I want to be an amateur.

Tons less stress to be admitting RIGHT FROM THE START that my intention with this blog is not expertise but wild experimentation. In his book, Show Your Work! Austin Kleon shares that “today it is the amateur -- the enthusiast who pursues her work in the spirit of love, regardless of the potential for fame, money, career --  who often has the advantage over the professional.”

The fun thing about the word “amateur” (Kleon points out) is that in French the word means “lover.” So being an amateur means you’re doin’ it because you’re lovin’ it.

Why the advantage? Because for the amateur the field’s wide open to sow whatever funky seeds come to mind and then see what pops up. (Kind of like my parents who one year bought packets of wild flower seeds and gleefully scattered them randomly over their bit of prairie land.  In the spring Mother Nature revealed -- Voila! -- a beautiful bouquet. And then lots of dandelions danced over -- me too! -- and it was one wild explosive display out there.)

Kleon quotes Zen monk Shunryn Suzuki with a similar comment, “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.”

Choosing to be an amateur. Because being an amateur gives you more allowance, and, counterintuitively, can explode with unexpected results.

Let me explain with a story about New York City and my in-laws.

Neighborhood Psyche
What’s important to understand first is that I admit I’m an amateur when it comes to NYC. But I am a pretty good pretender because I lived there for a while. Like when bounding up from the bowels of the subway and knowing immediately which way to walk (uptown, downtown, etc. by glancing at a street sign and the direction the traffic’s moving). Or having a Manhattan street map imprinted in my mind so when someone says “9th and 2nd”I visualize that corner’s Ukrainian restaurant known for its cheese blintzes. 

Or having a memory of one day walking along a posh section of Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side when two guys in suits burst out of a bar in a big FISTFIGHT and brawled right on the sidewalk in front of me! You don’t see that every day in west county St. Louis.

Anyway, despite the bar fight, what I really came to experience in NYC is what it felt like to be part of a neighborhood. What the uninitiated don’t realize is that behind the picture of hurrying anonymous faces and sneakered feet are neighborhoods of people looking out for each other, even if they don’t know each other’s names.

For instance, going to work I used to walk up Fifth Avenue every weekday with the exact change of $2.25 clutched in my hand. Each morning I’d enter a diner always three-people-deep thick jostling and shouting out coffee and pastry orders. One day one of the guys at the counter spotted me. Leaning forward and reaching between shoulders he handed me a neat little white bag of two bran muffins (my typical order), simultaneously cupping his hand. Stretching forward, I dropped in the money. The first day I was surprised; the second day I was ready. I realized the moment: I was in the neighborhood.

So when my husband describes growing up in NYC when the Upper East Side was his neighborhood I kinda get it. What I also realize though is that being the first Spanish family in that high-brow area caused a stir.

 Left: Eloina and Juan Sr. as newlyweds in 1946.  Middle: Central Park is the Fernandez family’s new backyard. Right: Dapper Juan Sr. in Havana.

Left: Eloina and Juan Sr. as newlyweds in 1946.  Middle: Central Park is the Fernandez family’s new backyard. Right: Dapper Juan Sr. in Havana.

Looking for the Handbook
His parents were immigrants from Cuba. In the early 1950’s my father-in-law had fought alongside Castro in the rebellion to overthrow Batista’s dictatorship. Juan Sr. was talented with tools, worked in construction and had a pretty wife Eloina and young son. Caught up in the rebellion against Batista’s repression, he joined the guerrilla uprising but shortly thereafter was caught and thrown in a Havana prison.  My husband remembers visiting his dad every few weeks for two long years. When suddenly a general amnesty was declared (rumored to have been paid for by Castro’s wealthy family), Juan Sr. came home. My mother-in-law declared never again, they would move to New York and a new start, far from the rebellion and risk of jail.

And so, knowing barely any English and with just a few suitcases, they bought one-way tickets for LaGuardia. The language barrier was tough. Their 8-year-old son threw fists on the playground. In her new work in the Garment District, Eloina stumbled into arguments with other seamstresses. As superintendent of an apartment building Juan Sr. struggled with understanding frustrated resident requests. Rules on the playground, rules in the seamstress sweatshop, rules among the elite. They were outsiders in a neighborhood that denied entry unless you followed an unwritten handbook.

Juan Sr. had been a part of large construction projects in Havana; now, in New York his superintendent tasks were small tasks, repairs and odd jobs. Replacing appliances. Helping people move in or out. He taught himself plumbing by problem-solving clogs. He figured out electrical work by following wires. There were no ready instruction manuals in Spanish. But his self-schooling worked. Responsibility for one building became two buildings. The family moved from a basement to a better apartment. With more family income Eloina was able to stop her stressful commute down to 36th Street.

Meanwhile their son survived elementary school (in addition to his fists he earned street cred by being a whiz at math - no English necessary) and formed his own friend posse. Their pranks are New Yorkesque: Dropping water balloons from a diplomat-dad’s apartment balcony (claiming “diplomatic immunity” from punishment - wrong!). Walking balance-beam-like around the 4-inch edging of the American Museum of Natural History while onlookers yelled at them a few stories below.

As the family’s settling-in progressed Juan Sr. discovered something else. He loved the work. Loved to problem-solve and improvise solutions. Loved the size: small enough to tackle and feel the satisfaction of a quick result.

The work became a language. It bridged the absence of words with the delight of gratitude. After successful projects he found people naturally wanted to reciprocate. When a resident asked him to install a new refrigerator, the tenant would then offer Juan Sr. the older model. And his handyman reputation drew him beyond the apartment buildings to fix problems for others on the block: restaurants, shops, a Catholic convent.

But it was on one particularly hot July Saturday that the family was finally, fully neighborhood-adopted. It had been a stressful family outing. Juan Sr., Eloina and son had been joined by Eloina’s sister, husband and two boys and were returning from a Coney Island beach day. They were jammed, seatbelt-less in their wide Buick, sweaty and sandy, the boys grumpy with not enough time in the waves. (The sisters sternly insisting that if one did not wait at least three hours after eating lunch before re-entering the water it was certain you would die by gruesome stomach cramps and drowning.)

Traffic was bad on the way back, noisy with honking and belching exhaust pipes. A stale breeze barely relieved the hour’s stop-and-go traffic coming home. They’d finally made it to their block, a parking space miraculously vacant in front of their building.

Juan Sr. accelerates forward, positioning the car to park with his usual pinpoint-perfect parallel backswing. Behind them a little car zips in and steals the spot. Yelling! Cursing! Juan Sr. and his brother-in-law lunge out of the car! The culprit leaps from his car yelling in an Irish brogue! In the excitement, women and kids pouring out the car doors, no one sees Juan Sr. slip from the street and into their apartment. He reappears. With a rifle. The Irishman reaches into his car’s backseat. For a shotgun. Mayhem! Screaming! Juan Sr. takes off running down the block and around the corner. After a tussle with the brother-in-law, the Irishman gives chase!

Around the corner, a few feet down, stood the coolly-shadowed doorway of the neighborhood convent. With the block stretching empty in front of him, the pursuer knocks wildly at the convent door. After a long pause, the door slowly swings open. It’s the Mother Superior; she fixes him with a cool look. “Is there a Cuban in there?” he pants angrily. By this time the rest of the family has caught up to him. The Mother Superior waits, unsmilingly staring them all down until gradually there’s an uncomfortable shuffling stillness. “Is there a Cuban in there?” the Irish brogue repeats, now a little more tentative. She turns to fix her eyes on him again, “No.” (No?? They all know he’s in there!) And then, “Isn’t there a car you need to move?”

 Juan Sr. and Eloina happily retired in Florida.

Juan Sr. and Eloina happily retired in Florida.

So, if the definition of being in a neighborhood means looking out for each other that was a marker day. And, in hindsight, not a surprise. The family learned later that Juan Sr. had spent many free hours taking care of odd jobs for the nuns. That was a sweet day of payback.

Over time the family was able to extend their sense of neighborhood beyond their block to other immigrants. It was a small world and when Cubans arrived in New York for the next few decades Juan Sr. and Eloina became known as a stop. It turned out that as time had gone on Juan Sr. amassed quite a stash of cast-off appliances from his indebted residents. In turn, the used items found second lives with countless grateful immigrant families across the city.

For the Love of It
OK, by today’s standards it’s likely that some of my father-in-law’s work was not up-to-code. He was an amateur. He used common sense and duct-tape experimentation to fix stuff. But remember, he loved it. And like all talents born of love, instead of becoming diminished with use, it expanded. And in their case the impact of freely using his talents far exceeded anything they’d imagined*.

Now it’s your turn. Ever thought about trying out something with the goal of simply being an amateur?. Doing what you love just for the fun of it? Please share in the comment box if you’d like. Maybe consider it for a New Year’s Resolution?

You already know mine: To practice being an amateur writer.

C’est tout. Thanks for reading!

 

*This issue’s “anti self-help truth.”

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