In My Mind's I

Robert Browning wrote this almost 150 years ago: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” An apropos sentiment for a man I know who heads the maintenance crew at a large Jewish school. He’s chosen to earn his living with his hands, but that doesn’t keep him from writing some interesting personal-experience stories, like the one below:
“My wardrobe includes a pair of blue pants and a green T-shirt, both adorned with large splotches of light brown paint. I keep these articles of clothing because they are still quite serviceable. And, more importantly, these fabric works of art serve to remind me of a time I ignored my internal voice of reason, the day I broke not one, but two of my basic rules: Use the proper tool for a job, and use it correctly.
“Our staff is small, and we wear the hats of many trades. During the summer, we do repairs not possible amid the three-ring circus of the school year. On a sultry July day, I had donned an artist’s beret. One of the bathrooms was to receive a fresh coat of ‘Almost Beige,’ a shade like a cup of good coffee with too much cream. Off we went, my co-worker Joe and I, armed with brushes, rollers, a five-gallon institutional-size bucket of paint and a ladder.
“We do not have a large variety of ladders from which to choose. Ours was an eight-foot stepladder. Joe and I gave the walls their clean new finish and turned our attention to the ceiling. The shiny ‘A’ of the open ladder was rather wide at the bottom. This posed no problem in the unobstructed middle of the bathroom; it caused us only minor headaches while we worked above the row of sinks jutting out like so many taunting tongues as we jockeyed the ladder around them. But the opposite wall, with its narrow toilet stalls, was an unmitigated disaster. There was simply no way to position the ladder to reach the ceiling above them.
“Now I made my tactical error. I decided we could close the ladder, stand it against the inside wall of the first stall, and climb it that way to mount the attack. I’m taller than Joe and my reach is longer, so we decided I would make the ascent. The paint tray sat almost wobble-free, and the ladder seemed stable. Our strategy appeared to be working.
“When the unpainted area was out of range, we set up again in a midway stall and I returned to playing Michelangelo. The end of our task loomed on the horizon; just this one last section. I was leaning over and reaching out — way out — when the sensation hit: that familiar roller-coaster feeling just before a drop. The ladder was going over, and I was going with it. The ladder was standing at too steep an angle for its steps to support my size 13 feet, and I found myself on the floor.
“Time seems to slow down for me when something bad happens quickly. I looked up, watching helplessly as, in slow motion, the ladder tipped the paint tray off its precarious perch above me. I closed my eyes and felt the ecru shower.
“Fortunately, the damage was relatively minor. I had played dropcloth and was wearing most of the downpour. Latex paint cleans up with water, so except for a few spots on the wood baseboard, we successfully eliminated all traces of the debacle. I did what I could to clean myself off, and spent the remainder of the day avoiding contact with anything while my new paint job dried. My ego was only slightly bruised, my buttocks a little more so. My co-workers and other school staff were kind enough not to laugh too loudly at me.
“I learned my lesson: There are proper ways to use tools, and very good reasons to stick to them. Next summer, when it’s time to paint these bathrooms again, I’ll find another, safer way to get up over those stalls. But I’ll wear the same pants and shirt — just in case.”
Dear readers: Does the style of this story seem similar to that of the tales I often tell you? It should! That ladder dropped its apple close to the tree. Browning wrote his famous line about a painter. The “painter” here, the man who used his hard-working hands to write this piece, the one whose reach definitely exceeded his grasp, just happens to be my own son!

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