



john said...


It is cold, windy, wet, and snowy here today in Chicago. And reading this post makes me forget all that. How proud i am of you, it feels my soul with warmth. And to quote a wonderful illustrator...


Hail to the investors in themselves!!!

Peace be with you.

Anonymous said...

Long time lurker, first time commenter…
Reading this was so very inspirational and could perhaps be the spark I need to consider freelancing myself. Good for you Colin.